The “Challenges” Facing Interlochen Part 2

To continue where I left off in The “Challenges” Facing Interlochen Part 1, I’ll now focus on the specific rationale behind why the old challenge system (hereto referred to as “challenges”) was eliminated and list the goals of the new audition policy.
Throughout these articles I have decided to list every participant (excluding administrators anonymously, even those that have given me their permission.

Since publishing the original articles, I have received a flood of emails from people connected to Interlochen. But nearly every one of them has included a phrase asking me not to quote them in my column because they are afraid for their jobs.

And I have absolutely no desire to jeopardize the relationship any faculty, staff, or alumni has with Interlochen. However, I do have to express my sincere distaste that this sort of atmosphere exists in Interlochen at all. The administrators responsible for inciting such fear are behaving reprehensibly.

During my interview with Michael Albaugh, Interlochen’s Director of Music, he said “the Maddy method of challenges was flawed because”:

  1. They had a negative impact and were not doing what they needed to do.
  2. It puts the best students up front and the worst students in the back of each section.
  3. It does not provide a balanced section.
  4. They take too much time out of the two weekly large ensemble sections.
  5. It doesn’t work for advancement from one ensemble to the next because it isn’t fair to have anyone in the lower ensembles practice twice as much music [meaning they have to practice their own ensemble music to defend against challengers while simultaneously practicing the music from the higher ensemble].
  6. I’ve found 1st violinists in the lower orchestra didn’t want to advance just to play in the 2nd violin section of the higher ensemble.
  7. Student politics were getting out of hand.
  8. They don’t provide students with a real world situation.
  9. 80% of the faculty hated challenges.

After completing my research I’ve been able to determine that just about each one of those points is inaccurate to one degree or another.

I’ll addresses each point in reverse order using comments from faculty and alumni along the way.

9) 80% of the faculty hated challenges.

It is an intentional misrepresentation for Director Albaugh to say that 80% of the faculty hated challenges. Additionally, to say that any faculty member “hated” challenges is generic and does not indicate what their concerns accurately centered on.

The 80% figure is quantitatively misleading and inaccurate. After I concluded my research, I discovered that no more than 11% of the faculty participated directly in any sort of information gathering process.

So the precise percentage of what the faculty actually feels is unknown. However, based on my research, which included interviewing 70% of the faculty, I determined that 60% of those wanted to improve challenges, 22% wanted to keep them the same, and 18% wanted to eliminate them.

8) They don’t provide students with a real world situation.

Among all of the complaints I did receive about the challenge system, this was one of the most common. Several teachers pointed out that the way challenges work is nothing like the actual audition procedures for a professional orchestra.

And I agree, they aren’t.

But one faculty member made a very valuable observation about this issue that I think many people overlook. They said,

“The procedure of an orchestra audition is meaningless; you walk out, play your excerpts, and leave. That’s it. I can train a monkey to do that. What’s difficult about auditioning is to withstand the pressures created by that moment in time and still produce your very best product for the audition committee.”

I think that’s a very astute observation. Auditioning isn’t just about the mechanical process; it’s much more about creating a sharp mental product in addition to a sharp technical product. I know more players that have lost auditions due to a mental lapse or nerves eating away at their confidence than any other reason. And challenges help minimize those problems early in a music student’s path.

Here’s an observation from one of the faculty members that thought challenges should be eliminated. They said,

“We once had a visiting principal player from a major orchestra visit and during their master class one of my students walks up and asks them about how they conduct their challenges at [orchestra name] and the play just laughed. I was mortified. That was one of the factors that led me to the decision that we should eliminate challenges.”

I can certainly share in that faculty member’s embarrassment, but beyond wanting to prevent that sort of embarrassment in the future, I’m not certain why that would want the faculty member to eliminate challenges.

Another point from my observations is that the faculty should be explaining how professional orchestra auditions do work to the students. But then they also need to explain how challenges would help them become better

Then there was this from an alumnus that is now a professional free lance musician. They said,

“The challenge system is as far from the real world audition process as possible, I don’t know of a single orchestra in the country that has its players judge each other to determine who sits where.”

I think this alumnus is absolutely correct in saying that there isn’t an orchestra in America that determines sectional seating in that method. But I think this person is missing the point of challenges.

Another alumni, who is also a member of one of the American “Big Five” orchestras addressed this issue by saying,

“I don’t think I would have ever won my first two auditions so early in my career if it hadn’t been for the high level of preparation I developed learning my challenge music over the years at Interlochen. The direct competition through challenges was my primary incentive.”

7) Student politics were getting out of hand.

Having students directly evaluate each other always has potential for abuse. But that’s no different than the real world. I know several situations at professional orchestra auditions where one or two members of the orchestra would be sure to volunteer for the audition committee when they knew a friend of theirs would be auditioning.

Even in the Philadelphia Orchestra, there were observations from some musicians who lost auditions there that the people who won were almost always former students of existing orchestra musicians. The situation became so problematic that some of the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians have decided to stop teaching altogether in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest. And that’s too bad, musicians should learn early in their training how to evaluate one another based on merit and not political bias. That’s something challenges could do it conducted properly.

And at Interlochen, one of the final events that served to fuel the fire of eliminating challenges came when it was discovered one student paid another to intentionally throw a challenge.

Although this is certainly not a good thing, I would also point out that politics are a very strong part of real world professional orchestra life. And regardless of whatever measures Interlochen could put into place, there will always be politics between students.

One faculty member had a very unique point of view about “payoff” situation. They said,

“As a faculty coach, it’s my job to let the students know that loosing isn’t the end of the world. They are here to win and lose, and by experiencing both they’ll be a stronger, better musician because of it I let them all know that even though they are working harder than they ever have before in their lives, that still might not be enough, or perhaps that week’s challenge material is exceptionally difficult for you as an individual. And if they don’t win but still played really great, I let them know that and that I’m proud of the work they put in and the results they achieved.

I suppose you could say that I try to underscore the process that challenges should be a positive learning experience, and that doesn’t always mean winning. I let the kids know that if they try to influence a vote politically, then they are only robbing themselves of everything they can learn.

It also helps that I can always overrule a vote if I think students are tampering with the process politically. I’ve even had to do it a few times, once I actually heard the kids planning it out beforehand. After the challenge I took a few moments to talk about what just happened, why it was wrong and made sure to reaffirm that everyone felt ok about winning and loosing.”

An alumnus who is not a professional musician now but was a student of that faculty member had this to say about their challenges,

“Our teacher always stressed having a safe, comfortable environment for competition. I’ve never learned as much or felt so good about winning and loosing as I did during my time in challenges.”

That certainly puts a wonderful outlook on the way challenges should function. It also points to the uniquely special attributes that a system like challenges can create if conducted properly.

It’s too bad the Interlochen administrators never considered those points because they never even bothered to hear them. This particular faculty member was never approached by Director Albaugh about their opinions of the challenge system. The faculty member did say that they attempted to express these ideas but they were never able to get through.

We’ll continue this examination next Saturday and Sunday, August 14th and 15th – just in time for the completion of the 2004 summer camp season. I’ll also publish my suggestions for an improved, effective challenge system at that time.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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