Ed Jacobi

Mike Lawson • Features • June 21, 2013

Share This:

A Life Changing Experience: Insight into One Band Program’s International Exchange.

When planning a large-scale outing for a school music group, sometimes it helps to make friends first. For Ed Jacobi, band director at the Chicago-area Buffalo Grove High School, one such connection that was made back in the 1980s with an adventurous administrator at a school in Vienna, Austria is still actively paying dividends. In fact, June of 2013 marks Jacobi’s tenth time leading a large group of music students from his high school program on a tour of Europe in the past 23 years.

The Buffalo Grove Band is a thriving non-competitive school music program that features a full complement of ensembles: marching band, symphonic and concert bands, a pep band, and a jazz band. And just about every third year since 1990, Ed Jacobi has brought the majority of his band students to Central Europe for a cultural exchange based in Vienna, Austria, and a performance tour that often stretches across Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Northern Italy.

This year, the group is traveling for 14 days, the first week of which will be spent in Vienna, where many of the 133 American students, along with some of their parent chaperones, will be staying in the homes of their Austrian hosts. And later this fall, as they have every year for more than two decades, more than 40 16- and 17-year-old children from Landstraßer Gymnasium, Buffalo Grove’s Viennese sister school, will visit the Greater Chicago area.

SBO recently caught up with band director Ed Jacobi, who took time away from his hectic pre-trip planning to discuss this successful transcontinental partnership and its impact on the music program at Buffalo Grove High School.

School Band & Orchestra: Tell me about this European exchange your school participates in.

Ed Jacobi: We’ve had this association since 1990 where, every September, Viennese students come to our school for 10 days to two weeks, and then we travel to their school every three years. It’s a school-to-school exchange. The former principal of that school was the president of the Music Teachers Association of Austria, so he’s gotten us into some amazing concert venues in Vienna, and as a result of that we do a little circle tour that takes us from Munich, Germany, to Vienna, Austria, down into Italy, back up to several other cities in Austria and then back to Munich, from where we then we fly home. We’ve gone into the Czech Republic and we’ve gone into Hungary, so we’ve done some varying with that, but the tours always go through Vienna because we have this exchange in place.

SBO: Why did you decide on every three years as the optimal frequency?

 EJ: We only go every three years because it’s so expensive, and that gives all of the students one good shot in high school. If they hesitate as freshmen they have a chance as seniors, and if they went as a freshmen they don’t have to go as a senior. The success from the previous trip is the incentive for the next one.

SBO: Who among your students is eligible for these European trips you’ve been doing?

EJ: Going to Europe is a big deal, so it’s open to everybody. We don’t limit it to only the top players.

SBO: How was the exchange first set up?

EJ: It goes back to the ‘80s. There was someone working with the schools in our area, taking music groups to Austria. Our school went on one of those trips just before I got the job here at Buffalo Grove High School in 1986. They used this principal in Vienna, who was a good friend of theirs, to set up all of their concerts. The school that this principal ran had a desire to set up an exchange with a school in America, and it turned out that Buffalo Grove High School was a great fit, so it all came together in 1990 and we’ve been doing it regularly ever since.

In a sense it was just fate and good fortune, being in the right place at the right time, but at the same time, an exchange doesn’t just happen. We put a lot of hard work into making this work. The teachers at both ends of the ocean have to be passionate about it. Because our music students host kids from Vienna in their homes every year, when we go over there, the students all know each other. One group of Austrian kids was here this past September, and another group will be on the way in the coming September. There’s a lot of energy behind this exchange because we’ve been doing it for so long.

BG orchestra director Elizabeth Bennett, Ed Jacobi, student teacher Emma Burrows of the University of Illinois, and BG choir director Debora Utley after a concert at the Church of St. Simon and St. Jude in Prague, March, 2010.

BG orchestra director Elizabeth Bennett, Ed Jacobi, student teacher Emma Burrows of the University of Illinois, and BG choir director Debora Utley after a concert at the Church of St. Simon and St. Jude in Prague, March, 2010.

SBO: What advice do you have for other educators interested in making something like this happen?

EJ: Practically speaking, the first steps would be to look for a connection – when you go Midwest or the state music conventions, people that do international travel have connections with schools. Find those people that have those connections and ask them if they know of any schools who are looking for an exchange.

For example, I know that the school we’ve partnered with in Vienna knows of other schools in their area that would be interested in this sort of thing, so I could help arrange something like this if people wanted to reach out to me. Connections begin by talking to people that are actively involved in these types of associations.

SBO: Is there a downside to your approach to this?

EJ: The one downside to this arrangement, if you want to call it that, is that all of our travel is locked into Vienna. We don’t go to China or Spain or England. We always go to Vienna. If we ever went on a big overseas trip and we didn’t go to Vienna, that would kill the exchange. You have to have it in your mindset that its in your heart to do the exchange and that’s the one place you really want to go.

I have a passion for introducing students to Europe. For most kids, it’s the first time they’ve been overseas, so I have to think about how I can make that experience enriching for them. For me, I get to re-establish the friendships that I’ve made with colleagues on the other side of the ocean. Of course, this is all done under a musical context: having the opportunity to perform our music before audiences in the place where this art form originated.

I sell it to my community, but I don’t do that by telling people what they have to do. Instead, they just hear my excitement about this opportunity, and that’s really what sells people on it.

SBO: How many students go with you every three years?

EJ: This year we have 133 students going, and three years ago we had 160. It’s a little more expensive this time around because we’re going in the summer instead of during spring break – the airfare basically doubled. To me, having so many students involved says that there’s a commitment from our music program that this is something that’s important to us.

SBO: And how many Austrian students come every September?

EJ: It’s generally 40-45 students that come every year.

The other big difference is that the kids who come here aren’t necessarily music students; it’s the equivalent of their junior class. This is their big trip to America. They have about 70 students in each class, and their school is fifth grade through 12th grade. We told them we can’t host 70 students because it’s too many for us to manage every year. So we asked for 40-45 because that number fits on a single bus, which really cuts down on our expenses when we take them around town here. That makes it affordable and manageable for us. And then we go there with our big group and they exhaust their resources to house our students.

SBO: Sounds like there’s an awful lot of hospitality and generosity on both ends!

EJ: This is my 34th year teaching so I have a little perspective on music education and the whole travel thing, and in my experience, too many American music educators look at it too selfishly: “What can I gain from this?” Europeans pick up on that right away.

To make it work, there needs to be a genuine quality where it’s clear that everyone involved is thinking first about the people and wanting to make it nice for the visitors. If you invest the time and a little bit of money so that when they come from overseas they get to see some of the best of what our cities have to offer, they will return the favor when you go over there. There really needs to be a genuine quality about being interested in an exchange, rather than wanting to do something just so you can get something.

The Buffalo Grove High School Band in Salzburg, Austria in 2010.

The Buffalo Grove High School Band in Salzburg, Austria in 2010.

SBO: Is there anything music educators need to be aware of in terms of recent changes in international travel?

EJ: The airlines have made it really difficult over the last decade. It’s a constant negotiation with them about how much it’s going to cost to take instruments overseas. I’ve been able to work it so that I’ve never had to pay anything extra for our instruments: since people can take two suitcases, I’ve had our students only take one and then have the other checked bag be an instrument case. In the past they’ve done that, but now with changes in airline policy, they want to charge us for that and at first the price we were given was exorbitant. However, we’ve been able to talk them down a bit on the price, but that negotiation is getting harder and harder.

The prices for airline tickets is the biggest hurdle. At this point, they don’t even want to commit to fares because they want to be able to add on additional fuel charges up until a few months before the departure, and not knowing what that total price could be is a huge deterrent.

SBO: What’s your approach to fundraising for your band students?

EJ: The general process is available on our website, www.bgband.org. Fundraising is optional. There are people that pay for the whole trip out of pocket and there are people that pay for the whole thing through fundraising. Our biggest fundraisers are an entertainment book and also a gift card program. We do that every month, and all of the profits go directly into student accounts for the trip.

SBO: How far in advance do you try to get students thinking about costs?

EJ: We introduce it about 18 months in advance, and the commitment comes with about a year to go. The approximate cost is $3,750 for two weeks, and that covers all meals, hotels, performances, flight – everything.

SBO: Musically, how are your ensembles received while touring abroad? And what’s your approach to programming?

EJ: They are amazed at what our students can do. They don’t have music ensembles – bands and orchestra – in their schools. All music training happens outside of their school system. So when they see how the music education system works in America, they’re astonished. They have a school choir that is amazing, but that school choir consists of students and adults and they rehearse at night. The students that play instruments leave school at 2:00 pm to go to a different academy to do their music studies. They’re astonished at what we do with our music during the school day and at the level of our student performance.

As for programming, I like to present a mix of American music and Viennese and European music so that we can acknowledge what they gave to us musically. For example, one of the pieces we’re playing this year is “Overture Die Fledermaus” by Strauss, and of course, Strauss was all over Vienna. We play the “Radetzky March,” also by Strauss, as an encore, and the audiences love that, because that’s what the Viennese Philharmonic does every year for the third encore during the New Year’s Eve concert, which is broadcast worldwide. We do “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and another fun tune is “Instant Concert,” which we do for an encore. I basically pick literature that showcases the strengths of our band, and it depends if we’re doing an indoor concert or an outdoor concert. I mix the Classical Romantic transcriptions with some of the newer works for bands, as well as some of the patriotic marches that are representative of our medium.

SBO: Do you have any other advice for music educators considering an overseas or some sort of international exchange?

EJ: Go for it. The opportunity to take your music group internationally to perform is life changing for students and directors. I have students whose parents went on my first tours in ’87, ’90, ’93, who connect with me on Facebook and tell me that the trip they went on changed their lives. I have a student who is currently spending her junior year at college in Vienna, and she was introduced to Vienna through this exchange at our high school. So many former students have told me that this experience traveling and participating in the exchange changed their lives. So I say to directors that if you have the opportunity to do something like this and your community can support it, then go.

Absolutely go.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!