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Planning for Safety on your Music Ensemble’s Trip

Mike Lawson • Archives • June 6, 2012

By Tom West

Middle School and High School performing ensembles often plan and execute away trips for performance, adjudication, and group bonding. The annual spring trip was one of my favorite parts of my high school band experience when I was a student. Having a few days of uninterrupted time together as an organization creates unity and memories that last a lifetime.

As both a director and as a student, however, I have seen students make some dangerous and downright stupid decisions in the name of fun. From petty theft of hotel supplies to a drum major deciding that it would be cool to go from his hotel room on the third floor to his friend’s room on the fourth by way of the external balconies, students are still young people who make bad choices. There are also external factors that come into play that can negatively impact your experience. Here are some suggestions for making sure that everyone in your entourage comes home safe and sound-and without a criminal record.

Vet Every Chaperone

Most high school bands have an extended staff that works with the students for the fall marching band season, or even year-round. Many choral and orchestra programs do not have these built-in chaperones. Whatever your staffing situation is, you should be shooting for a ratio of 8:1 for every chaperone (that’s two quad-occupancy rooms for each adult to manage). The bigger that first ratio number gets, the more likely you are to have discipline problems.

Many school districts now require all chaperones to submit a child abuse clearance and criminal record check. Whether or not this holds true for you, it is critical that you personally interact with each chaperone requesting to go with you ahead of time. This can be accomplished at a formal chaperone informational meeting or in smaller groups. I’ve seen chaperones who have felt there was nothing wrong with going out to the bars after the students were in bed for the night, and worse. Reserve the right to tell a parent, “I’m sorry, but you don’t qualify to be a chaperone this time” and be prepared for them to pull their kid from the trip roster. Better to lose one section leader than have an untrustworthy adult with you.

Establish Chain of Command

Chaperones are there to help, but you need to tell them how to help you, and you need to be equally clear on what decisions they are not allowed to make. Chaperones should not be responsible for discipline beyond simple verbal reprimands. As any parent will tell you, it’s difficult to tell other people’s kids what to do when it’s not clear what will be acceptable to the students or their own parents.

Create a chain of command where another adult – preferably another teacher or staff member – is second in command and can take over running the trip if you are not available. As the ensemble director, you will have to step away and deal with things like trips to the local ER. You also never know when you may be physically unable to function. I suffered through a punishing migraine headache during a band trip once. Luckily, it was a dinner break at a buffet restaurant, so I was able to lay down on the bus and wait it out without worry. Had that been a different time on the trip, there would have been a major problem. By the way, the second in command should preferably be able to conduct the ensemble, too.

The buck stops with the ensemble director. However, invite an administrator from your building to go with you. Make sure it’s someone who won’t undermine your authority, but can deal with the hard cases, particularly those that could lead to litigation.

One additional thought: having your school nurse or a parent who is an RN or EMT on the trip with you is certainly not a requirement, but is a great insurance policy.

Establish Conduct Policies

We all know the standard code of conduct (no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking, you are an ambassador at all times). Here’s the part where a lot of programs overdo it. Your code of conduct for the trip should be two pages maximum, and only one page is even better. Why? No one will remember all of the things they’re not supposed to do unless they’re common sense or clearly emphasized. Any rule that you can’t enforce easily with your chaperones’ help should not be included.

More importantly, have a clear set of interventions that you will enact when conduct of students threatens their health, safety, or permanent record. I recommend having one self-sufficient chaperone willing to remain at the hotel with students who have majorly violated a rule. It’s important that their ability to participate in the ensemble’s hard work and culmination be removed, no matter how crucial their role is. They and the ensemble need to understand that everyone’s contribution, both on and off stage, affects the entire group.

Some programs get parents to sign off on a policy where their high school-aged child will be sent home at the parent’s expense on an airline flight. There are so many pitfalls in that situation that I can’t even begin to fathom them. If they’re under 18, this is just plain dangerous. They must have an adult escort. Let’s not forget that you are punishing parents for a decision their child made, and as a parent myself, I would be embarrassed, furious with my child, and resentful of the ensemble director for putting them in harm’s way, no matter what my child did. I would be likely to not sign off on such a discipline policy.

Safety During Free Time

The easy answer to this one is simple: have as little unstructured free time as possible. Unstructured time is the proverbial devil’s playground.

On trips such as Music In The Parks, students may spend the entire afternoon on their own in a contained amusement park. Middle school students in such a scenario should be in groups of four to eight and accompanied by an adult. High school students also need to rove in pre-determined packs, but may not need direct supervision. Communicating by cell phone has made it easier to keep tabs on everyone and make announcements. However, identify a designated check-in location in the park when you arrive. Make it somewhere with seating available, such as a food court, or near guest services. Put your chaperones on a rotating schedule where they each spend 30 to 60 minutes at this designated area. Also, require all student groups to make an appearance at the designated area mid-day to physically check-in. Most chaperones appreciate the chance to take a load off and get a drink, and just the simple notion of students having a physical “go-to” location for help will put students (and parents) more at ease.

A Safe Trip is a Successful Trip

In the many away trips I took with my high school marching bands as their director, people would frequently want to hear my assessment of how the trip went. My answer was nearly always, “We all came home and no one is in jail.” I said so with tongue in cheek, but that sentiment is true. Ensemble directors don’t get much in the way of restful sleep on away trips with overnight stays. The impact these trips have on the ensemble and the incentives it generates are worth all the planning, fundraising, and stress they cause. Planning ahead is key, and having contingencies in place is vital.

Thomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. His music education blog can be found at www.thomasjwestmusic.com.

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