The “Challenges” Facing Interlochen Part 4

At the conclusion of Part 3 I left off with the promise of presenting a challenge system designed to maintain the benefits of the old system as well as address some of the observations and concerns expressed to me by the more than 80 Interlochen faculty members I interviewed.

The New Challenge System


At the applied level, challenges are used to determine a student’s chair placement in large ensembles (orchestra and band) as well as provide the ability to move from the first chair position in a lower ensemble to the entry level position in a higher ensemble. Challenges will occur during weeks one, two, four, and five. Participation among students in challenges is mandatory.

Pedagological Goals

Challenges provide students with a regular, competitive environment were they can evaluate their personal progress. As fierce competition is a necessary (and ever increasing) component in the music business, as well as in life, it serves the best interest of the students to provide an outlet for frequent competition in a safe, controlled environment.

Serving as a catalyst, challenges will allow students to develop meticulous preparation skills and provide a venue to refine the results from that preparation in a high pressure oriented situation.

Students will also learn how to properly evaluate and better critique their own playing and the playing of their fellow students. Advancement is determined by a combination of skill, preparation, and the ability to repeatedly perform well under pressure.


1) Initial auditions

Comprehensive auditions are conducted for all ensemble instrumentalists upon their arrival at camp. Students will be expected to perform two short solo works or etudes (one demonstrating technique and the other musicality) as well as perform prepared scales and sightreading. Specific examples for each instrument will be made available to students before the beginning of camp. All students will receive copies of their adjudication sheets at the conclusion of the auditions.

Based on those auditions, the panel of faculty adjudicators will assign students to an ensemble and seating assignment. Seating assignments will follow a typical hierarchical structure except in the case of violin sections.

With regard to 1st and 2nd violin sections, the four students with the highest initial audition scores will be seated as follows:

Players 1 and 2 will sit concertmaster and assistant concert master, players 3 and 4 will sit principal second and associate principal second.

2) Challenges: weeks one, two, four and, five.

During the final week’s sectionals, students will participate in the challenge process. Each challenge begins with the last chair player in each section (in the case of percussion, the faculty coach will determine, in advance, what order the students will challenge).

That student will compete on one of the predetermined excerpts from that week’s concert music. If the challenger wins the audition, they repeat the process with the student sitting in the next highest seat. A student’s ability to challenge continues until they either lose a challenge or reach the top of their section.

Once the initial student has completed their challenges, the next student in order begins the same process until they either lose a challenge or reach the top of the section.

3) Mid camp comprehensive auditions: week three.

At the conclusion of week three, all students will participate in another comprehensive audition in place of a challenge. Audition material will be selected from ensemble materials as well as scales and sightreading by the faculty coaches.

The panel of faculty adjudicators will assign students to an ensemble and seating assignment based on the audition results. Prior ensemble and seating assignment will have no influence on where a student will be assigned after the mid camp audition. All students will receive copies of the adjudication sheets at the conclusion of the auditions.

4) Advancing to a higher ensemble

Students have multiple opportunities to move to a higher ensemble. During the comprehensive audition at the end of week three, all students will have an equal opportunity to be reassigned based on their performance at that audition.

Students sitting first chair in either the HSCO or HSCB may audition up into WYSO or WYSB during the challenge weeks. These students from the former ensembles will challenge the corresponding last chair players in the latter ensembles.

This process is not mandatory and if the first chair player declines that opportunity, then the inter-ensemble challenge is offered to the remaining players in their section by order of seating. If no students in the section wish to take advantage of the opportunity, then the inter-ensemble challenge is forfeited.

5) Procedural considerations: challenges

  • Faculty coaches will ensure that the challenger’s identity is concealed from the student jury, except in cases where this is impractical such as percussion challenges.
  • All votes will be conducted “blind” meaning student will vote with their heads down. This process will vary depending on the venue used for challenges.
  • Faculty coaches may overrule a vote if they feel the student jury was not exercising proper artistic judgment or the vote was politically motivated. In the case of artistic reasons, the faculty coach must then instruct the student jury as to the particular artistic considerations that led to them overruling their decision.
  • In the case where a student is auditioning up from another ensemble, that student will serve as the “last chair” player and therefore initiate the challenge procedure.

Faculty concerns:

  • Audition adjudication panels will consist of the full complement of faculty instructors on hand during that week’s session.
  • During challenges, any section with more than twelve students will have logistical support personnel at their disposal to ensure an efficient and fair challenge process.
  • New faculty coaches will be provided with either a veteran faculty member or a member of the logistical support team regardless of the size of their section. They may use these individuals until they feel comfortable administering challenges on their own.

Those are the fundamental details behind what I have determined is a program that will continue to utilize the best qualities of the old challenge system while simultaneously addressing many of the faculty concerns.

What is also important to consider is the creation of an internal support and review structure, guided by the collective experience of the entire faculty. The system’s success depends entirely on how the faculty coaches administer the challenges.

All faculty coaches need to realize that it is their responsibility to:

  • Convey and constantly reinforce to the students that challenges are a tool for self evaluation not self worth.
  • Stress to students the importance of not judging each other as they are now because everyone is in different stages of the learning cycle. Everyone will improve over the summer as well as over the years. The real comparisons will be made five ten years from now.
  • Make challenges a safe, comfortable, competitive experience. They need to monitor each student’s wins and losses and make sure that none of the students get lost in the shuffle.
  • Encourage and initiate post challenge discussions among the students so they will learn how to effectively dialog among themselves about challenges and how it relates to their own playing and the performance of the entire section.
  • Instruct students that the real challenge is learning to play up to your potential. The actual challenges are not only a way for them to advance in seating, but they are also a way for them to create an accurate frame of reference as to their own ability and accomplishments.
  • Instruct students on how to accurately listen to their peers and learn how to critique them based on all of the elements that define musicality: technique, intonation, tone, phrasing, and confidence. By learning how to evaluate others, they will learn how to better evaluate themselves.

An additional factor to consider is that a thorough instructional manual will need to be made available to ensure a fair, uniform implementation of the challenge system. However, they will also need to allow faculty members the flexibility they need to maximize the potential results from challenges based on the unique attributes of each individual instrument (in particular I’m thinking about the percussion and horn sections as well as Intermediate sections).

Interlochen is unique among the throng of specialized educational institutions across this country. Over the past several decades, it has evolved a system based on “what works” and guided by professionals that know what it takes to succeed in this business and have been there and done that.

And it’s that thinking outside of box that has allowed Interlochen to establish itself as a leader in educational systems. But if they continue down their current path of reactive behavior, they will only become a carbon copy of every other educational institution out there.

The program I’ve presented is a change from the old challenge system. And after all, I’m the self appointed advocate for change in this business. Adpatistration’s mantra is:

“Change is difficult, change is turbulent, and change is painful. Nevertheless, change is necessary for survival.”

But reactive change and change for the sake of itself will only result in failure.


Interlochen’s new administration seems to believe that Interlochen is now just a second rate institution; down on its luck and filled with old ideas that were never mainstream even when they were new.

So their solution is to rip out the old and put something else in its place. But in doing so they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They’re also going to realize, too late, that by creating an artificial environment that is unrealistic, they are actually inflicting an extreme disservice to the young men and women they are supposed to be preparing for the world.

Our discussions concerning Interlochen will continue with an examination of some more changes that are taking place besides challenges as well as some of the administrative decisions made over the summer.

I’ll also be publishing some email responses I’ve received (with the author’s permission) since posting the first of these papers in addition to hearing from some of the campers from this summer’s session (which concludes today!).

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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