Words From A Recent Interlochen Camper

Usually, life’s painful lessons take time to learn.  But every now and then someone will come along and see past what they feel and think in the here and now and gaze into the future.

Among the flood of email responses I’ve received regarding Interlochen, there was recently a note form David Letvin, a summer camp student from the early 1960’s.  He attached an essay his daughter, a recent camper, wrote as a college admissions essay.

Even though David’s daughter isn’t going to be a professional musician, she learned some valuable lessons while attending Interlochen.  But I’ll let you read about that in her own words; here
are some excerpts from her essay:

Interlochen Arts Camp will never change.  Stubbornly set in its ways since 1928, the camp has continued its policy of having girls wear blue corduroy knickers for every performance, no matter how hot the weather.  The camp is completely centered on its traditions.

Along with the annual performance of Liszt’s “Les Preludes”, a tradition of utmost importance to the camp is “challenges” for students in band and orchestra.  “Bloody Friday” is weekly torture.  One by one, students rise to challenge the person immediately ahead of them in seating, hoping to move up a few chairs.

The section coach announces the excerpt from the week’s performance repertoire, and two students play against each other.  The rest of the section listens closely and then votes on who they think should win. The ritual ends an hour later some students leave sobbing, ashamed to admit they were bumped from first to last chair, others run gleefully to tell their cabin-mates they demolished six of their friends.  This process repeats itself in precisely the same way every Friday for the entire two months of camp.  No matter how archaic and brutal this system might seem, it has never changed, at least not in the six years I was subjected to it.

When I entered the high school division, my fear of losing came with me.  Once again last chair in the section, but now in the camp’s top orchestra, I ran the risk of being bumped down to the lower orchestra, which would be a devastating blow to my self-esteem.  My section teacher, a renowned soloist, was worried by the competition already
emerging within the section.  He reminded us that if we hoped to become musicians, we would discover soon enough how fiercely competitive the professional world was.  He advised us to become friends instead of rivals.

I found it hard to believe he was questioning challenges I had focused so many summers on winning these weekly competitions.  After all, it was the Interlochen way.  But the night before challenges, I was shocked to find all the violists practicing together coaching each other on the excerpts.  Once I joined them, I discovered that I learned
better in this environment than when I practiced by myself.  I also became more comfortable with my section mates.

The next day, challenges was not a bloody torture session it was almost enjoyable.  The section walked into the room together, joking and laughing.  We played challenges, but in a more relaxed and musical spirit.  Afterwards, we began the tradition of the victors treating the losers to ice cream at “The Melody Freeze.”

Last summer I finally learned to deal with challenges in a truly relaxed manner.  I practiced with my section as usual, but instead of drilling alone for hours, I never spent more than two hours a day on orchestra music.  I decided to devote my attention to practicing for my lessons and chamber group where I would make the most progress as a musician. I stopped worrying about challenges, realizing that each was just a “snapshot in time.”  I could do well one week and poorly the next, and it would not matter.  What had, six years earlier, seemed a life-and-death drama, had become a routine custom.  At the weekly ritual, I now patiently waited my turn, and played the excerpts as best I could.  I could not stop caring about my seating, but now understood that the following week would bring an opportunity to redeem myself.

Although I had at last overcome my fear of challenges, I could not help wondering whether I had truly conquered my performance anxiety.  I worried about the important auditions I would face when I returned home.  But I have played many auditions since then, and have not been unduly nervous for any of them.  The relentless pressure of challenges enabled me to defeat my fear of performance.  I still have the occasional butterflies, but am no longer controlled by my fears.  I might never have overcome these fears, or perceived the subtle changes in my approach to performance, without enduring the inexorable tradition of challenges.

Alexandra Owen Letvin

Alexandra learned some of the most valuable lessons Interlochen had to teach  how to develop self confidence, self reliance, and self-assuredness.

She was also guided by a caring, thoughtful faculty coach that knew the purpose behind the challenge system.  Without the challenges, would Alexandra have had the opportunity to confront her self doubts and fears?

I can’t say for certain, but what I do know is that students attending Interlochen from here on will be able to find out the answer to that question.

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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