Have Our Music Tour Priorities Changed?

Mike Lawson • • April 4, 2016

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Tom MerrillThe griping still echoes in my ears. But ignoring it was the best choice I could have made.

It was the first trip on which I had taken one of my school music ensembles. We were going to Washington, D.C.–the same place I had gone as a high school student to perform in the National Independence Day Parade–and knowing the difference that tour had made in my life, I wanted to provide a similar experience to my band students. Somewhere in the planning process, my travel planner (who would later become my boss and mentor when I began work in the performance travel industry) told me about the incredible Friday night Marine Tattoo held in the U.S. Marine Barracks during the summer. One would take place while we were there, and I immediately said add it to the itinerary.

My gleeful announcement of this amazing experience added to their tour plans was immediately met with teenage disdain. Undaunted… and knowing I was off to grad school in the fall and had nothing to lose — I pressed on with the plans.

Here’s the thing: had I listened, had I caved in and let them make the decision, they would have missed the experience that — at the end of the tour — almost all of them reflected upon as the highlight of the trip.

In the 20+ years since that tour–through years as a music educator, a travel planner, and a concert and festival organizer–I’ve seen (as we all have) parents, administrators and students become much more involved in the tour planning process. I’ve also seen the importance of the actual musical experience on the tour erode to almost an afterthought — something often used as a component to justify traveling rather than being at the heart of the tour plan itself.

As I develop our festival schedules, I receive requests for shortened performance or clinic times, and simultaneous warm ups for multiple groups so that they can perform back to back and finish earlier. This is usually in order to accommodate narrow windows of availability for the musical content, shoehorned in between sightseeing activities and souvenir shopping. A secondary downside to this is how the physical toll of being constantly on the go with long days reduces the effectiveness of the musical experience itself. During my time working with Carnegie Hall festival choirs, it was unfortunate seeing singers unable to stay focused and alert during rehearsals with their outstanding conductors due to sheer exhaustion.

Some choose to lay this at the feet of travel providers, with the thought that cramming the itinerary full of paid activities generates more revenue for them. Having been a travel provider, I strongly disagree that this is the case. The realities of “low bid” processes implemented by schools and parent booster groups typically have the opposite effect — with the high cost tours often not being selected.

My belief instead is that the tour planning has become a “checklist driven” process, shaped more by how many different activities are included for the least amount of cost rather than the value of the content of those activities. Well-meaning parents want their students to experience the most for their investment, and rightfully so. But often, a higher cost musically meaningful experience is sidelined to instead fill the time with lower cost tourist attractions — the same types of things that can be experienced either on a family vacation or on a different type of group tour. It is my belief that this ultimately hurts music education, because it makes this very critical part of the school music program replaceable through other means.

Consider the purpose and content of an eighth grade history class trip to Washington, D.C., a foreign exchange trip to Germany, or even that of a traveling athletic team to a tournament. Why should it be any different for traveling music ensembles?

The music programs that embrace this concept have seen the benefits of this musically oriented approach to the tour. One year while working with a longtime colleague on his tour plans, we developed a New York itinerary with an in-depth music focus…much different from the theme park oriented performance tours we had created in the past. On this experience, his ensemble performed at Lincoln Center as part of a festival, had a clinic with a leading conductor and educator, attended a New York Philharmonic concert that featured Joshua Bell, and spent an evening enjoying a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Upon reflection, he saw the positive impact this had on his music students and it fundamentally changed his approach to his performance tours ever since.

Your travel and event planners in the performance travel industry are here to help you advocate to your students and parents the importance of keeping music at the focus. That’s why it’s called a “music tour.” Looking back at the Marine concert with my own students, I knew it was my responsibility to help them see beyond the “fun” parts of the tour to the things that would truly have long term benefit…things they couldn’t appreciate until they had experienced them.

Perhaps it’s time to change the conversation. As I am fond of saying, it’s not just about where — it’s about why.



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