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Interlochen: Where All the Pieces Fell Into Place
I blinked, readjusting my grip on the leather strap of my flute case, and scanned the list of names again. No. Way. I walked into my audition knowing that Interlochen Arts Camp was highly competitive and that I wasn’t likely to get first chair, but I expected at least third, or maybe even second. As I ran my eyes down the list hanging on the bulletin board for the third time, however, I had to accept the truth: I wasn’t first chair, or second, or even third. No, I was eleventh. Eleventh chair out of thirteen. That also meant I could only play in the intermediate wind symphony, IWS, since only the first four flutes did IWS as well as the intermediate symphony orchestra, ISO. Feeling numb from head to toe—from the cold or the shock, I wasn’t sure—I slowly drifted to my first day of rehearsal, my visible breath in the air my only companion.
All around me were entwined sounds of laughter and complaints about the 40-degree weather in late June, and all the voices wrapped around me like the grey clouds in the sky. I kept my eyes on the ground and walked at a speed that might as well been a crawl compared to the speed of my thoughts. Being good at flute had been an enormous part of my identity since 5th grade, and I had been first chair at both schools I’d played at since then, too. Now, the summer before high school, at the time when I knew myself the least, I lost one of the last puzzle pieces of who I was. What were people going to say when they found out? There were three other girls from school here.
“It’s fine,” Stella, a girl from my cabin and one of the girls from my school, murmured behind me, as if she heard my thoughts. “Interlochen’s really hard. The fact that you even got in means you’re good. Don’t be sad. It’s okay.” I nodded, even though it most definitely was not okay. I wasn’t good at any sport, I couldn’t draw despite years of art classes, and I’d never had a flock of friends like the other girls from school. I was good at school, sure, but that was just middle school; there was no guarantee I was going to keep doing well in high school. I didn’t have a “thing” like a lot of my friends, and with all my friend groups breaking apart at the end of 8th grade—when I wasn’t even sure if those friends were even my friends anymore—all I could hold onto was being good at flute. Now, with my name at the bottom of that chair placement list, even that was lost to the biting wind.
I reached the rehearsal room too fast, and, for the first time in my life, I walked right past the first seat in the first row, and found my name in the second row. For the first time in my life, I opened my folder to find Flute 2, and even Flute 3, labeled on my new pieces. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t walk around and introduce myself to the other kids in my section, out of pure shame.
After a short welcome and introduction by the conductor, Dr. Hayley, we started sight reading our new pieces. Immediately, I noticed how the boy sitting to the left of me, to the front of me, was dramatically out of tune, and when I looked at the girl sitting in front of him, I found her squinting at her music, trying to figure out her notes. We were playing at sight reading tempo, which was a lot slower than performance tempo, and I easily got down all my notes and rhythms the first time through. Could the audition results be wrong? I then did something I had not done since seeing that list: I looked up, and found myself looking into Dr. Hayley's eyes. She smiled at me, and the room suddenly felt a bit less cold. I turned my focus back to the music.
The next day, I make no attempt to rush to rehearsal after breakfast, but the second I walked in, I was greeted by my enthusiastic section.
“Hi!” Someone I didn’t yet know the name of screamed, “You’re a flute too! Let’s get the party started!” Everyone was surprisingly nice, but I couldn’t bring myself to respond with much more than a tight-lipped smile. Dr. Hayley stepped onto the podium, and as soon as we all quieted down, she conducted the downbeat. I tried let myself drown in the music, but couldn’t stop noticing the boy sitting in front of me still struggling.
That afternoon, I stepped into my first private lesson with the woman who had auditioned me. By one in the afternoon, the temperature had raised to at least 85 degrees, and we talked about the bipolar weather at Interlochen, Michigan, as I set up my flute. She asked me to play my new band pieces for her, and seemed really surprised when I got through everything perfectly—notes and rhythm wise—at the tempo she gave me.
We worked on phrasing and expression the entire hour, and as I was packing up to leave, Dr. Harper said hesitantly, “You know, I wish those 5-minute auditions could be a more accurate reflection of our players. We’re having a bit of a problem with some of our ISO flutes, and let me tell you, if I’d had an hour with every one of you, the results would have been completely different.” She must have seen the hope in my eyes as I grasped at the true meaning of her words, because she continued with, “It’s too late to change anything now. At least you get to re-audition after the first three weeks for second session. You said you’re staying for all six weeks, right?”
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to hold back my sigh, “but I’m switching to creative writing as my major second session.” I wouldn’t have a chance to re-audition. I was stuck with eleventh chair for the next three weeks. Somehow, knowing that I was actually better than my assigned placement made everything worse. If I really deserved eleventh, I had nothing and no one to blame but myself. Now, however, I was mad at everyone and everything: the teachers, the other kids, the weather, the cafeteria food, our non-heated cabins, the seemingly mile-long walk to rehearsal through the woods, the strict uniform; everything was horrible and unbearable.
The next morning at rehearsal however, I surprised myself and smiled—a bit of a forced smile, yes, but still a smile—at Jake, the boy sitting in front of me who played either sharp or flat, but never in tune. The previous night, after crying in my bunk for a good twenty minutes, I’d made up my mind that if I couldn’t change my situation, I would make the best out of it. I worked really hard on my initial audition to be able to get into Interlochen, and I was not going to let it all go to waste by admitting defeat to those around me. I came here to learn and to have fun, and they were not going to stop me. I was going to improve and laugh and fly, and they were not going to stop me. I fell asleep holding onto that promise like a lifeline. Actually seeing his face, though, made it hard to act friendly, but I had promised myself I would try. He smiled back and asked “What’s with the knee-high red socks? Part of the camp uniform for girls?” Something about his sincere smile surprised me so much that the tight fist suffocating my lungs loosened its grip.
“Yeah,” I rolled my eyes. “Stupid, right?” Actually a bit embarrassed at how they looked, I changed the topic by asking him about a high trill fingering I didn’t know, assuming he wouldn’t, either. It turned out, however, that he did know what it was, even though he couldn’t get the right air support to make it sound right. I tried playing the trill after he taught me the fingering, and it sounded decent on my first try. When I smiled at him this time, my fake smile had been swapped for a real one.
“Wow,” he exclaimed, eyes wide, “how’d you do that?” I told him what I was doing with my aperture, and before he could try again, Dr. Hayley stepped onto the podium and the room became first silent, then filled with music that warmed up my frostbitten heart.
After rehearsal, Jake tried the trill again, and while concentrating, accidently crossed his eyes. I bursted out laughing and he soon followed, and the sounds of our laughter melted away the hardness that had sat in my stomach since the morning I first saw the list.
It turned out that Jake was just the beginning, as I became friends with just about everyone I met after his stupid jokes crumbled the fast wall I build around myself. I grew to love sitting next to Jake—we started tuning together before every rehearsal, and his pitch improved faster than the speed of the 1929 stock market crash. In return, he taught me some high fingering shortcuts I’ve never heard of before, and rehearsals became as fun as free time, a time when I would watch my theater friends perform their monologues, sit next to my visual arts friends as they made frighteningly realistic eyes come alive, and spend nights eating ice cream with my motion picture arts friends as we listened to the girls from choir practice their parts. There was really something to learn from everyone.
Sitting next to Stella outside our cabin one evening, as we watched the other girls joking around and playing ukulele, I was overwhelmed by how purely happy everyone appeared.
“We’re kinda of like pieces of the same puzzle scattered throughout the world, aren’t we? Isn’t it so nice that all of us from 47 different countries found each other here?” She didn’t say anything back for a long moment, and just when I was about to say nevermind because it might not have made much sense to anyone other than myself, she huffed a laugh under her breath.
“Yeah, I get what you’re saying. It’s as if we can all skip the get-to-know-you part and go straight to being best friends. We arts people do all belong together.”
“You mean family, right? Not friends?” We both laughed then, as all the girls in my cabin had been addressing each other as cabin sisters. The girl playing the ukulele bounced over to the picnic table we were sitting at and handed it over to Stella, who started playing “Would You Be So Kind” by Dodie. As that had been the unofficial theme song of our cabin, the rest of our cabin sisters quickly filled in around us and we sang the entire song from start to finish with at least two perfect harmonization parts. I was definitely one of the worst singers in my cabin, but as I swayed to the music with them, I truly felt like I was flying. I had always been a bird who never realized she was trying to fit in with the fish in the sea at school. Finally, at Interlochen, I found the sky. Finally, at Interlochen, I was no longer the odd one out: not for believing that arts funding shouldn’t be cut in public schools in favor of STEM nor for not being good at sports.
“It’s arts camp,” we would all scream whenever our counselor tried to get us to play soccer or volleyball, and would burst out laughing when all said counselor could find was a deflated basketball. At Interlochen, I found my the puzzle I was truly a part of. Figuring out where and how I fit into the small, bubbled world of Interlochen helped me tremendously in figuring out where and how the pieces of myself all fit together. I replaced old, jagged pieces with shiny, newly-painted pieces, and threw out some pieces that were not part of my puzzle at all. I walked onto the stage of our final IWS concert as 11th chair with my head held high and my smile wide; every note soared—I’d never been part of anything so beautiful.