Enterprising Young Musicians On The Road To Interlochen

Cellist Sara Page (center, right) rehearses with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at Interlochen Arts Camp. Page is among the campers who made an exceptional effort to raise funds to attend the camp this year. i i

Cellist Sara Page (center, right) rehearses with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at Interlochen Arts Camp. Page is among the campers who made an exceptional effort to raise funds to attend the camp this year. Sam Oldenburg for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sam Oldenburg for NPR
Cellist Sara Page (center, right) rehearses with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at Interlochen Arts Camp. Page is among the campers who made an exceptional effort to raise funds to attend the camp this year.

Cellist Sara Page (center, right) rehearses with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at Interlochen Arts Camp. Page is among the campers who made an exceptional effort to raise funds to attend the camp this year.

Sam Oldenburg for NPR

For young people who want a career in the arts, a handful of prestigious summer camps are a vital early step. Interlochen, in northern Michigan, is one of them.

Jessye Norman, Josh Groban, Norah Jones and Lorin Maazel all spent summers at Interlochen when they were younger. But with tuition ranging from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the campers' age and discipline, does it mean that only rich kids get to follow in their footsteps? It turns out that some extra-resourceful young people are paving their own way. I went to camp to meet them.

Interlochen has been around since 1928. It was first called the National High School Orchestra Camp. Its founder — the late Joe Maddy — was known to be a visionary who was often short on cash. His goal was total immersion in the arts. Over time, the determined Maddy got his wish; just walk around Interlochen and the evidence is immediate. Everywhere you turn, young people are practicing, in the hallways or one of the dozens of small cabins scattered throughout the woods. Every camper takes classes, receives either small group or private instruction, and has the chance to perform in one of the camp's many different performance venues.

Interlochen is also seriously old-school. In some ways it's hard to believe so many teenagers would want to spend the summer here. They have to wear uniforms: light blue t-shirts and, for the young women, knickers when they perform. They have to hand over their cell phones, and only get them back twice a week for 30 minutes. At about 6:30 a.m. every weekday, there's morning line-up, complete with reveille and morning announcements.

"That's the worst part of the day," says 17-year-old Cassi Mikat from Brighton, Mich. "After that, I'm fine."

Mikat is studying musical theater. Two summers ago, she did an intensive one-week program at Interlochen. "I didn't really realize until I got here how amazing it is, how great the instructors are and how much I would learn while I was here," says Mikat.

In order to come back for a six-week program this year, Mikat made a deal with her parents: She would pay a certain amount of the $7,000 tuition herself. "I have four younger siblings, and it's just not possible to pay for camp with that many people in my family," Mikat says.

She raised some of the money taking the DIY retail route. Since people had always complemented the colorful, flower hairpins she made for herself out of soda cans, she set up a Facebook page and started selling them for $5 apiece. Mikat says the venture made her about $700. "I made a lot of them," she says. "What I really needed was a staff to keep up with all of the orders."

For the rest of her share of the tuition, Mikat baby-sat — and, for two Christmases in a row, asked for cash in lieu of presents. She also received a scholarship from Interlochen. Right now she's working with a cast of 40 other campers on the musical Carousel, in which she got the lead.

"Now that I'm finally here," she says, "I want to get as much out of it as I possibly can."

Interlochen campers have a reputation for being pretty intense, but the camp does have some traditional summer activities and encourages fun.

"It's sad," jokes DeRon McDaniel, a 17-year-old from Cleveland. "They actually force us to do things." That includes arts and crafts and swimming in the lake. McDaniel, a bass-baritone, says he'd rather sing.

Like Mikat, McDaniel says that once he got into Interlochen, facing the cost was sobering. His family was going through an extra-hard time: with his mother experiencing financial difficulties, they lost their house to foreclosure and McDaniel was forced to move in with his grandmother.

"I was very comfortable for a long time. And then this came out of nowhere, which threw us all off guard," McDaniel explains.

Interlochen saw his potential and gave him a scholarship for $5,000, but he still had to come up with the balance. He wrote letters to potential sponsors, gave a pay-what-you-wish recital, and got in touch with the music directors at two churches where he sings. Donations large and small poured in.

"I said every little bit counts, because it really does," says McDaniel. "I didn't care if someone gave me a dime, a penny, a nickel, whatever. It all added up eventually."

Now McDaniel spends his days and nights working on his music. He's already performed in the camp's nearly 4,000-seat auditorium with the World Youth High School Choir.

Over the decades, young people have traveled to Interlochen by plane, bus, train or even hitchhiked. Interlochen conductor and director of orchestra programs Jung-Ho Pak says the campers who have had to come up with part or all of the tuition themselves are showing an entrepreneurial spirit that will serve them well.

"It really is a testament to how much they want to be an artist, because it doesn't get any easier when you graduate Interlochen or go to conservatory and graduate and try to get a job," says Pak. "It's about sacrifice. But it's also about love and the things we do for the things we're passionate about."

Meet The Campers

  • Cassi Mikat

    Cassi Mikat i i
    Sam Oldenburg for NPR
    Cassi Mikat
    Sam Oldenburg for NPR

    17-year-old Cassi Mikat from Brighton, Michigan is studying musical theater. To pay for Interlochen, she sold hairpins she made from recycled soda cans and baby-sat, among other things. Of her experience at the six-week camp, she says, "It's just such a cool thing that I can grow this much in such a short amount of time."

  • Samuel Nunoo

    Samuel Nunoo i i
    Wesley E. Bacon for NPR
    Samuel Nunoo
    Wesley E. Bacon for NPR

    Eleven-year-old Samuel Nunoo is a pianist from Cleveland, Ohio. A local TV news station did a story on Nunoo and his family's efforts to raise money for him to go to Interlochen. Nunoo says, "If you come here, your life will change. It's the funnest place I've ever been to."

  • Sara Page

    Sara Page i i
    Sam Oldenburg for NPR
    Sara Page
    Sam Oldenburg for NPR

    Sara Page is a 17-year-old cellist from Tucson, AZ. This summer she received an Emerson Scholarship to attend Interlochen for a second time. She says she would not have been able to go without it: "I'm a triplet. My sisters are at camps too, so it would be a lot to send three teenage girls." Page may have gone the extra mile to get to Interlochen, but she believes all of her fellow campers are motivated. "Everyone is thankful to be here," she says.

  • India McCary and Joycelyn Price

    India McCary and Joycelyn Price i i
    Wesley E. Bacon for NPR
    India McCary and Joycelyn Price
    Wesley E. Bacon for NPR

    Eight-year-old best friends India McCary and Joycelyn Price are from Tallahassee, Florida. They both play violin and viola, and heard about Interlochen from their music teacher. To raise money to attend the camp, they gave recitals and held pancake breakfasts. Their parents and grandparents helped. Joycelyn Price says, "My mom worked so hard. She made candy apples. She made hot dogs. Everyone at church came running up to buy them."

  • DeRon McDaniel

    DeRon McDaniel i i
    Sam Oldenburg for NPR
    DeRon McDaniel
    Sam Oldenburg for NPR

    Seventeen-year-old DeRon McDaniel is a bass-baritone singer from Cleveland, Ohio. Interlochen gave him a $5,000 dollar scholarship. For the $2,000 balance, he asked family and friends for donations. McDaniel sings in several choirs in Cleveland, and many of the people who have seen him perform also gave him money for his camp fund. "A lot of people felt invested in my voice, which I was just really thankful for. It was a dream come true," says McDaniel.

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