The “Challenges” Facing Interlochen Part 3

To continue where I left off in Part 2, I’ll continue analyzing the rational for eliminating the challenge system as provided during my interview with Michael Albaugh, Interlochen’s Director of Music.

According to Director Albaugh, he said “the Maddy method of challenges was flawed because”:

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.

I don’t believe this statement is entirely accurate. Among the alumni and recent students of the summer camp I interviewed, most of them were decidedly enthusiastic about playing in the higher ensembles.  Most would rather trade playing a 1st violin part in the lower ensemble for a 2nd violin part in the higher ensemble.  There were some exceptions of course, but not more than 25% of those I interviewed felt that way.

And this is representative of the real world as well.  I have met very few professional violinists that wouldn’t be glad to trade regularly playing a 1st violin part in the Buffalo Philharmonic for playing a regular 2nd violin part in the Chicago Symphony.  It has much more to do with the level of artistic accomplishment over the status of which part you perform.

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].

I remember hearing quite a bit from Director Albaugh about how the old challenge system wasn’t representative of a “real world” experience.  If that is as great of a concern which guided his decision making process as he claims then this point directly contradicts that notion.

In the real world, orchestra musicians that have full time positions in lower or middle level orchestras are contractually (and artistically) bound to practice their music and have it prepared for each rehearsal and performance.  But they frequently take auditions at better paying orchestras.  These auditions are almost always scheduled right in the middle of their regular orchestra duties.
In order to properly prepare for both the audition and their own orchestras services, they have to double up on their private practicing.  There’s no “free pass” from their current ensemble, they simply have to do the extra work in order to advance.

So if Director Albaugh is sincerely concerned about providing an experience for campers that is closer to the “real world”, he would realize the error in his rationalization.

4) [Challenges] take too much time out of the two weekly large ensemble sections.

I heard this concern from many of the faculty members I interviewed and it does need to be addressed.  But the solution isn’t to eliminate challenges.  What needs to be done is simply ensure the challenges are run efficiently by providing necessary logistical support and to expanding the number of sectionals.

Many faculty members wanted more time in sectionals to concentrate on the unique aspects of playing in a large ensemble, and they should have that time.  Right now, Interlochen dedicates a portion of large ensemble rehearsal time twice a week for sectionals.  In the end, all they have to do is find the time.  And time is always there, you just have to sit down with everyone involved and figure out the best way to allocate it.

3) It does not provide a balanced section. 

When I asked Director Albaugh to expand on what he meant he said that the challenge system puts the best players up front and the worst players in the back.  I think that sort of statement implies that the players in the back of a section are not any good.

And in the case of Interlochen’s higher ensembles, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  And in the lower ensembles, that concept is marginal at best.

When I interviewed faculty members, I asked all of them about the general level of artistic ability of campers at Interlochen.  The veteran faculty all mentioned that throughout their tenure at Interlochen they’ve seen a constant closing of the gap between the players on the top levels and those in the middle.

This would imply that the distinction between the ability and accomplishment of a student sitting in the middle of the 2nd violins is not very far away from a student sitting in the middle of the 1st violins.

The only valid connection this point has is in the case of how they seat the top four violinists in each orchestra.  In a professional orchestra, the top four violinists are “fixed chair” players.  They sit in the 1st and 2nd seats in the 1st violins and 2nd violins respectively.  But with challenges they typically seat the top four violinists as seats 1-4 in the 1st violins.

And I agree that they should do something more in line with real world situations.  But that’s an easy fix; just put players 1-2 in the first two seats in the 1st violins and players 3-4 in the first two seats in the 2nd violins.

2) It puts the best students up front and the worst students in the back of each section.

This essentially the same point as #3, but I would have to indicate that this is the way real life works in the orchestra world.  The better players become concert masters and principal seconds.  At Interlochen, the challenge system introduces students to the amount of work and discipline that is required in order to obtain and maintain those positions.  And that’s what being a student is all about learning about what it takes to get along in the real world.

1) They had a negative impact and were not doing what they needed to do.

This was a little vague so I asked Director Albaugh to expand on that idea.  He mentioned that students would become emotionally upset and stressed out over challenges.  And that was causing some students to not want to return.

Well of course challenges are stressful.  They are stressful emotionally, artistically, and psychologically.  They are supposed to be that way, and it’s perfectly natural for many students to shy away from that sort of internal and external conflict.

But what sort of parent would willfully shield their child from failure and the lessons in life learned from those experiences. Competition isn’t cruel; it’s a necessary component in life.

But if challenges are administered properly (which I’ll write about tomorrow) then these situations can be dealt with in a safe, educational environment.  By eliminating the challenges, Interlochen is shirking its responsibility for properly training the students that enroll every summer.

The easy way out has been for director Albaugh to create a sterile “everyone is even” environment that fails to promote the competitive conditions that exist in the real world of professional orchestral and band music.

Director Albaugh and the remaining Interlochen administrators may think that this will make students “happy” and more willing to return. But in the end all they are doing is dumbing down an institution known for producing a multitude of the world’s finest performers toward a level of numbing mediocrity.  They’re becoming a reactive institution by allowing marketing reports to guide their decisions instead of industry truths that govern the real world of professional music.

I invite you to come back and read the following installments in this series where I’ll write about a challenge system that addresses the concerns many faculty members have while simultaneously keeping the competitive edge that serves as a catalyst for achievement; designed by way of input from (an actual) majority of Interlochen faculty and alumni and my own impressions.

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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