From Interlochen to the World, Famous Alums Reflect

Hundreds of members of prestigious dance troupes, major symphony orchestras and arts organizations around the world have studied at Interlochen Music Camp and Interlochen Arts Academy. Past students populate everything from the Boston Pops to Tower of Power, Disney to Chrysler Automotive. Jewel, Nora Jones, Josh Groban, actors Ed Helms, Rumer Willis, Felicity Huffman, and many others spent time there. We reached out to a cross-section of alumni of both the camp and the academy and asked them to tell us what brought them to Interlochen and how it changed their lives.

This article is featured in the July 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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Trish Sie

Trish Sie
Grammy-Award-winning American choreographer and director, best known for creating OK Go music videos and directing the film Step Up: All In. Currently directing Pitch Perfect 3.

Interlochen was the first place Sie had been where creativity took multiple forms. “Oh my God, there’s a place where all you do is create and sing and dance and make and practice stuff. It’s the entire reason you were there. It gave me a high bar. Now I try to re-create that environment for myself and the people I’m working with. It was my first real taste of collaboration. I played with the orchestra and string quartet and danced. The orchestra was 120 pieces—I’d never played with an orchestra that big.

“I had played cello since I was eight. My 6th grade teacher said you should consider a music program. I remember playing Bach suites into a tape recorder for my audition. I continued going five straight years, through high school. I made friends who are still close—we were in each others’ weddings. We [she and her cabin mates] had a dance routine to Tears for Fears in the rafters, without ever touching the floor.”

Sie’s experience helped her realize that there were many others as talented as she, or even more so. “Going to Interlochen is so inspiring and very eye-opening as to your place in the world. I realized I wasn’t going to be a virtuoso cellist. So you do something else amazing. My last year I didn’t do orchestra and focused on video production. I made a bunch of short films, learned how to edit, shoot, write for it.”

The time served Sie well: She worked in film and choreography with her brother Damian Kulash and his band OK Go, known for its creative videos. He too attended Interlochen.

Caleb Hudson

Caleb Hudson
Trumpet player, the Canadian Brass

Hudson sees Interlochen as not just a school, but as a community. He says it fosters creativity, and an environment where instructors and students are all supportive of one another. Like so many others, Hudson found friends—including his future wife—whose passion mirrored his. “I first experienced Interlochen as a summer camper before my freshman year of high school. It was my first time being surrounded by like-minded, passionate young musicians. That summer was a turning point. Then I discovered the possibility of actually spending the entire year immersed in such an environment.

“I was fortunate to attend Interlochen Arts Academy for my junior and senior years of high school. During those two years I was surrounded by talented, driven peers and inspiring faculty.

“Interlochen had a profound impact on my artistic and personal growth, more so than any institution or program I’ve experienced. It was in this place that creativity was cultivated and life-long relationships were formed. Many of my closest friends today were my classmates at Interlochen. I have had several opportunities to return to Interlochen since graduating in 2006, both as a teacher and performer. Every time it feels like I’m coming home.”

Aaron Dworkin, photo by Dwight Cendrowski

Aaron Dworkin
Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, Founder of the Sphinx Organization, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts

“Going to Interlochen literally saved my life. I was actually having a challenging time at home and was very ostracized in Hershey [Pennsylvania]. There were a lot of cliques and things in my former high school. This led to me being very isolated and also rebelling a fair amount. In the end, it became clear that I could not remain at home and my parents looked for what might be the best option. I auditioned, got a scholarship and it ended up being one of the best decisions of my life!

“So much of my core training comes from Interlochen. The opportunity to play chamber music, orchestral music and other string music was incredibly powerful. It was the first time I was surrounded by people where everyone was involved in art. It was an environment I could thrive in. That was everything for me.”

It wasn’t only the fact he was surrounded by music and other musicians that helped Dworkin; academics also made a mark. “Man and Destiny with [instructor] Howard Hintze made me think about my own life trajectory. It’s very poignant remembering that.

“I’m about to publish my first novel, a fantasy and science fiction story, and I advise arts organizations. To this day I continue to go Up North to Traverse City, and I deeply love the opportunity to go back to Interlochen. I’m living the dream.”

Janet Eilber

Janet Eilber
Dancer, choreographer, Artistic Director at Martha Graham Dance Company

Eilber’s memories of Interlochen go back to the founding of Interlochen Arts Academy. Her parents were recruited by Joseph Maddy as faculty members for the opening of the academy. When she was old enough, she attended school there. She’s now an emeritus member of the Interlochen board.

“My parents took jobs there in 1962. I went to Eastern Elementary and Traverse Junior High until I was old enough to go the academy. Reflecting on the essence of what it did for me—these days, when there’s so much discussion about the value of creative thinking, one must be a lifelong learner, and Interlochen prepared me for that. It was not only in dance, but we had composition, improvisation—we were asked to think and create as dancers, not just focus on the athleticism. That’s why I was able to become a performing dancer and become a leader in the dance world.

“The academics were very progressive in the late ’60s, due a lot to my parents. My dad, Charles, was the head of math and was later promoted to director. My mom, Carol Brown Eilber, taught English, filmmaking and literature.

“Interlochen was transformative. You learned to think creatively and collaboratively. That’s what [people] look for in the corporate world, to be able to work with others and collaborate. Interlochen, through its creative and excellent academics taught me valued life skills.”

Bruce Hall

Bruce Hall
Trumpet player with Boston Pops, Boston Symphony, Boston Ballet, Lyric Opera, Handel and Hadyn Society

Hall attended the camp before leaving Newaygo High School partway through his junior year to attend the academy, from which he graduated. “In (public) high school I was studying math, chemistry, typing—at Interlochen I studied ecology, philosophy, band, orchestra, music theory. Interlochen allowed us to get up, practice, go to class, practice—I was playing five to seven hours a day. I think it is at that point when it is really necessary. There were always good people around to play with, different small groups. In a normal high school that doesn’t happen.

“Before that, I went to Ann Arbor for lessons, Big Rapids for band, Grand Rapids for orchestra, Ann Arbor for another orchestra, Mount Pleasant for lessons. What Interlochen gives you is time to do the things you need to do without distraction. You don’t realize how valuable it is to practice, not just the things you are good at but the things you sound bad at. I think that’s why kids struggle so much. They don’t realize it is going to get better if you put in the work. I think Interlochen helped generate patience. You learned how to have fun and be disciplined at the same time. We knew when we could have fun, but never sacrificed orchestra or practice.

Another benefit of his time at Interlochen was the exposure to people from other states, countries and cultures. “There were people from New Jersey to California, from all over the country, not just my same small town.”

David Min

David Min
Vice President of Strategic Business Innovation, Disney; President of Interlochen Engagement Council

“I learned about Interlochen through my music teacher. I’d been at the Illinois Youth Music Camp three summers, the principal bass there my last summer. To move up, I needed to go to Interlochen.”

Though he eventually moved into the corporate world, Min said his time at Interlochen showed him how people could work hard individually and work together as a group to reach a goal. “As it relates to the different levels of my career, you were putting in hard work to produce something at a very high level of excellence. For example, with the World Youth Symphony, every week there was a new piece, a new conductor. You had to compete with others to move up or maintain. And you had to be part of a team that comes together as well.” He uses a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, one of the largest and most demanding orchestral works, as an example. “The recording session was horrible.” But at the performance, “Everybody pulled it together—it was an amazing concert, a great comeback.”

Min eventually left the music world to move into motion pictures and other corporate aspects of the entertainment world. “I work for a large corporation but I enjoy working with startups. It’s finding the next wave of consumer entertainment.” He maintains his connections with Interlochen not only as president of its engagement council, but through his friendships and family, including a son who is currently enrolled at the academy. “Several [people] I went to Interlochen with are lifelong friends. One’s a professor at Stanford, another is an attorney in Chicago, one’s an executive at Microsoft. You strive for success [at Interlochen] and hopefully what you’ve done transfers to other things in your life.”

Bill Zheng

Bill Zheng
Automobile designer for Chrysler, current Interlochen Board member

“I came from an immigrant family. We moved to the U.S. in 1990 when I was 13. My junior high art teacher had a cabin on Green Lake, and because I showed promise and enthusiasm, I went to summer camp [at Interlochen]. I barely spoke English. I got to know people and learned English—it helped me excel as a teen. While at camp I was introduced to the academy. We were challenged financially, but my parents borrowed money from friends. My third year they weren’t able to, but the school granted me a full scholarship.” Zheng received the scholarship his senior year, as well.

While at the academy, Zheng designed the 1996 Interlochen pin for the orchestra students who attended the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “It was my first opportunity as a designer,” he said. He also took a position on the staff following his graduation. “For two summers I worked at the camp, as a photography assistant. It was my first art-related job.”

Zheng said his time at Interlochen still impacts him today, though more often indirectly. “It created lifetime friendships. Though I moved back to Shanghai, my circle [of friends] probably includes more from Interlochen. It doesn’t impact my current career, but the passion transcends that—never be complacent. Interlochen always plans for higher learning.

“What I do today is try to give back. I provide my experience as an alum.”

Peter Erskine

Peter Erskine
The drummer and composer who has led his own bands, was a mainstay for Weather Report and has played with Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Steely Dan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joni Mitchell and countless others

“Interlochen Arts Academy called out to me from the pages of a LIFE magazine article while I was in junior high school. Here was a school where other students would share the love, passion and excitement for music that I had. What I was not prepared for was how beautiful the setting was, the campus between two lakes, countless pine trees crowning this heaven on earth. Of equal import was the family formed of teachers and students, surrogate parents and siblings all—except for that cute girl who sang in the choir!” Interlochen provided Erskine with a musical ethos for life, and friends for life as well. “Interlochen was the church where art and youthful passion were sacred things—to be honored, celebrated and awed by—and this sense, this power, has been a constant companion in my life.

“As much as I loved the place, it did its job too well and prepared me to graduate in three years’ time versus the usual four, on the premise and promise that I would get a doctorate in music at Indiana University. But after one year at IU, I returned to Interlochen as a college dropout—and as the drummer for the Stan Kenton Orchestra! I eventually joined Weather Report, moved to New York City, and then got married and moved to southern California where I have lived for the last 30 years with my wife and two children [both of whom attended Interlochen in the summer].

“Interlochen gave me the courage to seek out the most challenging gigs and the best music. Friends from Interlochen who still factor in my life today include Anne Hills [that girl in the choir], Jack Fletcher, Bob Mintzer, Michelle Makarski, Chris Brubeck and Dave Sporny. I served on the board, partly out of a sense of duty and responsibility to the place, but more to be able to revisit my musical home.”

Bob Mintzer, photo by Beau Foster

Bob Mintzer
Saxophonist and composer known for his studio work with artists across the musical spectrum and his 20-year tenure with the Yellowjackets. He also leads his own quartet and the Bob Mintzer Big Band, and previously played with bands led by Gil Evans, Buddy Rich, and Jaco Pastorius, the lattermost with his friend Peter Erskine.

Mintzer credits his parents with instigating his interest in Interlochen. “My folks had the foresight to look into me attending. They saw I had a keen interest in music. It was very much a game-changer for me. Associating with highly skilled dedicated young musicians led me in the direction of study and practice habits that helped me grow.

“I met Peter there and we formed a trio. There was chamber music, concert band, big band and small group jazz. All of the classical and orchestral music—I was just being bombarded with information. I could look around and see what it took to become highly accomplished.”

While it could be intimidating, Mintzer said he received the encouragement he needed to continue on. “I had many moments of ‘I’ll never be able to do that,’ but it never stopped me in my tracks. That senior year at Interlochen was the launch pad for going to a music conservatory. I got to college ready to hunker down.”

Mintzer first studied at the Hartt School, the music conservatory at Hartford University, before moving on to the Manhattan School of Music. Now chair of jazz studies at USC, alongside long-time cohorts Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, Vince Mendoza, and fellow Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante, Mintzer is also chief conductor of the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany. One of the amazing experiences there was the big band led by Dave Sporny. “It was incredible.”

Paul Mintzer

Paul Mintzer
Designer, stylist for the syndicated TV show “Harry” starring Harry Connick Jr.

Like his father Bob, Paul attended Interlochen to study music. He augmented his clarinet studies with creative writing, but eventually turned to another of his interests, fashion. “I started as a clarinet major and added creative writing. I was always sort of interested in fashion. It’s kind of ironic—imagine if you had to wear a light blue collared shirt every day and dark blue pants that weren’t jeans. You could wear any shoes, coat and sweater. You had to be creative.”

After graduation in 2008 he began working in fashion, eventually assisting his mentor David Thomas on the set of American Idol for Harry Connick Jr. when he was one of the judges. “I developed a relationship with Harry, and when he signed up to do his daytime talk show he asked me to come along.” Mintzer’s interest in fashion dovetails with his other interests. “It’s still doing things on my creative side, with the critical thinking and creativity I developed at Interlochen. Interlochen gave me a strong sense of independence and free thinking. I started growing up there.” Mintzer’s dual pursuits of music and creative writing also helped him in developing self-discipline. “They took a lot of alone time, practice and being within oneself.”

And he hasn’t given up on music, writing pop songs on the side. “I plan to continue with styling, fashion, and costumes. But I also want to pursue music with my songs. Dad has already helped me with arranging. When I was a kid I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Now I appreciate it.”

Margo Jefferson, photo by Michael Lionstar

Margo Jefferson
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, critic, professor at Columbia University

“I was at Interlochen for three summers when I was 12, 13 and 14. Then, you’re grappling with adolescence, who and what you want to be like. I’d gone to camp before, for two weeks, a month—but this was the longest, two months. It was both a hiatus from all other worries and a focus. You focus on a point of concentration. My first two years my concentration was piano, the third piano and drama. I ended up being a writer rather than a pianist. There was a culture of working for something and caring about it. Competition and collaboration—you understood both.”

Jefferson says that both playing the piano and writing are solitary pursuits, though they can be collaborative as well. “You practice piano alone and listen to yourself. I’m the one who had to prepare and be responsible. The writing part, that’s solitary. As a writer you have to listen to the rhythms. You have to get the words, like the notes, right.

“If you’re a really good critic, you are collaborating with the work. A book critic especially, you are collaborating with that text and that writer.” That sense of collaboration also found its genesis at Interlochen. “I played in some ensembles, and I took one group piano class. It was a lot of fun. Interlochen was deeply, deeply satisfying. It made me terribly happy.”

Some people who were at odds with their setting elsewhere, who felt like they were the odd person out, found others like themselves, she recalls. “Over the years some of the most interesting people from every generation—we get talking, and it turns out they went to Interlochen.”


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