Hit the Road, Jack: Ideas for Field Trips for Guitar and Modern Band Students

Mike Lawson • CommentaryMay 2023 • May 11, 2023

The Ceramic Dalmatians win a gold award at WorldStrides, Orlando, FL.

I love field trips. My students love field trips. My students’ parents and caregivers love field trips. It’s a win-win-win (except for the paperwork and the forms, of course, but we know it’s all worth it in the end). There really is no feeling quite like getting all your students on a bus and setting off together on a musical adventure. Students love the excitement of getting out of their school classes for a day, they truly enjoy spending time with each other, and they always return from field trips absolutely stoked about the experiences they have had on the journey. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a kid say “best field trip ever” as they stepped off the bus.

When I began in my current position teaching Music Technology at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Maryland, the guitar class was added to fill my schedule as I was the only member of the music staff who could actually play the guitar. Guitar class had always been the stereotypical dumping ground for students who needed a fine arts credit, but when I began teaching the class, I refused to let those kids feel they were any less important than any other student studying music. I started including my guitarists in concerts and assemblies, arranged a yearly “Guitarpalooza” concert with them and guest artists, and gave them as many performance opportunities around the school as I could. Quickly, the word got around that guitar class was a legitimate curricular offering, and the numbers grew in the program. For this year coming up, we have three guitar classes, and I couldn’t be more excited to see that upward trend continue. Guitar class truly is my pride and joy and I just love rocking out with these wonderful young people every day of my teaching life.

River Hill guitar students patiently waiting outside the Martin factory.

Many music educators are very aware of performance festivals such as those run by Fiesta-Val, Music In The Parks, WorldStrides, etc. They provide a great opportunity for traditional ensembles to perform and receive feedback and adjudication on their work. I first took my guitar students on a WorldStrides trip to Orlando, Florida, when my band teacher colleague needed to fill twenty places on the bus to make the trip viable. I asked the students if they would enjoy a couple of days at Universal, and if they would be okay with playing a few favorite tunes for some adjudicators while we were there, and they absolutely jumped at the idea. I wasn’t sure we’d really be successful in the instrumental ensemble category in that we would have to compete against traditional bands and orchestras. I also didn’t like the stuffiness of calling them the “River Hill Guitar Ensemble” so the kids decided we should be “The Ceramic Dalmatians of River Hill High School” (it’s a Wheel of Fortune joke from way back in the day). To my surprise, the kids played amazingly on stage, the adjudicators loved the freshness of hearing students play and sing some blues and rock ’n’ roll, and we came back with a gold award. That gold award for the Ceramic Dalmatians still has pride of place in my classroom, and it brings a big smile to my face every time it catches my eye. Since that trip to Florida, we’ve also enjoyed successful performance festival trips to Nashville, Myrtle Beach, and New York, and I try to schedule one in every second or third year. 

Going on that first performance festival field trip really showed me how much students love the field trip experience, and how much their parents and caregivers love to come along and support them. It also makes the ensemble work of the group more cohesive and genuine as they have an unfamiliar audience to work for, and they can see they have something different to offer from other school groups. Next time one of your instrumental or choral teachers in your school arranges a trip to one of these festivals, see if you can tag along with your modern band kids or your guitar class – it really is worth it.

Listening to George Gruhn play a fiddle tune on his favorite mandolin.

Overnight field trips are a big lift in terms of organization and in terms of money, and so I now schedule one-day field trips for those off years when we’re not doing a performance festival. Going to see a concert together has been a good way for my students to learn and to bond, and we are lucky that our school is close both to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, MD, which both offer great concert opportunities. One of the joys of concerts like this with guitar students and modern band students is if you play it right, you can hear the original band or a tribute band play music which you’re learning in class. One of our favorite venues is just a couple of hours away, the American Music Theatre near Lancaster, PA. I learned about them one year when my students were working on some Electric Light Orchestra songs, and I happened to notice “The Orchestra” (one of the offshoots of the original ELO) were playing a concert there. I’m not sure who enjoyed the field trip more, the students or their parents who got to completely rock out to “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Roll Over Beethoven”. I can just tell you it was super easy to get chaperones for that trip!

Another idea which makes for excellent field trips is guitar factories. Our school is within a day trip distance from both the Martin factory in Nazareth, PA, and the PRS factory in Stevensville, MD. Both Martin and PRS are very glad to give tours of their facilities to students, and my classes have always been fascinated by the guitar-making process. In fact, two former students who went on these trips have gone on to work at the PRS factory and they absolutely love their employment there. For both, that field trip made a massive difference in their life’s journey. 

One big lesson I have learned from taking guitar students on field trips is as soon as I am not paying attention, they will get sucked into a guitar store like it’s a black hole. When we went to New York, we arrived at a restaurant for our evening meal and about five minutes later I noticed every one of my guitar students had disappeared. I texted one of the chaperones urgently “Have you seen the guitar students?” and she replied “It’s okay – they’re with me. They spotted a Guitar Center from the bus and asked me to take them around.” I rushed over there to find them all jamming in the acoustic room – they were having the best time together playing our songs on new instruments and they totally didn’t care about needing to eat (though I did eventually get them back to the restaurant before the band and choir kids ate everything). 

On our next day in New York I let the students know the bus driver had offered to drop us anywhere in downtown Manhattan for a couple of hours, and we could visit the Brooklyn Bridge, maybe, or the Empire State Building, or Little Italy, but one of the kids spotted Sam Ash Music Stores on the map and so that’s where we went, and we had the best time. In both Guitar Center and Sam Ash, the staff were great in letting the kids play, and the students were totally respectful of the instruments. I have always taught them to look after school instruments as well as their own, teaching them how to re-string, how to adjust action, how to clean and polish, how to fix minor electrical issues, and so they do know how to respect instruments, and I can totally trust them in a guitar store.

When we went to Nazareth, PA, to visit the Martin factory, we had about an hour to wait for the bus after lunch, and the kids asked if we could walk into the town to find an ice cream store. We found two guitar stores instead, one which specialized in used, vintage electric guitars, and one which specialized in Martins. Again, the kids went in and jammed together, and the owner of one store was so impressed with the respectful behavior of the kids she gave every student a brand new pack of Martin acoustic strings so they could re-string their own instruments when they got back home.

When we visited Nashville, our band and choir kids were scheduled to go see a musical, and my kids were totally not enthused about that (they don’t like sitting still). So, I reached out to my dear friend Steve Krenz who teaches guitar at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, and he arranged to take us all to Gruhn Guitar and to meet George Gruhn. I have never seen a group of students so enrapt as when George talked with them for almost two hours and told them about his life collecting and selling guitars (they can sit still if guitars are involved). One of my former students who had been part of The Ceramic Dalmatians and was by then studying guitar at Middle Tennessee State University, came to meet us there and he spent the next two years working with Steve and George at Gruhn Guitars!

This year, realizing kids love guitar stores, I reached out to my friends at Atomic Music in  Beltsville, MD, and asked if they could maybe open their store a couple of hours early just so my students could try some guitars. At first, I thought they would think it was a crazy idea, but Matt, one of the floor managers at Atomic, approached owners Luis and Eric with my idea, and they loved it. We set a date and they arranged to open the store at 10am rather than 12pm, for a private two hours for River Hill guitar students, and they had plenty of staff on hand to help the kids with any equipment they would want to try. Atomic Music is a guitarist’s dream come true. It is a store that specializes in new, used, and vintage equipment, and on any day, you will find the store full of the joyful noise of guitarists trying out guitars, pedals, amps, keyboards, drums, etc. We showed up at 10:00 am, and by 10:05 am the kids were jamming and trying out lots of exciting instruments and gear. The staff (including a former River Hill student who went on the Myrtle Beach trip and one of our Martin trips) were incredibly gracious and ran around like crazy for those two hours helping my students. By the time we left, several students had secured themselves a good deal on new-to-them guitars, and Matt and the owners Luis and Eric had given out Atomic Music t-shirts, stickers, and guitar straps to the kids, because the experience had been so amazing for everyone. When we got back to school, even the bus driver said, “We’re going back next year, right?” The good news for her is our trip to Atomic is going to be a yearly thing from now on, and I know several of my students have been back on their own dime to check out equipment and purchase gear – they know they’ll always be welcomed and treated well when they shop there.

Yes, I love field trips. My students love field trips. My students’ parents and caregivers love field trips. As I think back on the great memories of the years, I realize it’s so much more than the “best field trip ever” high-five at the end of the ride. It’s the connections, it’s the opportunities, it’s the chance to show students that learning music in school is so much more than playing a song on your guitar. Many of my former students earn their paycheck as professional players, but just as many work in the music industry in recording, in production, in retail, in management, in manufacturing…….In every field trip photo I look at today, taken as a brief moment on a fun day out, I see students for whom the experience changed their life, and when I think of starting doing the paperwork and the forms again, I just know it’s all so worth it.

Educator Richard McCready was the TI:ME Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year 2013

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