Note by Note
August 1988

“Note by Note,” New Era, Aug. 1988, 31

Note by Note

At Interlochen, Michigan, you learn to express in music what you feel in your heart.

A soft breeze was coming off the lake as a group of teenagers gathered on a stage under an outdoor pavilion. It was cool and quiet under the roof. Even though there weren’t any walls, the brightness of the sun and the noise of camp seemed to be shut out.

The group in the pavilion were a little disheveled. A few had socks sliding down into their shoes. Most were wearing oversized sweaters of all colors and descriptions. But they had two things in common. They were all wearing navy blue corduroy pants (knickers for the girls and regular full-length slacks for the boys). And they had come to make music.

Most of the group took their places on the risers set up on stage. They were the chorus. Others were unpacking instruments. They were the brass ensemble. With a tap of the conductor’s baton, everyone was ready, all eyes front. Then it started, soft at first, the music written down hundreds of years ago by a composer who wanted to used his talent to praise God. it was a religious selection that combined awe with worshipful rejoicing. As they sang and played, suddenly this group caught the spirit of the music. The joyful sounds shook the rafters. All at once a man who had written hundreds of years ago in Latin was being understood perfectly by modern-day teenagers.

As the last amen faded away, there was a hush. The chorus seemed to be waiting for applause, but there was none. The pavilion seats were empty. It was just a practice session. Still the chorus waited. The power of the music needed some acknowledgment. So they applauded themselves.

This event is not unusual at the Interlochen Music Camp, a camp for youngsters with a special interest in music. The camp, located on the shores of a beautiful lake in the forest of the southern peninsula of Michigan, gives young people a chance to study music in an intense eight-week program. They take classes every weekday, attend concerts almost nightly, sign up for private lessons, and practice, practice, practice. They practice in rickety practice rooms scattered throughout camp. They practice sitting on a log beside a path. They practice overlooking the sailboats at the dock. They practice anytime there is a minute to spare and anywhere there is a place to sit.

Young musicians must submit an audition tape before they are considered for admission to Interlochen’s summer program. It is considered an honor to be selected to attend the summer workshops. During this summer session, eight students of high school age plus two young people working as counselors and instructors are LDS, and for the eight weeks of camp, they meet together on Sundays for church. Since the participants at Interlochen are not allowed to leave camp, they must hold their own meetings rather than attend the ward in the nearby town. The bishop of the ward in neighboring Traverse City assigns a ward priesthood member to preside over the Interlochen meetings. Although small in number, this group, some away from home and their home wards for the first time, develop a great appreciation for their family and their wards.

Even though meetings are held at camp, it is still a challenge for these young people to make it to church. While at camp, the young people are assigned accommodations eight to a cabin. There are cabin rules that cannot be broken, especially on Sunday.

Kathy Semerau, a flutist from Bloomington, Indiana, explained, “Sunday is the only morning we’re allowed to sleep in, so it’s against the rules to bother the other people in your cabin. That means you can’t have a shower or run a blow dryer before church. And you have to get dressed very quietly.”

After a few weeks of the intense pressures of music classes and performances, these LDS youth find church a refreshing and needed rest.

Jennifer Bonney, flute, from Midvale, Utah, loves Sundays at camp. She says she brings someone with her every week. “In the cabins no one understands you, but here everyone believes the same things. At home I could barely make it to meetings that started at 9:00 Sunday morning, but here I just jump up and can’t wait to go. People ask me why I want to go to church. It’s hard to answer them. It’s hard to say that I just want to.”

Hadley Ferris, viola, from Salt Lake City, Utah, said that being away from home helped her appreciate everything. “I totally love my family and church and seminary. I’m not going to miss anything, any of my meetings.”

Jason Spiesman, percussion, from Scottsdale, Arizona, agreed, “I miss my family. I know I’m going to get along with them a lot better when I get back home. We really are gone a long time.”

And then there is music, music all day long every day. Whether the students are listening to it or making it, they are surrounded by music. Music is the one language all these young people have in common. It even helps when talking about church. Jennifer said, “Sometimes it’s hard to communicate about religion. I find it very difficult to talk about it to my cabin mates. When you are thinking about it, and I you can’t express yourself in words, you have your music. That way you can communicate together.”

Even though the common language may be music, competition keeps everyone motivated to do their best. Everyone’s chairs in the orchestras and bands can be challenged. “Challenges are hard, but without them I don’t think we would practice as much,” said Hadley. And challenges keep you humble, “especially when you drop nine chairs,” said Jennifer.

At least one aspect of their lives at camp does not involve competition. Each camper must wear the uniform, which hasn’t changed much in design since the camp was started in 1927—navy blue corduroy slacks and light blue shirts. For variety they are allowed to wear white shirts on Sunday. The color of socks are the clue to the status of the camper. Intermediates wear red, high school students wear light blue, and faculty wear navy. “We are competitive enough in our music,” said Jennifer, “that we don’t need to be competitive in our clothes.” The campers agreed that after a week or so, they just get used to the uniform. They tease each other about going home and not being able to remember how to decide what to wear.

Lots of the campers at Interlochen have dreams of becoming performers. But what about the majority that won’t make it to that dream? John Heitz, a voice major from Quincy, Illinois, works as a cabin counselor. He said, “Music is important to these kids. There are a lot of people here who won’t be performers, but this camp is developing knowledgeable patrons of the arts.”

At Interlochen, young musicians who are dedicated to their music suddenly have a place to fit in. Aaron Janse, a violinist with aspirations for a concert career, is admired for his dedication in practicing six to eight hours a day. Michelle Brooks, the harp assistant on the faculty, from Longmont, Colorado, says, “At Interlochen everyone practices, so you don’t feel weird because you want to practice.”

Elva Grauel, organ and voice, Bartonsville, Maryland, said, “I love it here. You get so much done.”

Sarah Schmickrath, french horn, from Bozeman, Montana, agrees, “One thing I like about it is that everyone is going for something bigger. At home you’re with your friends who say, ‘Let’s go to a movie tonight.’ Here your friends say, ‘Let’s go practice.’”

Of course, these high school students are like teenagers anywhere. They are devoted to their music, but they still like to have fun. Evenings are often reserved for concerts, but every week or so they cut loose and hold a dance. After days and nights of classical music, they revel in the fast-paced beat of modern music. And they have no shortage of musicians to play in rock bands. Many are equally at home behind a nine-foot grand piano or at the keyboard of a synthesizer. And a few have admitted to sitting in a concert and having their minds wander to thoughts of shopping at the mall or going out for a pizza.

In addition to music, Interlochen has small art and dance departments. The artists and dancers take music classes while the musicians learn to express themselves in other arts. Laura Sellers, an art major from Rockville, Maryland, is learning something about communication. Although she is just a beginner in music (she’s mastered “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the harp), she understands that musicians and artists have a lot in common. “Art’s a lot like music. We can understand each other. If musicians are going to play a concerto, they look at the art that was created during the same time, to get a feel for that time period.”

It is being able to talk in the language of music when other languages are not shared that intrigues these young people. Sarah said, “Last year I had a friend who was a piano major. We met some Africans who had come here, and they couldn’t speak English. We all went to a practice room and sort of talked by way of the music. They would just play pieces; then my friend would play something for them. Everyone could understand. It was like we were talking through music.”

This small group of LDS teens are together in sacrament meeting away from the large congregations at home. They have come to depend on their testimonies and have new gratitude for their families. They find new depths of feeling that are often expressed adequately only in music. One thing they notice is that away from the ward congregation, here in their small group, they can hear themselves sing. Maybe that’s how it will be in the future as they go into the world. Maybe they will be asked to stand alone. They will learn new ways of talking to others about the things that are most precious. They will sing a new song of joy to their Heavenly Father.

Photography by Janet Thomas

Kathy Semerau worked a paper route and other jobs to pay for flute lessons. At the music camp, she works to play what she feels.

Jason Spiesman (right) keeps mallets handy for practice. LDS students (left) wear uniforms, even at sacrament meeting. Sarah Schmickrath plays french horn, while Laura Sellers perfects a painting. Concerts are held outdoors.