Interlochen Arts Academy Shakes Things Up

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Renowned as a citadel of classical music training, Interlochen shakes the status quo with a first-in-the-nation pop music singer-songwriter program for high schoolers. Jewels and Grobans of the future take note.


There’s a young woman at the front of the classroom with a guitar saddled over her shoulder, and she’s about to sing a song, a song that she composed, to a group of strangers seated in front of her. It’s the first recital of the year for students of the new singer-songwriter program at one of the country’s elite boarding arts high schools, Interlochen Arts Academy. The singer just relocated from some faraway state to a remote corner of Northern Michigan to join the fledgling program, and is now face to face with the program’s two instructors, Courtney Kaiser-Sandler and Kyle Novy, and about two dozen classmates ranging from freshmen to seniors. Many of those classmates have returned to the program since attending the year prior, which explains the comfortable small-talk and polished performances earlier in the recital.

The girl draws her hand to her guitar, and her fingers press against the strings to form her song’s opening chord; her left hand jostles a pick, and then rests it on the guitar’s lowest string, ready to strike. She’s a freshman: this is her first performance in front of her peers. In one sense, there’s little to lose—she is already accepted into the program. But in reality, who could deny the tension. For new arrivals the one-song performance can feel like trial by fire.

She swallows the lump in her throat; a few haphazard giggles from the audience are stifled. Every song starts with something—a single note, or a chord. Her song starts here. She inhales and begins.

This ice-breaking recital happens near the beginning of the school year. For those students returning to the singer-songwriter program, it’s back to business as usual. For freshmen, it’s an entirely new beginning. For them, it’s the first foray into high school, so all the standard issues of adolescence are in play: navigating a new social hierarchy, establishing a genuine self-identity, and (not to make anybody blush) those pesky birds and bees. Those who moved to Interlochen—which sits 15 miles southwest of Traverse City—left behind their friends and families in favor of a blank social slate and a slight sense of not really knowing what they were getting into. After all, the program just began in 2012 and is a relative unknown to the outside world. And even within Interlochen—an academy with 50 years of classical music and fine arts traditions—the singer-songwriter program is something of an ongoing experiment.

Yet, for students, such sacrifices come easily when big dreams are at stake. Uprooting their lives, ponying up for tuition and board, having to don Interlochen’s infamous blueberry school uniforms … just a few bumps in the road for these aspiring artists. Said Vermont native and 2014 singer-songwriter graduate Hailey Ward: “It was hard for me to decide whether I wanted to pick up my life and move 900 miles away. But knowing that I wanted to be here wasn’t hard—I wanted to be at Interlochen in order to reach these goals that I had in my head.”

Following the first whirlwind weeks at Interlochen, the freshmen settle into their modest dorm rooms and their lives as peers and collaborators. Now all they have to figure out is young love, their lives in the woods of Northern Michigan, and the world outside, which seems to expand exponentially with their ever widening eyes. In other words, the perfect subjects to be addressed in song.

It’s a curious thing to institutionalize an art form that has been un-institutionalized throughout its history. The idioms and industry of popular music—from the garages-turned-rehearsal-spaces to the sprawling outdoor music festivals—are a world away from the tuxedoed concert halls that Interlochen has traditionally supplied with trained classical musicians. Universities commonly offer songwriting courses through their music departments—and a few arts-centric colleges even have songwriting majors—yet young musicians looking to learn about the music industry and the fundamentals of songwriting were left to improvise their own educations before diving into collegiate songwriting curricula or the world of professional pop music. That is, until Interlochen came along.

Interlochen boasts a group of alumni who have enjoyed extreme success as pop musicians, most recently Norah Jones, Jewel and Josh Groban. Between the three, that’s about 80 million records sold—give or take. Yet those singers were ushered into the programs that best matched their abilities: Jewel was a vocal major for two years, while Jones and Groban were summer campers who studied piano and theater, respectively.

With acoustic guitars persistently jangling across Interlochen’s leafy campus to the accompaniment of a classically trained vocalist, students were already moonlighting as singer-songwriters—and in rare cases became pop sensations later in life. The singer-songwriter program filled an educational gap that Interlochen’s administration knew existed. They just didn’t anticipate that the program would be like a balloon in a vacuum tube.

Just as Interlochen began as a camp and grew into to an academy, the precursors to the full-fledged academy major were singer-songwriter summer camp sessions: two-week intensive classes designed to refine campers’ songwriting skills. The camp programs filled more and more rapidly with each passing summer. Courtney Kaiser-Sandler, an Interlochen alumna and accomplished songwriter in her own right, taught at the camps. When Interlochen launched the singer-songwriter major at the academy, Kaiser-Sandler was installed as the program’s first instructor and program director.

Kaiser-Sandler instituted a class ethos of collaboration and critique. The two dozen or so students offer a world of perspectives, from the young Texan who kept his songwriting hobby a secret because, in Texas, “anything that wasn’t football wasn’t cool,” to the girl who relocated from Greece to attend Interlochen after deciding to do so a mere month before the term’s beginning. While a solitary art at its core, songwriting can be improved with tactful criticism, purposeful instruction and relentless practice.

After year one, a young recording engineer and producer named Kyle Novy was hired as a second instructor to complement Kaiser-Sandler’s songwriting savvy and music business acumen. For Kaiser-Sandler’s life as working musician and music educator—she has a masters in elementary education from Indiana University and designed the music curriculum for the Blue School, the Manhattan charter school started by the founding members of the Blue Man Group—there was now Novy’s expertise honed while shaping the songs of artists who recorded at his former studio in Washington. For Kaiser-Sandler’s singing back-up for John Mellencamp (including at the sold-out, post-9/11 “Concert for New York” in Madison Square Garden), there was now Novy’s countless hours of meticulously editing, mixing and mastering. For Kaiser-Sandler’s straight, chestnut hair, there was now an entanglement of blond dreadlocks atop Novy’s noggin.

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Instructor Kyle Novy guides students through digital recording techniques

The program is headquartered in two classrooms in the basement of the Stone Student Center, a building that’s largely overshadowed by the 4,000-seat Kresge Auditorium next door. The digs are modest—so it goes with a new program—but the rooms have been transformed to suit the day-to-day activities of composing, performing and listening. A circle of tables sits between a digital projector and screen in one room, where students listen to one another’s recordings and discuss what works and what doesn’t work—always for the sake of improvement. The other room is anchored by a makeshift stage: a PA system, baby grand, drum kit and standed microphone face a phalanx of chairs, where classmates digest and critique the work of performing students. Whatever transpires on stage is fodder for scrutiny, just as it is in the real world.

“Everything you do is being judged as soon as you step on stage. Should this person be singing? Should this person be playing? Is this song good? Are the lyrics good? Is this person attractive?” says Kaiser-Sandler, whose erstwhile two-piece, Kaiser Cartel, played gigs throughout Brooklyn before their songs made it to TV and movie soundtracks. Continues Kaiser-Sandler: “They have to command attention all the time, and they have to believe that they deserve it, and they have to be gracious about getting it.”

For the incoming students, that constant criticism is a burdensome novelty. Most students were the only kids in the neighborhood who were writing songs or playing local gigs, so pre-Interlochen performance feedback was generally of the “good for you!” variety, rather than the more productive “you can do better” sort.

The students begin to embrace Interlochen’s creativity pressure-cooker after about six months. As classmates transform into confidantes, lyrics become more earnest and emotive. With each music theory lesson, melodies and their accompanying chords are conceived with greater confidence. The microphone at the front of the classroom validates the voice of each young man and woman who steps up to it; every chorus sung confirms the convictions of the singer—in the key of his or her choosing. “This is a time in their lives where they’re really doing self-discovery. They’re thinking about what they believe in,” said Kaiser-Sandler. “Helping these people define who they are through the art of songwriting is key.”

The program’s final concert for the 2013–2014 school year occurred on May 21st at Interlochen’s largest indoor venue, Corson Auditorium. One by one, the students took the stage to perform a single original song—this time with friends playing backup. The show is an appropriate bookend to their Interlochen singer-songwriter educations, which each began with a single, solo, nervous song. Some of those who performed were graduating seniors who had seen the entirety of the program’s 2-year life.

The performances showcased a group of soon-to-be-graduates who had come into their own through the singer-songwriter program. The singers on stage displayed a level of professionalism and individuality that, for 17- or 18-year-olds, is downright flabbergasting. Collaborating with students from the dance, orchestral and film departments, the singer-songwriters created a song-driven, multi-media experience that all but proved the program’s efficacy.

They learned to take criticism, yet not to take a bow: during the final ovation, the singer-songwriters and their collaborators filled the stage from wing to wing in a single, hopelessly long line and had to follow Kaiser-Sandler’s lead from one end. After the bow, the stage became a confused mix of hugs and congratulations; Kaiser-Sandler and Novy stood next to each other and exchanged a mock-serious “job well done” handshake that was ironically befitting.

For those graduating, Interlochen marks one of many steps on their journey as aspiring singer-songwriters. This fall, most graduates of the program will be scattered across the country at prominent music schools, from USC in Los Angeles to Berklee in Boston. A minority will sidestep college in favor of gigging. Their efforts at Interlochen translated to a set of skills that most singer-songwriters would stumble upon in their 20s or later. They’ve earned a creative head-start and invaluable perspective, and are now among a tightly knit network of singer-songwriter alumni—all of whom are ready to volunteer their couches to one another when their former classmates come to town on tour. Some are set on becoming stars, but they’ve all learned that there’s more to music than record sales and award shows.

“I think they’d all love it if they were millionaires, but they all know that’s not why they’re here,” said Kaiser-Sandler. “They all want to feel it when that one person from the audience says, ‘Hey, you know that song you wrote. I had this thing happen to me, and that song … well, thanks for writing that song.’ That little moment makes it worth it—and that’s meaningful to the kids, too. That’s more meaningful than millions of dollars.”

Enjoying Interlochen

Catch a Rising Star:
Throughout the year, student performances ring out from the Dendrinos Chapel, an intimate venue reserved for recitals and campus religious services. Classical pianists, string quartets, singer-songwriters and others perform under the gilded supervision of a Reuter pipe organ above the stage. If a show isn’t free (many are), a small fee gets you a front row seat. Find a full schedule of events at Interlochen.org.

Camp Across the Street
Interlochen State Park adjoins the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Camp near the waters of either Duck or Green Lake, and take a short walk to watch a headliner during Interlochen’s summertime Arts Festival. Better yet, launch a boat into Green Lake and drift to the (free) sounds escaping the open air Kresge Auditorium, which sits lakeside.

A Founder’s Feast
Pay tribute to Interlochen’s architect, Joseph Maddy, by chowing down at Maddy’s Tavern. Located on US31, the eatery is operated by the folks who run Bubba’s in downtown Traverse City. Order the cherry cobbler before your entrees arrive to ensure a timely delivery of gooey goodness. 9205 US31, 231. 276.6244, TCFood.com.

More Northern Michigan

Inside Legs Inn

Northern Michigan Music and Art Events

Northern Michigan Attractions

Purchase a copy of the September 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine here.

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