About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

July 12, 2016

Changing of the Guard at Interlochen

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

More than once as I slowed my car to turn into the Interlochen gates during a visit last week, I noticed, just feet from my rear window, massive bumpers and headlights flashing by impatient drivers of pickups, most likely towing a brace of jet skis or dirt bikes. As I turned, they roared past jeering and displaying derisive hand gestures that date back to ancient Greece. Their drivers resented me, an effete 'artsy' person delaying their vacation at the state park that shares the isthmus between two lakes with the Interlochen Center for the Arts. 

But once through the new gates (required by Homeland Security, I was told) I felt comfortable and secure in a place I had called home for ten summers many decades ago. The blue lakes, towering pines, and cacophony of music from every direction is my concept of heaven. Where else could you hear one orchestra playing Mussorgsky with your left ear and another playing Brahms with your right, while directing your view between the dedicated kids on stage and sailboats skimming across the lake beyond?

The venerable 89-year-old Interlochen Center for the Arts will soon select a new President, the first in 14 years, to guide the institution in its mission,

"to inspire people worldwide through excellence in educational, artistic and cultural programs, enhancing the quality of life through the universal language of the arts."

and, as Founder, Joseph E. Maddy, wrote:

"to develop and enhance the mental, intellectual and creative capacities of our nation's young people, to bring forth their innate potentialities, to prepare them for the cultural, intellectual and moral leadership so necessary for this nation's survival."

My ten summers at Interlochen accomplished both versions of that mission for me -- at least the parts about enhancing capacities and bringing forth innate potentialities, not to mention the life-long friendships. The experience definitely shaped my life more than any other, excepting perhaps that at Yale Medical School. 

The mission has become even more critical in today's world, though the country (and beyond) must be a better place because of the presence of over 120,000 other Interlochen alumni. They populate not only 17% of the chairs in US orchestras (not fact-checked), possess hundreds of Tony and Grammy awards, but also inhabit all other occupations. Among them are the current Interlochen Board President, former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs, and Vice President, a Professor of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins. Early music and arts education prepare kids for almost anything.

Interlochen nurtures children as young as 3rd graders in a creative artistic environment, guided by capable and caring people, at a time in their lives when they are most receptive. (By college age it is too late to decide to become a musician.) It replaces opportunities withdrawn from many public schools and often not present in homes. Imagine how it feels when your childhood friends value making music, art, dance, drama and poetry as much as prowess in 'hitting' one another on the football field. The competition is just as keen but the qualities and skills developed last a lifetime. 

environment, both natural -- 1,200 wooded acres between two large glacial lakes -- and human, is crucial. Living with others who share similar values and aspirations, students play in an orchestra conducted by some of world's best conductors like JoAnn Falletta (or John Phillip Sousa in the past). A concertmaster of a major orchestra, like Martin Chalifour of the LA Phil, may join them in the violin section. They accompany soloists like Van Cliburn (in my day) or Yo Yo Ma, and study their instruments and chamber music with artists like flutist Paula Robison. They see and act in Shakespeare plays, attend dance concerts by the Martha Graham Company (or by cabin mates), meet authors, poets and composers (like Howard Hanson or Aaron Copland) and try to emulate them. A cabin counselor may be a band director or a jazz pianist. Role models are limitless and diverse, cabin mates may be aspiring writers, painters, film makers, or Broadway singers. The server in the cafeteria line or the lifeguard may be a clarinetist or an actor. All of these people are potential life-long friends. Students hear efforts of their teachers and colleagues and play for one another. Their parents or grandparents may have been 'campers' in years past; some may even be working on campus.

During the school year the Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding high school, distills and intensifies all these activities for 500 high-school students in a similar, albeit cooler, environment. They have graduated 43 Presidential Scholars, almost one each year. Interlochen Public Radio broadcasts news and information from one station and classical music and jazz from another. The College of Creative Arts offers continuing education for adults and Interlochen Presents, a performing arts series, stages hundreds of student, faculty, and professional performances and exhibits each year.

With an annual operating budget over $40 million and an endowment valued at $120 million, Interlochen is a non-profit corporation but the culture is anything but "corporate." It does not exist to financially enrich stockholders or executives. Instead, all the 'stakeholders' of Interlochen aim to enrich the lives of younger generations, and thus the lives of all of us. Board members are not paid and some faculty and staff accept less than usual financial compensation in return for just being there and participating. 

Interlochen is a "chautauqua" in the generic sense of that Iroquois name of a lake in New York (as Native American Odawa people named the two Interlochen lakes: 
Wahbekaness and Wahbekanetta), an oasis where the best efforts of younger generations of humanity are nurtured and protected during critical developing years from the terrorized, polarized, 'open-carry' society around it. That environment is made and tended by hundreds of people, all with different backgrounds, talents and responsibilities, and history and memories. Not surprisingly, loyalty to Interlochen probably surpasses that to most other institutions of its kind. Alumni comprise a vast and generous resource for sustaining and promoting the environment. 

The new president will know that the Interlochen Environment is also fragile and easily perturbed. S/he should be assertive and powerful in maintaining and advancing Interlochen's place in a world increasingly harsh for the Interlochen mission, but at the same time set and protect the Interlochen Environment: facing both outwards as an effective, sometimes ruthless, corporate CEO and inward as a caring, listening, supportive leader of a large family, enabling all to achieve their greatest potential. S/he should carefully and sensitively replenish the institution with new people and ideas, increase diversity and opportunities for as many socioeconomic levels of younger generations as possible, including the most outstanding members among them, to share the Interlochen experience.

Read more at Interlochen.org.

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