Arts camp was a perfect time for percussionist Rob Knopper

In the summers of 2013 and 2014, Interlochen alumnus and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra percussionist Rob Knopper (IAC 02-03) returned to campus as a guest artist. In the decade since he was a student here, a few changes to the campus were obvious: trees were larger; some buildings had been moved or replaced; some teachers and instructors were new and some, somehow, were older. But some of the important things, according to Knopper, had stayed exactly the same.

"Everything smelled the same," said Knopper in a recent interview. "The lake and the woods. There’s obviously been a few building changes but honestly not enough to change how it feels. It all felt the same, and the hash browns in the cafeteria tasted exactly the same. I don't know how they can do that."

Knopper remembers more than just Interlochen’s cafeteria fare, crediting the institution with feeding his hunger for playing the drums and for preparing him for his next course, making a career of percussion. He admits that when he was young, he wasn't quite sure about music as much more than a pastime, one of his many fleeting childhood obsessions. But Interlochen, with its decades of legacy and scores of successful alumni, easily made his interest in music more than just a passing fancy.

"At that time, I was just learning what orchestras were," he said, "and I remember looking through the old rosters for the student orchestra from way back when, like in the '60s and '70s, trying to see if I could recognize names. I remember seeing Scott Stevens’ name, and when I joined the Met he was actually in the orchestra! And I remember thinking, 'Wow! What a legend!' I was able to go to the same camp as this legend, Scott Stevens, and now I basically have the same job as he did.

"I imagine it would sort of be like idolizing a great baseball player and then you work and work and work and you finally reach the same level where you can actually work with that person. I play in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra now, and it’s pretty much the biggest achievement I could have imagined myself having when I was back at Interlochen."

Knopper's time at Interlochen only lasted two summers, barely four full months. And yet every moment ended up having a long-lasting effect on the course his life would take. He still recalls some of the most important parts of his time here.

"I really experienced three things at Interlochen that were inspiring to me," Knopper said, "that helped me make the decision to be a professional musician, and helped push me to do it right. Those three things were, firstly, meeting my best friend Brian Flescher, who was the same year as me. We met in 2002 at Interlochen. We immediately hit it off not only personally but musically and competitively, too.

"The second thing that influenced me was Keith Aleo, who was the percussion teacher at the camp that summer," Knopper said. "He was just a truly inspiring teacher, and continues to be inspiring with an incredible and motivating and enthusiastic teaching style."

Knopper added that Aleo was a creative teacher, encouraging his students to think outside the box. Knopper credits Aleo with inspiring him to practice harder than he ever had, and to ultimately pursue music as a career.

"I knew percussion was a growing interest. But it was Interlochen and Keith that made me realize that this is absolutely what I want to do for the rest of my life."

Aleo remembers Knopper as a dedicated and innovative student of percussion. "Rob was a very intense student during his summers at Interlochen; extremely focused and a hard worker,” Aleo said. "He was also a very creative student, looking to make the best percussion sounds possible using many different techniques."

"In one particular instance, during an audition that included a triangle part, I looked back at Rob and he was sitting on the floor playing the triangle, with towels draped on music stands all around him. After the audition, I asked him what that was all about and he said it was to make the triangle sound softer and more distant. I thought, 'Hmmm ... this kid is really going somewhere some day!' I was right, as he ended up at Juilliard and then on to the Met Opera Orchestra!"

Friendships and instruction gave Knopper both confidence and purpose, he recalls. But it was competition—the third important influence he gained while at Interlochen—that drove him to hone his talents.

"The third thing that influenced me was the Challenges," he said. "Challenges were incredibly inspiring for me as a kid. With the help of Keith, I dived right into Challenges. That experience alone framed my audition ideas and my preparation techniques for the rest of my life."

For those who don’t remember this interesting aspect of Interlochen Camp history, here is a brief primer: Challenges, as they were called, were opportunities for students in orchestra and symphony to move up in chair status by challenging the student above them to a musical playoff.

Knopper said he picked up more than just a few advanced chair spots while competing in Challenges.

"Along the way, just the amount of learning and experimenting and practicing that was taking place between me and the other students who were there that summer—most of whom I still know and I'm friends with—was just incredible. We would get to the practice rooms as early as possible and we’d all do just the craziest things we could think of to alter sounds in new ways; covering up instruments with towels and putting them in different positions and stringing them up in different ways, anything we could think of to get an advantage. So it really helped develop your experimentation. It really kind of set the tone for how far I was willing to go as far as thinking outside the box and trying new things."

Knopper decided to continue advancing his skills and talents off campus, as well. "One of the great effects that (Challenges) had," he remembers, "was, after that first summer of camp, I said, 'OK. I'm done being at the bottom of the lower orchestra. Next summer I want to go back. It's going to be different.' He started taking private lessons and working hard to improve—and the following camp session, it paid off. "I came back (to Interlochen Arts Camp) the next year and right off the bat I got first in the higher orchestra."

For Knopper, the friendships he made while at Interlochen were as important as the lessons learned and those who taught them. But along with these influences, the performances and guest artists he had the opportunity to see while he was here stood out in his mind as being singularly identifiable with this campus.

"There were some very inspiring conductors who came while I was there," he said. "I remember David Lockington conducted us. Frederick Fennell came. I mean, my all-time favorite moment at Interlochen was when the Detroit Symphony came and played side-by-side with WYSO my second summer. That was incredible!"

Events and opportunities such as this helped Knopper realize that percussion could really be a way of life for him. "I attribute a lot of that to Interlochen... I can make it my job, and I can do it for the rest of my life and be happy with it. That was kind of the coming together of understanding my personality and finding the thing that fit perfectly"

That perfect fit is what almost every alumni hopes to find. And on visits to campus, no matter how the grounds may have changed or the new faces in the classrooms, or even, heaven forbid, a new hash brown recipe appears, it is the simple things that most remember. The friendships. The lessons learned. And the way they stay with you.

—Scott R. Miller, Interlochen Center for the Arts Editor/Writer