COMMENTARY: Competition in the Arts

Competition often brings out the best performance but it doesn’t always bring out the best in people.

Even in the arts, actors, singers, dancers, and musicians must survive and thrive in a competitive community as rude and rough as any. Ambitious parents often introduce toxic gamesmanship and back-biting attitudes very early as their children are judged and ranked by the awards they receive, the parts they get, and the schools they are admitted to.

Every aspect has a competitive element, and everything matters — how many lines you have in a play, whether you are first, second, or third chair in an orchestra, and whether you are placed in the center or side in a dance number – and everyone wants a monologue or solo.

So we had mixed emotions when our daughter Aby was offered a scholarship to the renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts Summer Camp. She wants to have a career in performing arts, so we couldn’t deny her the opportunity to receive world-class training and intermingle with some of the most talented young people in the world.

We knew it would be an enriching experience likely to result in lifelong memories and possibly career-enhancing skill development, but we worried whether the experience would enhance or undermine her confidence, whether fear of rejection would prevent the joy of participation, and whether she would be taught to think of her fellow campers as friends or foes. Would they teach her techniques for getting an edge in a dog-eat-dog profession?

We knew she had been up for the lead in “Jane Eyre” but was ultimately given a small part. So when I went to see the final production, I was nervous.

I was relieved, delighted, and frankly surprised to see how she had flourished. She was excited and happy. She loved her director (J. W. Morrissette, Chair of the Theatre Studies Program at the University of Illinois) and her play mates, and she made friends with dozens of amazingly talented and apparently really decent kids in every field of the arts.

It was no accident, and it couldn’t have been easy.

Despite the extraordinary aptitude, endowments, and early achievements of these remarkably talented young people, only a small percentage will accomplish their career goals in the cold, competitive world ahead.

And while I can’t vouch for all the programs at Interlochen (as each seems to be run like a separate school), I did talk to some of the administrators and was encouraged and impressed by their commitment to preparing these budding and blooming artists for the hard realities of the professional world, and to doing so in the context of a social and learning ethos that cultivates their love and appreciation for their art, nurtures their human qualities, encourages them to be mutually supportive, and helps them become better balanced, better people. That itself was an impressive performance – five stars!

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.


Some facts about the Interlochen Center for the Arts:

Interlochen is a nonprofit institution founded in 1928. It is housed on a beautiful 1200-acre campus next to a lake just outside Traverse City on the peninsula of Michigan. The facility includes 446 buildings, 100 teaching and rehearsal areas, and 9 major performance venues.

It has both a summer camp that serves about 2,500 students in several 3-6 week sessions and a fully accredited Arts Academy Boarding High School for 500 students.

The Center has a worldwide alumni base of about 85,000. Students ages 8-18 come from all 50 states and 50 other countries.

Special intensive programs are offered in virtually every aspect of the creative arts including: creative writing, dance, motion picture arts, music, theatre, and visual arts.

  • The summer of 2011 camp had 257 faculty members and 703 summer staff with a range of responsibilities from dining service to cabin counselors, waterfront and recreation to transportation drivers, summer gardeners, videographers, instrument repair staff, piano tuners, theater set builders and costumers.
  • There were 700-plus scheduled classes, rehearsals, or performances each day.
  • The center has an annual budget of about $30 million, and about 50% of Camp and Academy students receive financial aid in the amount of about $7 million.
  • Forty Presidential Scholars graduated from the Arts Academy.
  • Interlochen alumni typically account for 10% of the personnel of the nation’s major orchestras.

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