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Mona Charen: Do We Have Anything to Teach the Young?

Summer music program a noteworthy experience of culture and appreciation

Do you associate dirt with great music? You might if you were the parent of kids attending the Interlochen summer music program in Michigan.

Mona Charen
Mona Charen

For the third and second summer respectively, my teenage sons have plunged into six weeks of intensive music education, performance and instruction. I arrived for the final weekend and was greeted by two artistically elevated, high-spirited and undeniably grubby young men. (Several pairs of gray/brown socks that began life white have been sent to their reward.)

I wrote about the incomparable Interlochen camp (there is also an arts academy during the academic term) last year. “Twenty-five hundred students in grades three through 12 from every state in the union and 40 countries converge on this breezy sylvan enclave between two sparkling lakes for several weeks of intensive training and performance in music, art, theater, opera, dance, motion picture arts and writing. Even if you’ve never heard of Interlochen, now in its 82nd (83rd now) year, you’ve certainly heard from its alumni.”

This is not a camp just for prodigies — though there are more than a few of those. My older son was bowled over by a 14-year-old trumpeter from Peru. This kid could not just produce pure, clear, gorgeous tones; he could also play the Carnival of Venice while turning the trumpet in circles on his mouth. And you thought such parlor tricks died with Mozart?

But you needn’t be a budding genius to get in — just deeply committed to learning and improving. And that brings me to the culture of the place. This kind of camp is such a refreshing antidote to the spirit of the age — that sensibility that began in the kid-centric 1950s and has continued its stultifying grip ever since — the so-called “youth culture.”

I bow to no one in my affection for the young — and I’ll have more to say about that in a minute — but the idea that gained currency in Western society during the past half-century that kids have a culture of their own and that adults needed to truckle to it and attempt not to seem “uncool” by revealing unfamiliarity — well, that was rot. A culture that believes it has more to learn from the young than to teach them is dying.

For six weeks every summer, eager and aspiring kids troop to Interlochen to be more fully immersed in Western culture — their inheritance. The Western musical tradition is open to all, of course (and frankly, the Chinese are contributing tremendously to its continued flowering), but it has a specific history, particular rules and conventions, and exacting standards. The adults at Interlochen have knowledge and skills, and the kids are there to learn from them. There’s a concept!

Nor is this only the work of Dead White European Males — though that would be OK. DWEMs scaled many of the heights of human achievement. But the tradition is alive and developing. And for kids, there is a particular thrill to playing not just the work of the greats but also new pieces by composers still working.

My older son, for example, performed Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, an atonal piece for concert band that would not have been my first choice to purchase from iTunes. But like the kids, I learned that Husa had written this as a protest of the brutal Soviet repression of Czechoslovakia after the “Prague Spring.”

Agonized and harsh, the music fits the subject and opened my mind, if just a bit, to the possibilities of atonality. The kids learned the music (super fast), and the history, too. The band finished the program with John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever (it was July 3), which my son thought seemed incongruous. “Not completely,” I said. “Rejoice that you were born in America.”

Everything about a youth orchestra or ensemble is satisfying to the soul. Seeing them take their places, arrange their music stands, grapple with the larger instruments (one bassoon player was barely big enough to hold the thing), and then await the concertmaster is both adorable and deeply admirable. The entry of the concertmaster, his or her bow, the tuning of the orchestra, and then the entry of the conductor — all are rituals passed down for centuries. And while we cannot delude ourselves that music and morality have any connection (Wagner, anyone?), we cannot deny that these rituals are deeply civilized.

There is something special about the way they play as well. You wouldn’t confuse the World Youth Symphony Orchestra (the camp’s top ensemble) for the New York Philharmonic — but there is a particular energy and vitality that the kids bring to music. This is love’s first bloom. Each of these talented young musicians will one day play better, but perhaps never again with the kind of exuberance and excitement they convey now. Their passion virtually glows from the stage and lifts the audience, too.

It’s well worth the extra socks.

Mona Charen writes for Creators Syndicate. Click here for more information or to contact her.

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