The Value Of Ensemble Experience At Interlochen

Recently I’ve received a few letters from folks with a connection to Interlochen in one form or another who wanted to remind me about the value of the summer camp’s large ensemble experience.

Large ensemble experience is defined as the unique benefit a student receives from performing in a full orchestra and/or symphonic band. And this variety of large ensemble experience is impossible for any musician to replicate, let alone a student.

For most students, their large ensemble experience at home town pales in comparison to the quality and scope of their experiences at Interlochen. The only exceptions typically include students that come to Interlochen from major metropolitan centers across the world which provide the human resources needed to compose a high quality student ensemble.

To understand exactly how important this large ensemble experience is, you have to talk to Interlochen alumni who are now professional musicians in the top orchestras and military bands in America. Every professional musician that I’ve communicated with throughout my Interlochen investigation has credited their large ensemble experience with preparing them for winning professional auditions early in their careers.

The large experience can be broken down into two primary components: actual performance experience and challenges.

Performance Experience

At Interlochen, it’s customary for students to be expected to learn an entire concert’s worth of music in a single week, for eight straight weeks. The music is all traditional standard repertoire from the classical period forward. Keep in mind that even though the music is “standard”, it’s new to students and an all baroque concert doesn’t allow for the use of a full orchestra and therefore isn’t performed as much.

In some cases this is more “big” classical music than some professional orchestras perform throughout their entire season. So a student that attends the summer camp for a single summer can gain more playing experience than say, a musician in the Toledo Symphony or New Mexico Symphony.

This performance experience is also far more extensive than anything a student will encounter at a conservatory where, rightly so, their private lessons take precedence.


The challenges augment the performance experience by creating the impetus for creating the highest possible level of artistic achievement during a concert. As a result, students practice their large ensemble music hard, for exactly the same reasons as their professional counterparts later in life. The challenge experience provides students the ability to learn which excerpts in any given piece of repertoire are important enough for extra attention and personal practice.

Students will invariably see these very same challenge passages in professional orchestra and band auditions later in their life should they choose to become a musician. Having a two six year head start on their peers is more than worth the cost of the camp’s tuition.

I can’t stress this point enough; ALL of the hundreds of alumni I’ve spoken with, many of which now hold positions in the top orchestras across the country, commented on this aspect during their time at Interlochen as one of the most beneficial aspects of attending camp.

So what’s the big deal?

I’m writing about this issue because throughout my investigation and interviews with many of Interlochen’s new administrators, I kept hearing about their desire to reduce the focus on large ensemble experience and move toward promoting private lessons.

I kept hearing administrators from the newly created section coordinators right up to President Kimpton say that Interlochen needs to do what other summer camps do: hire “star” quality private teachers and design the student experience around that aspect.

I’ve already written about the fallacies involved with such a follow-the-leader mentality, and this is no exception. In the end, an Interlochen student who decides to become a professional musician will obtain all of the necessary private instruction they will need during their conservatory years. That experience will hone their technical skills to a professional level, but there’s no where else a student will be able to gain the benefits of the large ensemble experience Interlochen has traditionally provided.

So the big deal here is that we’re all going to see the large ensemble experience at Interlochen slowly bleed to death as it’s gradually replaced by the new focus on private lessons. This is all just another example of President Kimpton’s new administration and his misguided leadership.

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.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment