‘I felt like I was making a difference’: Retiring Arts Academy instructors reflect on their tenures at Interlochen

TJ Lymenstull, Mary Ellen Newport, Jeff Norris, and Mindy Rohn share their favorite memories, proudest accomplishments, and plans for their next chapter.

TJ Lymenstull, Mary Ellen Newport, Mindy Rohn, and Jeff Norris

Top row: TJ Lymenstull (left) and Mary Ellen Newport (right). Bottom row: Mindy Rohn (left) and Jeff Norris (right).

May is a bittersweet month for academic institutions: A time for last-minute cramming and end-of-year celebrations; for goodbyes and “see-you-laters”; for one journey’s end and a new path’s beginning.

Later this month, as the Interlochen Arts Academy Class of 2024 enters their next chapter, four retiring faculty members will embark on their own: Instructor of Piano TJ Lymenstull; Director of the R.B. Annis Math and Science Division and Instructor of Ecology and Advanced Biology Mary Ellen Newport; Chair and Instructor of Voice Jeff Norris; and Instructor of Musical Theatre Mindy Rohn.

Below, Lymenstull, Newport, Norris, and Rohn, reflect on their favorite memories and proudest accomplishments of their tenures at Interlochen Arts Academy and share their plans for the future.

Sharing and stewarding Interlochen’s natural resources

Mary Ellen Newport speaks at a fall 2023 community meeting.

Mary Ellen Newport speaks at a fall 2023 community meeting.

Mary Ellen Newport leads a class at Riley Woods during the 2017-18 school year.

Mary Ellen Newport (center) leads a class at Riley Woods during the 2017-18 school year.

Mary Ellen Newport speaks at the Dow Rotunda dedication ceremony

Mary Ellen Newport (left) speaks during the dedication ceremony for the newly renovated Dow Rotunda on Oct. 14, 2016.

Mary Ellen Newport poses with two alumni during an event at Bridge Lake

Mary Ellen Newport (center) poses with two alumni during a 2022 Arts Academy Alumni Weekend event at Bridge Lake.

When former Vice President of Education Programs Ted Farraday recruited Mary Ellen Newport (IAA Fac 11-24) to helm Interlochen Arts Academy’s R.B. Annis Math and Science Division, Newport quickly realized this post would be very different from her past positions.

“I was in a much more traditional boarding school environment at the time, so I was surprised to discover my new job did not include dorm duty,” Newport says. “[Farraday] also pushed me to integrate the arts into my science teaching, and when I finally understood the idea of ‘STEAM’ education, I never looked back.”

Newport created a variety of opportunities for her students to explore biology and ecology through the arts, such as “The Council of All Beings”—an assignment in which biology students selected an endangered species, created costumes and masks to represent their chosen species, and spoke with human representatives about their threatened status. Some of Newport’s other favorite student projects include Eli Diersing’s (IAC 17, IAA 17-19) choreographic work A Tree is Not a Forest, Kira Bursky’s (IAA 11-14) music video "Daffodil"—featuring future Accidentals co-founders Sav Buist (IAA 12-13) and Katie Larson (IAC 05, 08-12, IAA 12-14)—and Carys Sutherland’s (IAC 16-17, IAA 18-20) transcription of a Bon Iver piece, which she filmed on the Pines campus with an overhead drone.

“I am glad to have been able to provide the time, space, and inspiration for students to express their love and affection for the natural world,” Newport says.

Newport also holds fond memories of her colleagues—both within the Math and Science division and beyond.

“Coming into a new community can be challenging socially, and it was Katie Wibby, Chad Gapinski, Nora Robinson, and Lyndsay Hunter that really reached out and helped me develop meaningful relationships,” Newport says. “My Math and Science colleagues have been an incredible source of inspiration for their dedication, creativity, commitment, and devotion to the arts students in their classes.”

Beyond the academic rotundas, Newport forged relationships with faculty in the Academy’s arts divisions. She frequently collaborated with former Director of Comparative Arts (now Interdisciplinary Arts) Niki Conraths and maintains a close friendship with Instructor of Film & New Media Lydia Marie Hicks, who Newport says “has become part of my family.”

Newport also treasures the deep connection she cultivated with the Angus family—Chuck, Laurel, and Kate (IAA 90-94, IAC St 94, IAA Fac 05-07)—which sparked updates to the R.B. Annis Math and Science Division and catalyzed Interlochen’s award-winning sustainability efforts.

“Through visits with Chuck and Laurel, I was able to see quite intimately the power of generosity,” Newport says. “Chuck and I would sit around with strong coffee on his porch and develop dreams and visions for the direction of the Math and Science Division.”

Thanks to financial support from the R.B. Annis Foundation, Newport guided a much-needed modernization of the Dow Science Rotunda and the construction of the R.B. Annis Botanical Laboratory. The Foundation also supported smaller projects that have enhanced the academic experience at Interlochen Arts Academy and enabled students, faculty, and guests to enjoy the natural splendor of Interlochen’s campus.

“Chuck wanted me to have a little ‘mad money’ to spend each year, which turned into funding for projects like a new computer science class, our new maker space lab, and the beautiful boardwalk and observation deck on the north side of Bridge Lake,” Newport says.

Under Newport’s leadership, the R.B. Annis Math and Science Division also received funding from Wilsonart to study Interlochen’s forests and restore pine plantations back into native forests.

“With the Wilsonart support, guest artists, foresters, horse loggers, architects and timber-frame builders came to campus to help students develop profoundly different ways of seeing the forests and the trees,” Newport says. “Students made lumber, built bridges, calculated carbon stored, and contemplated the rich cultural and ecological history of this campus. Classes and the Ecology Club have continued this work by planting approximately 100 trees since 2017.”

While Newport’s tenure at Interlochen was marked by visionary leadership, her goal for retirement is focused on the present: To approach her next chapter one day—and one chore—at a time.

“I have endeavored through 30 years of meditation to stay in the moment,” she says. “I try not to look back or look too far forward into the future. Every day is my favorite day. My plan upon retirement is to clean my house and then see what presents itself.”

Bringing Interlochen to the world

TJ Lymenstull works with a piano student during the 2019 season of Interlochen Arts Camp.

TJ Lymenstull (right) works with a piano student during the 2019 season of Interlochen Arts Camp.

TJ Lymenstull with his Intermediate piano studio during the summer 2012 session of Interlochen Arts Camp.

TJ Lymenstull (third from right) with his Intermediate piano studio during the summer 2012 session of Interlochen Arts Camp.

Instructor of Piano Thomas “TJ” Lymenstull (IAA Fac 79-81, 98-24; IAC Fac 99-14, 16-23) is a globetrotter. He has studied, performed, and led master classes in Japan, Singapore, Korea, Vietnam, Austria, Italy, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, and at numerous locales across the United States.

But since 1998, Interlochen, Michigan has been his ‘home base.’

Lymenstull first came to Interlochen in 1979, when he joined Interlochen Arts Academy’s music faculty ahead of the 1979-80 school year. Just two years later, Lymenstull left the stately pines—but the Interlochen community hadn’t seen the last of the piano instructor.

Over the next two decades, Lymenstull built a distinguished career as a performer, scholar, and Associate Professor of Piano Pedagogy at the University of Southern California. He performed with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Kronos Quartet; served as a Teaching Fellow of the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching; and received a Zumberge Faculty Research and Innovation Fellowship—USC’s most prestigious research grant—to research piano music from China.

Lymenstull’s studies of Chinese piano music brought him to nearly every major conservatory and school of music in China, where he met and interviewed composers and collected hundreds of scores to bring back to the United States.

“I discovered an incredibly wide variety of styles,” Lymenstull told the Los Angeles Times in a 1995 interview about his research. “At one end of the spectrum, “I found very conservative romantic music and arrangements of folk tunes. . . . [And then] there are also a number of composers working in more contemporary styles.”

Lymenstull has frequently included repertoire by Chinese composers on his concert programs, and has presented lecture-recitals on Chinese piano music. In 2019, he was awarded a sabbatical to record Lin Hua’s Preludes and Fugues on Sikong Tu’s Personalities of Poetry, which was dedicated to Lymenstull by the composer.

In 1998, Lymenstull returned to Interlochen Arts Academy and quickly became an active member of the Academy’s Music Division. He has presented dozens of recitals—both as a soloist and as a chamber musician—and has performed with the Arts Academy Wind Symphony, Orchestra, and Percussion Ensemble

Throughout his tenure at Interlochen, Lymenstull maintained a busy schedule of guest masterclasses, performances, and adjudication. Lymenstull’s national and international travels served to raise Interlochen’s profile both domestically and abroad; his appearances in Asia, in particular, fostered international collaboration opportunities and attracted many young Asian pianists to Interlochen Arts Camp and Interlochen Arts Academy.

His most significant impact, however, was felt between the lakes—in the lives of the hundreds of young pianists he mentored at Interlochen Arts Camp and Arts Academy. Lymenstull’s students have won international prizes; matriculated to Curtis Institute of Music, The Juilliard School, Eastman School of Music, the Peabody Institute, Northwestern University, and many other major conservatories and universities in the United States and abroad; and gone on to vibrant careers as performers and educators.

“I've had some really wonderful students [at Interlochen],” Lymenstull told the Quincy Herald-Whig’s Kelly Wilson in a 2006 interview.

On May 10, Lymenstull culminated his career at Interlochen with a performance at The Alluvion in Traverse City with the Interlochen Piano Trio, which is composed of Lymenstull and colleagues Tina Chang Qu, violin, and Patrick Owen, cello. Although Lymenstull is retiring, he hopes to continue performing with Qu and Owen after his formal departure from Interlochen.

“I’m looking forward to having more time to practice and learn new repertoire,” he told Interlochen Public Radio’s Dr. Amanda Sewell in an interview in Studio A. “[The trio is] a big part of my future project.”

Putting the music in ‘musical theatre’

Mindy Rohn accompanies an alumni performer during David Montee and Robin Ellis’ 2018 retirement celebration.

Mindy Rohn accompanies an alumni performer during David Montee and Robin Ellis’ 2018 retirement celebration.

Mindy Rohn and David Montee at a master class

Mindy Rohn (right) with David Montee (left) watch a guest artist work with students during the 2006-07 academic year.

Rohn accompanies the cast of 'My Fair Lady' at the Cowell Family Cancer Center in Traverse City

Rohn accompanies the cast of 'My Fair Lady' in a performance at the Cowell Family Cancer Center in Traverse City during the spring of 2017.

Even after two decades as an Instructor of Musical Theatre at Interlochen Arts Academy, Mindy Rohn (IAA Fac 01-24, IAC Fac 14, 20) is still awestruck—both by her students, and by the fact that she gets to be part of the Interlochen magic.

“I am amazed that I was hired for this job, and that I have been able to spend the past 21 years creating and collaborating with extraordinary students and colleagues,” Rohn says. “I am proud that my skills as a musician and teacher were respected by my colleagues and students alike.”

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Rohn relocated to Traverse City in the early 1980s to perform in the Golden Garter Revue—a cabaret-style dinner show in Traverse City—and quickly became a fixture in the area’s music and theatre scene. She has served as a music director, arranger, vocal director, and accompanist for many local groups and events, including the revue (which closed in 1999), a 10-piece swing band, fundraisers, and community theatre productions. Through her involvement in the northern Michigan arts ecosystem, Rohn became familiar with Interlochen and met choreographer and former Interlochen Arts Academy Instructor of Theatre Judy Harrison (IAA Fac 99-10).

“Judy called me about a musical theatre position that was opening up at Interlochen, and told me she thought I would be a good fit,” Rohn says. “I did two master classes and spoke with theatre faculty and others, and the rest is history.”

Despite a tumultuous start—her first day in her new role was Sept. 11, 2001—Rohn embraced the excitement and challenges of working with the Academy’s young artists.

“I think my first year of ‘firsts’ was a bit terrifying and exhilarating at the same time,” she says. “I couldn't quite believe I was actually here and a part of something so special.”

As the music director for the Academy’s musical theatre productions, Rohn has worked alongside students and faculty to bring dozens of musicals to life at Interlochen and beyond. In spring 2007, Rohn served as the music director for A Year With Frog and Toad, which traveled to New York City for what Rohn describes as a “whirlwind tour.” In 2022, Rohn—along with colleagues Matthew Schlomer, Matthew Lindstrom, and Doug Peck—won the 10th annual Sutton Foster Award for Best Musical Direction for her work on the Academy’s production of Pippin.

Rohn also led the first collaboration between the Theatre Division and the Academy’s jazz program.

“We performed Chicago in Harvey Theatre with a full jazz band,” Rohn says. “We were worried the band would overpower the singers, but it worked out beautifully.”

As Rohn reflects on what she’ll miss most about teaching at Interlochen, her answer is simple: The students.

“They have so much talent, energy, and commitment,” she says. “It is easy to forget, when you are watching a performance or film or looking at a painting, that high school students have created such splendid art.”

Like Newport, Rohn has few concrete plans for retirement—but is open to what the future may hold.

“I am staying in Traverse City, so I'll have to see what might come to light,” she says. “My husband and I hope to travel periodically to see friends we don't get to see much. Beyond that, time will tell.”

From reluctant teacher to visionary leader

Jeff Norris performs at Sounds of the Season

Jeffrey Norris performs with the Arts Academy Wind Symphony during the 2023 production of Sounds of the Season.

Jeff Norris leads 'Sound the Call' at Interlochen Arts Camp

Jeffrey Norris leads the Interlochen Arts Camp student body in “Sound the Call” during the summer 2019 First Gathering.

Jeff Norris works with Camp voice students

Jeffrey Norris works with voice students during the 2021 Interlochen Arts Camp season.

Jeffrey Norris teaches a private voice lesson during the 1988-89 school year

Jeffrey Norris teaches a private voice lesson during the 1988-89 school year.

As a recent college graduate, Chair and Instructor of Voice Jeff Norris (IAA Fac 86-24, IAC Fac 87, 89-22) didn’t picture himself as a teacher—much less spending 38 years of his life educating young vocalists.

“After I graduated from Eastman School of Music, my wife and I were living in New York City, and there was a woman who wanted me to start teaching,” Norris recalls. “I said, ‘No, I’m not a teacher. I just want to be a performer.’ She eventually wore me down.”

A few years later, Norris and his wife, Arts Camp Harp Instructor Sylvia Norris (AS 74-76; IAC Fac 90-97, 10-19, 22-24), relocated to Michigan. As Norris pondered his next career move, he saw an open position for a voice instructor at Interlochen Arts Academy. Although Sylvia—who had attended Interlochen for three summers as an All-State camper—filled him in on the institution, Norris was taken aback by his first visit to Interlochen.

“I came here in the middle of the summer,” Norris says. “I’d never been here, and I was very intimidated by the whole thing—so many people walking around in red sweaters and blue shirts and all that. I didn't know it at the time, but there were some pretty heavy hitters on the hiring committee. But they seemed to like me.”

Norris was offered the position, and joined the Academy faculty ahead of the 1986-87 academic year. He was quickly acclimated to the institution by a “who’s who” of Interlochen luminaries: Norris counts Kenneth Jewell, Robert Murphy, Dude Stephenson, Mel Larimer, Roger Jacobi, and other beloved figures among his mentors.

“What really impressed me was that, although I was young, they always treated me with the respect of a full peer,” Norris says. “They all worked with Joe Maddy, so they knew a lot about the history of Interlochen. I’m a firm believer that if you want to know where you are and where you’re going to go, you’ve got to know the past. And I just drank all of that in: I wanted to know every story.”

Norris also forged friendships with peers closer to his own age, including David Holland and Bill Sears. But despite the warm welcome, Norris remained convinced that his future was on the stage.

“When we first came to Interlochen, I told my wife, ‘I’m enjoying this teaching thing, but I still really want to be a performer. We’ll stay three to five years, and then we’re going to move back to New York City,’” Norris says. “But I really felt like I found my calling, and that three-to-five-year plan vaporized.”

Over the course of his 38-year tenure, Norris estimates he’s taught more than 23,000 private voice lessons.

“I really felt like I was making a difference in my students’ lives, and that they were making a difference in mine,” he said. “I have students from my first year that are still good friends. I’ve now taught the children of my students. Students keep up with me and let me know what they’re doing, and I’m very proud of all of them.”

Norris’s voice students have matriculated to every major conservatory and college of music in the nation; held vibrant careers as performers and educators; and won notable awards. Twenty of Norris’ students have been selected as YoungArts finalists, with five going on to be selected as Presidential Scholar in the Arts nominees. As a result of his students’ success, Norris has been honored as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts Distinguished Teacher and a National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts Distinguished Teacher in the Arts.

Beyond his studio, Norris created a variety of opportunities for vocalists at both Interlochen Arts Academy and Interlochen Arts Camp—including one of the nation’s first opera workshops for high school students.

“In my first year at the Academy, a lot of students were saying, ‘At home, I’d be in the musical, but there’s nothing for me here like that,’” Norris says. “I had been in a lot of opera workshops—Eastman, Aspen, Music Academy of the West—and I thought that model could fly here at Interlochen. The program ended up being a huge success, and became a big draw to the Academy.”

Norris instituted the Opera Workshop at Interlochen Arts Camp in 2004, and created the Vocal Studies (now Voice & Opera) program. He was also instrumental in developing Interlochen’s vibrant and fast-growing contemporary music program.

“Around 2011, I had three students come to me,” Norris says. “They told me they liked to play guitar and write their own music. I started thinking, ‘Should we have a program like that at Interlochen?’”

Norris discussed the idea with his supervisors, who sent him to study similar programs at Berklee College of Music and the University of Southern California.

“I went to both schools and did a lot of interviews,” Norris says. “I came back to Interlochen and wrote up a pretty extensive proposal—down to how many microphones, drum sets, and rooms were needed. My bosses came to me and said, ‘Jeff, the board wants to start this new program.’”

Although Norris was invited to lead the new program, he declined in favor of hiring an instructor with more expertise in popular music. In 2012, Norris’s former student Courtney Kaiser-Sandler (IAC/NMC 89-91, IAA 92-94, IAA Fac 11-present, IAC Fac 12, 20) returned to Interlochen to helm the new singer-songwriter major—which has since blossomed into a robust contemporary music division.

“It’s been very successful,” Norris says. “I’m very proud of Courtney and what she’s done with the program. She’s absolutely made it what it is.”

While Norris will conclude his career at Interlochen this May, he plans to remain active in vocal education—both as a teacher and as an author.

“I’ve just finished a book, and I’m quite excited about it,” he says. “I started it five years ago, and it’s been a painstaking project to do it right. I hope it will be available to people at the beginning of the summer.”

As for what else retirement holds, Norris offers the standard “stay tuned.”

“I’ve got some things in the offing for the future that I’m working on right now,” he says. “My brain’s always running, and I get a lot of ideas. I’m not just going to stay home and watch Wheel of Fortune.”