“A shot of inspiration”: Interlochen alumna Leelanee Sterrett finds joy in playing for the New York Philharmonic

Sterrett, who is Acting Associate Principal Horn, shares the story of how she found her way from Interlochen to a professional music career.

Hornist Leelanee Sterrett

Leelanee Sterrett. Photo by Justin Smith. 

Leelanee Sterrett is the consummate orchestra musician. As Acting Associate Principal Horn at the New York Philharmonic, Sterrett is gifted, passionate about her art form, and brimming with the desire to share it with others. With her contagious enthusiasm, it’s hard to imagine a time when she wasn’t a professional horn player. But Sterrett was once a teenager struggling to choose between a wide array of interests: running, biology, and music. It took the input of a beloved teacher to set her on the track to where she is today.

Sterrett ​​(IAC 00-01; AS 02; IAA 02-04; IAC St 04-05; IAC Fac 17, 20) doesn’t come from a family of professional musicians. Nevertheless, she was always surrounded by music.

“My mom was an amateur flute player, so my earliest musical memories are going to her band concerts and community music concerts,” says Sterrett. “My dad is a virtuoso whistler. I spent a lot of early mornings getting ready for school hearing my dad whistling away. I also sang a lot with my grandma, who taught me show tunes growing up. We would put on little skits and sing together.”

In middle school, Sterrett began playing the horn for her school’s band. Her new adventure started with a little persuasion from the adults in her life.  

“I think the band director and my mom were in league with each other,” Sterrett laughs. “They convinced 10-year-old me in fifth grade: ‘Oh, don't you don't you want to play the horn? There's only going to be two horn players in the fifth grade band—it would be so special!’”

Despite the fact that she had to be talked into playing it, Sterrett discovered that she loved playing the horn. Soon, she began to explore her next musical step: Interlochen Center for the Arts. She’d felt a connection to Interlochen from a young age through listening to Interlochen Public Radio.  

“We had IPR playing all the time. It was on at home, and it was always on in the car, too,” Sterrett remembers. “I remember listening to the Saturday morning program, Music By Request. As I got older, I'd be on my way home from a cross country meet or on my way to my horn lessons or youth orchestra rehearsal, and I’d listen in.”

Inspired by the classical melodies she heard, Sterrett decided that Interlochen would be the best place to sharpen her musical abilities. She spent two summers at Camp, did a year of All State, and then came to Interlochen Arts Academy for her junior and senior years of high school.

A beloved teacher and a passion for orchestral performance

At Arts Academy, Sterrett met the instructor who’d have the most influence on her musical career. Julie Schleif, Principal Horn at the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra, was dedicated to helping her young student succeed.

“I credit my teacher Julie Schleif, who taught me at the Arts Academy, with opening a lot of doors for me and showing me what you might do if you were going to become serious about playing horn professionally,” says Sterrett.

At the time, Sterrett had several different options available for her future. She did well in her science classes and began considering the pre-med route. She also enjoyed running and thought about competing in cross country at the college level. But in the end, Sterrett’s experiences performing at Interlochen helped solidify her dreams for the future.

“Through being at Camp at Interlochen as well as playing in youth orchestras, I fell in love early on with the experience of playing in an orchestra,” she says. “That love was instilled in me from the time that I was about 13. It was almost inevitable that I would pursue an orchestral career.”

I love the music, the range of sounds, the different volumes, the different colors, the timbres. I love hearing a symphony orchestra play. It's like a shot of inspiration in the arm.

Leelanee Sterrett

When asked what it is she loves most about playing in an orchestra, Sterrett says she finds musical communication deeply meaningful.

“It’s complex and yet it operates so seamlessly. The idea of communicating with others nonverbally is really powerful. I love the music, the range of sounds, the different volumes, the different colors, the timbres. I love hearing a symphony orchestra play. It's like a shot of inspiration in the arm.”

For her, each performance is an opportunity for profound self-discovery and for sharing ideas and emotions with others.

“You take whatever you have inside you and hear it magnified by the sounds onstage. Sometimes you’re accessing emotions that aren't just your own … Hopefully, it's something you're sharing with whoever's listening. The audience is able to feel some of the same things that you feel through music, so it brings you together in that moment.”

Sharing music with others

After graduating from Interlochen, Sterrett went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and her master’s from the Yale School of Music. She followed this up with a two-year program through Carnegie Hall called Ensemble Connect. Just a few years out of college herself, Sterrett committed herself to sharing her art form with others.

“We did a lot of musical outreach programs,” Sterrett says of Ensemble Connect. “We put on creative performances for various community groups including student groups, adult assisted living groups, individuals with disabilities, and a lot of people in New York who wouldn't necessarily be coming regularly to concert halls. We developed interactive concerts and programs specifically designed for those people. It was really impactful—I learned so much about having empathy for other people’s experiences, and how to honor each person’s relationship with music.”

Sterrett currently serves on the horn faculties of Rutgers University and New York University. She also returned to Interlochen in 2017 and 2020 to teach at Arts Camp. As an educator, she’s motivated by the time and energy that others have invested in her life.

“I feel so rich in the experiences that I've been able to have as a musician, and I think the natural instinct is that you want to share them,” she says. “You want to spread the knowledge and be there for other young people in the way that your teachers were there for you. It's giving back, and it's a way to bring things full circle.”

Sterrett has continued to stay involved with Interlochen. In March of 2023, she will join other members of the New York Philharmonic and a select group of Interlochen student musicians as they perform in मुक्ति : MUKTI, celebrating the legacy of Black liberation. Sterrett is looking forward to working with students from Interlochen again.

“I'm excited to see them experience the impactful moments I had throughout my own student years, like the first time you play in a really big hall,” says Sterrett. “I remember when I was in high school, the Arts Academy Orchestra went and played down in Orchestra Hall, where the Detroit Symphony plays. Having the chance to step into a professional appearance there was so powerful. I want to be a good role model for the students while they're here in New York.”

“Stay curious”

As a performer, Sterrett stays busy, spending her summers at the Tanglewood Music Center, the Pacific and Sarasota music festivals, the National Orchestral Institute, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. In addition, she dedicates time to one of her greatest interests: playing music by female composers.

I think the most important thing is to stay curious. If you're going to be in the arts, you will forever be a student. You have to love the pursuit of it, because your work will never be done.

Leelanee Sterrett

“I was recently back in Michigan, where I gave a world premiere performance of a duo concerto for horn and trumpet by a French composer named Fernande Decruck. She lived and worked in the first half of the 1900s and her music has been rediscovered,” says Sterrett.

With her work at the New York Philharmonic, Sterrett has reached a high point in her career, but she refuses to become complacent.

“I think the most important thing is to stay curious. If you're going to be in the arts, you will forever be a student. You have to love the pursuit of it, because your work will never be done.”

To learn more about studying horn at Interlochen Arts Academy, click here.

Want to hear amazing music by Interlochen alumni in the New York Philharmonic? Check out Interlochen Public Radio's playlist