Closer to Home

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • June 14, 2016

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It’s a phrase I’ve heard countless times: “It’s our big trip year.”

While this means different things for every ensemble, typically it means a farther away distance–usually something along the lines of New York, Orlando, Los Angeles, Hawaii or an international destination. The unfortunate consequence of this is that sometimes these destinations become the “end-all, be-all” of student performance travel, making anything else pale by comparison. By labeling these the “big” trip, it labels everything else “small”…which in the long run makes it harder to encourage participation by members of the group because it sounds less exciting.

Rather than think “big trip” — why not reframe it as a “big experience?” Moreover, have that “big experience” focus on the things that are going to be truly memorable and make a difference with your musicians and your program.

There are a number of reasons — and realities — for considering this approach:

It Almost Sells Itself

This becomes easier to promote (and receive approval) on multiple levels.

A five or six hour bus ride now makes it possible to leave at the middle or end of the school day, arriving at your destination yet that day. You now have a group rested and ready to go the next morning.

Less time out of school puts you in a better light with administrators and your fellow teachers, and is much easier to convince a school board for approval.

Couple this with more focus on the educational aspects, and the community and school board are less likely to see this as a “pleasure trip” for which they are footing the bill.

Shorter bus distances means less cost in fuel and relief drivers that can now be applied to experiences, which plays into the parental “checklist” view of getting to do more for less money (see my article on that subject in the April 2016 issue of SBO).

Lower cost means less fundraising burden on your community. Or more funds available to do other great things with your program like commission music, purchase equipment, bring in guest artists, etc.

Lower cost might make it possible for more of your students to attend, giving you a better musical experience that benefits everyone in your program — not just those who can afford the trip.

Speaking of long bus rides, as I interact with colleagues in the student travel industry I am hearing more often that bus companies are moving away from doing overnight bus rides. And for very good reason: the safety of you and your students. It’s possible that soon 20 to 30-hour overnight bus rides will be a thing of the past, with bus trips needing to “leap frog” with overnight stops enroute — requiring more time and hotel cost to travel to those destinations. The end result could be that anything beyond a 10-hour drive from home may necessitate air travel for groups.

If this is indeed the wave of the future, how do you reframe the tour experience to match? Actually, this may provide the opportunity for creative and cost-effective options that could lead to increased benefits for your program.

Do the City Differently

If it’s a closer location where perhaps more of your families have already visited, take the opportunity to do more unique things that wouldn’t be done on a family trip:

Avoid the touristy sites. Use the time to explore things with more depth.

Focus more on performances and musically-oriented opportunities that will help your musicians grow in their craft. (After all, it is a MUSIC tour.)

This takes the mindset of “it’s your only chance ever to be here” off the table. That mindset leads to over-packed itineraries and rushing from one thing to the next without being able to appreciate anything. Pace yourselves — sometimes less is more!

If you’re including a clinic with a university conductor, your students have a higher likelihood of selecting this college simply by virtue of distance. Consider the futures you could be bringing to light, not to mention establishing a relationship that could have other long-term benefits for your program.

It’s all in a Name

Yes, you can only perform in Carnegie Hall in New York. Yes, you can only go to Disney World in Orlando. But there are a lot of other incredible places out there, each with its own history and culture.

There are outstanding concert venues all over the country where your ensemble can have amazing musical experiences, some that arguably rival the quality of the “icons” of the concert world. What they may not have in history, they often make up for in sound quality.

Regional theme parks continue to up the ante in terms of “wow” factor. Some of the most cutting edge thrill rides are located in these parks, as well as having a regional flavor unique to their area. And they’re often less crowded, with less expensive food.

Touring Broadway shows have become more widespread into smaller cities. A hidden gem are pre-Broadway productions, where producers are “trying out” shows in less expensive locations before opening on the Great White Way. Personally, I saw the original Broadway casts of Spamalot in Chicago and The Little Mermaid in Denver before those shows went to New York. Sometimes, you will see parts of the show that don’t make the final cut. (Did you know that originally in Spamalot there was a number with a singing cow? Yep–saw it.)

Include aspects of the musical culture of the regions–Chicago, Nashville, Memphis, or New Orleans for example–and how they shaped American music.

This kind of adjustment could even open the door for more opportunities for performance travel within your department. Resources that ordinarily would all go towards a large scale tour may now be available to additionally send a drumline to Dayton, or a wind ensemble to Orchestra Hall.

Ultimately, while it is admirable to want to provide your students the opportunity to visit far-flung locales — focusing your performance tours at a regional level may be the wiser option. You’ll still be providing those experiences that are going to be meaningful to your students and beneficial to your program in the long run, be more accessible, and keep the needs of your program and community in balance all while whetting appetites for future adventures.

Tom MerrillTom Merrill is the Executive Director of Festivals of Music. Tom has nine years’ experience teaching high school band in Iowa and Colorado and two years as a graduate teaching assistant at Illinois State University. Also a singer, he has been an active church choir musician for much of his life.


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