Politics & Policy

I’ve Found Heaven . . . in Northern Michigan

"The Western tradition" in summer-camp form.

I ’ve found heaven. That is, two of my children have. This piece of heaven is called Interlochen Center for the Arts, and, having just visited, I fully comprehend the ecstasy they feel.

In a leveling world, Interlochen is all about two unfashionable concepts that we conservatives revere: tradition and excellence. None of this “everybody gets a trophy just for showing up.” Not here (though arguably, just being able to be here — only one in five are admitted — amounts to a trophy). Twenty-five hundred students in grades 3–12 from every state in the Union and 40 countries converge on this breezy sylvan enclave between two sparkling lakes for several weeks of intensive training and performance in music, art, theater, opera, dance, motion-picture arts, and writing. Even if you’ve never heard of Interlochen, now in its 82nd year, you’ve certainly heard from its alumni.

This being 2009, there are kids sporting every kind of fashion — from shoulder length hair (boys) to mohawks and even the odd nose ring (sigh). But all submit to the camp uniform — light-blue polo shirts (white on Sundays) tucked in, neat blue shorts or long pants (no holes or fringes), and color-coded web belts to identify one’s division. The girls also wear knee socks to match their belts. For performances, everyone wears a red sweater or sweatshirt. And all thrive on the sense of walking in the footsteps of giants.

To wander the sun-dappled campus is a treat to the ears. Interlochen is dotted with scores of small cabins; they are rehearsal shacks. As you roam, glorious sounds emanate from every direction. Over here a pianist is working on a Beethoven sonata, and from that hut waft the strains of Aida on the trumpet. My 13-year-old son, Ben, explained as he squired me around, “Mom, you can’t stop every time you hear beautiful music here or you’ll never get anywhere.”

They rehearse every day and are steeped in what the faculty is not shy about calling “the Western tradition” or “our inheritance.” I peeked into a jazz-technique class where intermediate boys were watching a video of John Coltrane improvising. There are several performances each night. It might be a jazz quartet, a baroque chamber group, a chorus, or a dance recital. On weekends, the large ensembles — bands and orchestras and others — perform longer pieces for paying customers (though campers get in free).

I’m most familiar with the music program, as my sons play the trumpet and clarinet. Music students audition for admission. When they arrive in late June, they audition again to be placed in an ensemble. Two to three weeks later, they get the chance to try for a higher group. We had heard before our kids enrolled that Interlochen is based on a “competitive model.” If you can move up, you can also move down. Far from a drawback, I regard this as a great boon for kids. If you audition and fail to make it into the group you had hoped to play with, you may be spurred to practice harder and longer. At the very least, you will learn the incredibly valuable lesson that it isn’t the end of the world when you fall short of a goal. The sun rises the next morning. You find pleasure in the group you’re in. And you admire all the more those who excel. Next time, you may make it — and it will be the sweeter for having been hard-won.

There is no expectation that every Interlochen alumnus will become a star or even a professional artist. Some go on to careers in business, sports, academia, and other fields (and become patrons of the arts). But a remarkable number do make their mark on the art world as performers. If you look at it through the other end of the telescope — say, by examining the members of major symphony orchestras, especially the principals — a significant number will have spent time honing their craft in this idyllic setting. And just to drop a few names, alumni include soprano Jessye Norman, conductor Lorin Maazel, clarinetist David Shifrin, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary), actress Meredith Baxter, actor Tom Hulce, actress Linda Hunt, TV personalities Bruce Morton and Mike Wallace, and pretty much the entire Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, widely considered one of the best orchestras in America.

It’s still camp. The bunks are rustic. The food is mediocre. The plumbing is, to avoid unnecessary details, temperamental. The children return wearing an extra layer of silt. But their spirits and their minds have been elevated — and that’s magical.

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