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Planning the Best Trip for Your Band or Orchestra

Thomas J. West • Travel/Festivals • June 21, 2013

During my days as a high school band member, one of my favorite events was the annual spring trip. Everything about it, from the big announcement about where we were going that year to being exhausted at school the Monday morning after it was over, was part of the experience. My high school’s fall marching program was non-competitive, electing instead to attend local band exhibition festivals. The spring trip, however, was another story. We would typically compete in concert band, parade band, field show, indoor drumline, and indoor guard, often choosing to attend events offered by North American Music Festivals in locations like Myrtle Beach, Nashville, and Toronto. Waiting for the spring to compete gave our band a chance to mature over the school year and to involve our indoor programs. While we typically fared well in competition, we still learned some tough lessons from going up against a band program whose competitive emphasis was more focused on their Fall [marching] band program than ours was.

The experiences I had on those trips were invaluable. It was a goal to shoot for, a chance to travel to new places, a gigantic four-day slumber party with 100 of my closest friends, and some of the most memorable musical performances of my high school career. Venturing away from the daily high school environment as a band allowed us to bond and to exist as a performing ensemble without outside influences or distractions.

Today as a band and orchestra director, I can look back on those experiences with a music educator’s perspective and see the additional curricular value of a trip. Performing for adjudicators or for an audience that was not composed of family and friends gave the band opportunities to master different and challenging repertoire. It gives the hard work of rehearsal a focus that a normal concert in the school auditorium does not provide. It also gives the students a sense of pride and ownership in “their” band or orchestra, making it more likely that they will make personal sacrifices for the good of the ensemble.

There is no question that going on a trip is a lot of work on the director’s part. Filling out paperwork, scheduling travel, setting up fundraising, managing chaperones, and many other details go into making a trip successful. Before beginning to work on taking a trip, a director needs to be clear on the curricular goals for the band or orchestra.

Curricular Goals

Taking a trip must be an activity that serves the program’s curricular goals. Trips don’t have to be centered around competition, nor do they have to only be in the spring. A trip is a culminating event; it should occur at a time of year that helps your ensemble focus its preparation. Trips are a major commitment of time and resources for everyone involved, so they should be done at a time of year that maximizes the ensemble’s ability to both grow as performers and minimizes the impact that the event has on the rest of the school calendar. Coordinating the timing with the other music teachers and your administration is essential in finding the best compromise for all stakeholders.

An additional consideration for directors is whether or not the trip should include some form of competition. This is a philosophical and personal choice, and not one to be taken lightly. There are benefits and detriments to either choice, but I can honestly say that unless a program is well-established with a full instrumentation and strong performances happening on a consistent basis, there is little value to participating in a ranking and rating adjudication. Many spring festivals are in a ratings-only format, with one sweepstakes award winner taking home special recognition. Many are also completely non-competitive.

The best option is to attend a festival that offers judge’s feedback and an on-stage clinic with the ensemble. Many times, an adjudicator will reinforce concepts you have been trying to get through to your students in a way that gains new traction with them. Students still learn without the distraction of ranking and rating.

Fall and Winter Travel

Participating in major parades is a good option for a non-spring trip. Thanksgiving Day and bowl game parades are popular choices for fall and winter activities. Performance trips in the Southern U.S. are preferable for obvious weather-related reasons.

Participating in orchestra tandem concerts is often effective. Whether it is with another high school orchestra, a community orchestra, or a professional ensemble, sharing the stage with another group can be beneficial for both ensembles.

Spring Travel 

Most directors opt for an away trip in the spring, which gives their ensembles time to mature and become more cohesive. For bands, it’s also a focusing activity for the second half of the year opposite fall marching band. Spring trips are also desirable for many schools on the northern half of the United States because the weather continues to improve as the days move forward.

In addition to the many spring festival opportunities, performing for opening ceremonies for events, concert opportunities in historical locations, and other outside-of-the-box options exist. For example, there is an outdoor amphitheater at Mount Rushmore National Park that hosts performances of all kinds. Don’t shy away from creating your own concert tour, contacting other schools in your state, and building a long weekend of performing, sight-seeing, and travel.

Overseas Trip Options

I, myself, have never taken a student ensemble to Europe, but I know of many directors who have. There are added complications with passports, plane travel, and equipment transportation that have to be taken into account, but travel agencies that specialize in student group travel can help to streamline that process. Trips to Western Europe and Canada are quite manageable, and for the adventurous, trips to South America can be life-changing.

A Final Thought about Funding

One of the biggest concerns about trips of this nature is the funding needed to make them a reality. Travel has become cost-prohibitive and problematic for everyone, and even with a lower rate for a block of hotel rooms, lodging can be costly as well. The distance your group travels and the amount of time you are away should be directly proportional to the size of your ensemble and the number of chaperons and support personnel required.

If you can’t take the trip for a per-student cost that is manageable by the majority of the socio-economic demographics of your program, you need to consider scaling back to something more affordable. My high school band had about five individual student fundraisers each year to support the spring trip. With so many student organizations, sports teams, community organizations, and online crowdsourcing campaigns in today’s fundraising game, efforts need to be kept in perspective. It’s not fair to strong-arm friends and relatives into supporting band and orchestra students over and over again.

tom-westThomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. He has 15 years of experience as a concert band director, marching band director, jazz improvisation instructor, choral director, orchestra director, private instructor, and marching drill writer. His directing career has included small rural programs, small metro programs, large high-achieving suburban programs, and non-profit youth bands. He is currently a music teacher at the Center for Performing and Fine Arts, a unique school which is part of the innovative Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School. He is sought after as a clinician for integrating current technology and social media into music classrooms. Read more from Tom or contact him at www.thomasjwestmusic.com.

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