Art Works Blog

In Step with Interlochen Center for the Arts

Perhaps Joseph Maddy’s most unique quality was not his drive, passion, or vision, but his unwavering belief that children were fully capable of high-level success. When he founded the National High School Orchestra Camp in northwest Michigan 1928—the nation’s first summer camp devoted to music—it was with the goal of training high school students to play like professional musicians.

Since then, the camp has evolved into the Interlochen Center for the Arts, home to the Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts-focused boarding school; the Interlochen Arts Festival summer series; year-round performances; a radio station; adult learning programs; and yes, still a summer camp. Interlochen, in short, has become one of the country’s most comprehensive and prestigious arts education institutions in the country.

As the NEA approaches its 50th anniversary, we wanted to re-visit Interlochen—a longtime NEA grantee—and explore how it began, how it is changing, and how it has influenced generations of young Americans. Below, we talk with Interlochen President Jeff Kimpton about the past, present, and future of his organization.

NEA: Interlochen was founded at a time of increased interest in music education. Can you speak to the historical context of how that interest developed? 

JEFF KIMPTON: There was a huge explosion of military bands during World War I. That's what really gave the great impetus to the American music manufacturing business during that period. Plus you had "Tin Pan Alley,” you had the home piano, a Victrola, and eventually the radio.

When all of the bandmasters came back from the war, they were allowed to teach without certification for employment. So that engagement with music began to move into the schools. It was pushed partially by these bandleaders and bandsmen, and it was pushed by the music instrument companies as a great way to grow this interest. It really exploded in the 1920s.

NEA: So how did this help instigate Interlochen’s founding?

KIMPTON: Our founder, Joseph Maddy, saw the interest that was there and how different school districts around the country, large and small, urban and rural, would decide that having a music program was an important way to put their town on the map. So they started these programs all over the country. He led one in Kansas and one in Indiana, and became quite famous. He decided that to raise the visibility even higher, he would create this national high school honor orchestra with students from all 48 states. They performed in '26, '27, and '28 for the School Boards Association, the High School Principals Association, and the Superintendents Associations. These kids would come from all over the country and rehearse for a week and then give a performance. People were dumbfounded. They'd never heard anything like this. There was a method in his madness, because each year he planted the idea, “What if you could be together all summer and work all summer together? Wouldn't that be interesting and fun?” Of course, the kids were enthusiastic and that's how Interlochen was born. He incorporated Interlochen, and the summer of '28 [launched] the National High School Orchestra Camp, America's first music camp. One-hundred-fifteen kids came.

He saw it as a way of gaining national visibility. He wanted to show that focusing on the arts as a form of education was absolutely critical. It started out as orchestra the first year, orchestra and band the second year, but we added art, theater, and dance very quickly in the '30s. It was a complete arts focus even though the name of the place for years was the National Music Camp. His vision was that we would start a high school, almost immediately. It took him 30 years to do it, until 1962, for financial reasons. But the camp grew every year. It grew even during the war, during the Depression. Financially, it was difficult. The place almost went bankrupt two or three times, but it survived. And it really survived because he believed so strongly in the role of music and the arts for kids. We were doing radio broadcasts here the first year, in 1928. He felt that was a huge way to market Interlochen. We were one of the founding stations of National Public Radio in 1974.

This vision of his was created in the '20s—that he saw that far ahead is really quite remarkable.

NEA: How would you describe music education trends today in this country?

KIMPTON: I think there's a differentiation between what's happening in school music versus what's happening in music participation outside of school. In school, it's increasingly difficult to maintain funding as there are more and more mandates for high-stakes testing. There are so many different challenges that have to be met in the public schools.

On the other hand, if you look what's happening in what I would call community-based arts education—after-school programs, faith-based programs, programs sponsored by other nonprofits, community centers—those are growing very, very rapidly. In major urban areas, you're watching a lot of different kinds of organizations sponsoring arts programs for kids because [the arts] are not there in schools. People are finding a way to engage their kids in the arts and music, if it's important to them. It’s not just in affluent areas. You're seeing it across the socioeconomic spectrum. You're seeing more classes of guitar, and amazingly, ukulele. You're seeing drumming ensembles. You're seeing more ethnic-driven ensembles. I think people are looking at also not the notion that music ed has to be studying the violin, Suzuki violin and you're going to go and create a youth orchestra. You're finding people who are engaging in music in composition, in different kinds of ensembles, apart from that orchestral pathway. I think it's very healthy. 

NEA: Have these trends affected Interlochen at all, either in terms of your curriculum or your student body? 

KIMPTON: Our student body has always been highly international. About 25 percent of our students are from 30 different countries. We had 50 countries represented this summer; for the academy, we'll usually have 25-30 different countries.

In terms of the curriculum, we're finding kids who are doing a lot of different things in terms of creative work and collaboration. Multidisciplinary work is growing very, very quickly. We have magnificent concert pianists and violinists and classically learned kids who have strong interest in world music, in creating contemporary ensembles, in writing new music, and in writing their own songs. We have a lot of interest in different musical traditions. You go around an American high school today, and you take off the earbuds of the kids that are in the band or orchestra track—they're not listening to band or orchestral music, let me tell you.

We live in a very eclectic world and so I think our curriculum is beginning to change and adjust to that. We have a two-week "inter-mester" in January between the semesters, and there are all kinds of interesting classes on reggae music and pop music and the music of Django Reinhardt and the French tradition from the '30s and improvisation and you name it. I think that's very, very healthy.

I think we did a terrible thing in the '50s and '60s when many places prohibited the study of jazz. They felt it was going to be the death of concert and marching bands. That probably turned a lot of kids off to school music that could have been involved. So I think having this more open, welcoming, encompassing way that we look at music is really important for all music programs, public or private, in the future.

NEA: Do you have a sense of how either Interlochen might continue to evolve in the 21st century?

KIMPTON: I think it's going to be highly interdisciplinary. I think you're going to see lots of different kinds of creative ensembles developed. Our kids today are immensely inquisitive and very creative. They have access to recording and compositional tools, software recording, and have the ability to merge that with media in such interesting ways that they're not going to be limited to practicing the violin scales for eight hours a day. They come with so many more interests and they go to so many different kinds of musical events. They're all very, very hands-on, and very participatory. I think those experiences are shaping how they want to engage on their own with [the arts], and they're thinking very differently about how their art should develop. Sometimes, against the wishes of their teachers—and I think that's good.

NEA: Interlochen has a school, a camp, a festival, and radio station. As the director, what is the biggest challenge and the greatest benefit of having so many different components?

KIMPTON: To me, the challenge was getting it all to work together, so that people understand that this artist coming in here will benefit this part of the program over here, and that there are all these links. The fact that they were all here on one campus means we need to learn how to play better in the big sandbox, and realize that sharing marbles would be better than keeping our own marbles.

[Another] challenge for us is visibility. In 2003 when I got here, we had just [launched] our first website. Half our employees didn't have email. Nobody knew what social media was. We had a minimal digital presence. We had two people in marketing, period. Today, in a digital society, that presence on screen—how often you're touched, where the content's coming to you—is so critical that if you're not playing, nobody knows about you. 

There is that mindset that there's something very precious and special [about Interlochen] and that you want to keep it that way. Well no, in today's world, the digital world, you have to share it. You have to realize that people can learn that way as well. We’re trying to get people to do mini lessons and have interviews. This year we've got six online courses and we joined an online learning consortium. We're trying to figure out and package what is unique that we do here that we can share across the country, both with academics and arts. I think those things are really critical to 21st century organizations to understand. It's not just broadcasting your concert. What do people learn that's going to change their lives, change their attachment, change their understanding? [Some people think] if we just package and put on the screen what we have on the stage, we're going to be a 21st-century organization. No. When I look at my 2.5 and 6.5-year-old grandsons, that is not how they learn. It's too passive. We've got to begin to look at that and think about that as leaders of organizations like Interlochen.

NEA: You talked about the feeling that Interlochen is very special, which it is. What do you think creates this special atmosphere?

KIMPTON: Our kids that come here, many of them are outcasts from their own communities, or they have outstripped the resources of their own community, or they have a hunger or a thirst for more and they can't get it. They have this passion for the arts, but in a lot of schools, having a passion for the arts is not really looked upon as being cool. So they get here with all these other kids from all around the country and all around the world who are like-minded, and they really find their posse. They find their cohorts, they find friends. It allows them to interact on a totally different level. You go to a lunch table and you hear kids arguing about Dostoevsky or a lecture they heard from a visiting artist, or a performance. I don't think in many American high schools you hear those kinds of conversations. These are kids who are hungry for that.

And they come here, and suddenly they're exposed to all the arts through their friends. If we have an organ recital, it's packed. If there's a visual art opening of student work, it's packed with musicians and creative writers. So they share each other's artistic work, not just their own narrow area, and they develop these friendships around this. The whole thing really becomes a package. The environment, the trees, the sound of music in the woods—that is really a veneer. The core is these friendships, these intensely committed, self-directed, highly creative, intelligent students.

NEA: Our 50th anniversary is coming up, and we've been collecting stories from the American public about how the arts have impacted their lives. Can you tell me what you think the impact of Interlochen has been on American culture?

KIMPTON: About 15 to 18 percent of America's orchestra players are Interlochen alums. Stage and screen, New York, Hollywood, television, art galleries, writers—you name it, are full of Interlochen people. I think most people think that our impact is the leadership that's come from those people, their visibility, the sheer number that are in great positions.

But only about a quarter of our graduates are gainfully employed in the arts as their vocation. Then you look at the other 75 percent and what are they? They're doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs and software developers and arts educators and teachers and researchers and bio-nanotechnologists and Larry Page at Google. You begin to see that they have taken this love of the arts and they use it as a creative impetus in their other areas. They're still deeply involved in the arts. They're advocates, they're donors and supporters, in many cases, they're occasional artists on their own. They're still painting or drawing or singing in a choir or bringing out the violin and playing in a string quartet. They're supporters of arts education.  

I know some people think it's heretical, but I think that maybe our greatest contribution has been to the artistic and cultural infrastructure of the United States, and the world really. These people are out in their communities, supporting and actively involved in the arts, using the arts in their daily work. Those achievements of that 75 percent in a way dwarf the achievements of the 25 percent, many of whom are incredibly famous. You have to look at what those people are bringing to their world through the arts versus how many people are bringing the arts to the world. They're both important. I think sometimes we focus so much on the artists that we forget there's a whole world out there that needs the arts, and needs to support the arts and needs to engage in the arts so that we have a reason to have artists, period. So it's a both/and.

NEA: Why do we need arts education?

KIMPTON: It is a major part of our history as a species on the planet. It is how people develop new ideas. Different types of creative thinking come through the study of the arts, the appreciation of the arts, or making art. All three are what lead to a desire to create new art.

So to me, it's a part of the growth of human development. If we determine to shut that up, or that it's not important, or relegate it—what's happening with the growth of after-school programs, is that people are saying, “No, you're not. We're going to find a way to do this.” It's telling us that human beings want to have the opportunity for expression. It is finding a way that people can channel those creative interests. That's how our society is going to advance. 

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