Make the Most of Your In-Service Conference!

Mike Lawson • Choral • April 10, 2019

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It’s exciting, it’s a break from the everyday routine, it’s a chance to see old friends and make new ones. . . it’s the state Music Educators Annual In-Service Conference.

This is the place where the collective wisdom and experience of the entire music education community is shared. However, it should be emphasized that the annual conference is just part of the year-round value of a Music Educators Association. Other offerings throughout the year compose the full value. But for this conference to reach its full value and potential for you, your music program, and also satisfy your school and school system takes some work and effort before you even pack your bags.

“I think that the information you bring back to your classroom is invaluable!” noted a 22-year veteran middle school orchestra teacher when asked about her attendance at every state conference over her entire career. This teacher is one of three orchestra teachers at a middle school that boasts nearly 500 orchestra students! Your first challenge is to convince your principal and school administration to approve your conference attendance, as well as the time away from the school classroom and funding. Rather than being an obstacle, this is your first opportunity for development of a plan for your conference participation. If your MEA gathering is anything like the recent Georgia Music Educators Association (GMEA) In-Service Conference held in Athens, Georgia, there will be numerous competing opportunities for you to spend your time. The Georgia conference included more than 125 exhibitors, 158 breakout sessions which were held across 12 time periods, numerous concert performances at four different locations and the general sessions. And, of course, there are certain people to be “sure and meet!”

How do you pick your way through this maze of opportunities to maximize the use of your time and energy as well as your school’s investment? What is important to you? What is most important to your school, your system and the community?

Some clues on how to approach and prepare for a conference attendance were well presented at one of the last breakout sessions at GMEA. Gary Gribble, a retired high school band director after 31 years, focused on how to deal with the content of specific sessions or workshops. His overall structured approach of building on both program and individual goals would make a great preconference preparation session as well.

First off, why are you attending the conference? Who else is with you from your school, your system or your community? What is your position and responsibility back home? What are your music program’s goals, long and short-term plans? What is your budget? What are the realistic capabilities of your students, their parents and the community?

Even more important is where you are in the life of music education. A student hoping and planning to become a music educator, or a relatively new teacher/director would have different needs from their conference attendance than a seasoned veteran with decades of experience and a large staff working in a long and well-established program.

Exactly what does a typical MEA Conference offer each year? One component at most MEA conferences is the exhibit hall. Exhibitors at GMEA included college and university programs, tour companies that specialize in groups, music camps, books and music publishers/distributors, fundraising consultants, performance event producers, instrument manufacturers and distributors, uniform and equipment providers, software, photographers, and even local or nearby tourist opportunities hoping that you and your school group will stop by. With this many vendors and limited hours of exhibit time, much of that time at the cost of a session, concert or meal missed, how do you visit every exhibitor of interest?

The GMEA 2019 Conference offered 158 breakout presentations distributed across 12 categories of topics, intended audience and 12 break-out session periods of one hour each. These categories included the level of school (elementary, middle, high), type of group (band, orchestra, choral), technology, research and a few others. There were multiple offerings in many of these categories in almost every session forcing yet other decisions. Some MEAs provide “tracks” with a suggested curriculum for certain audiences. Professional Development Conference was held early in January and offered almost 250 clinic sessions and concerts. Titled “Celebrating Music Excellence: Past, Present and Future,” it was well attended by both teachers and students. A survey of a few different state MEA conferences notes that some conferences bring together the All-State honors group concerts with the conference while others select only established and ongoing individual school and community groups to perform in concert. Florida is one of the states that combines the All-State recognition group concert performances with the professional conference.

The school music group concert performances during these conferences serve a number of purposes. A superficial view of these performances might see them as only entertainment. To the performing musicians/band members these concerts are both a reward and part of their continuing quest for excellence. To their director and teaching staff it is establishing and maintaining an expected level of performing competence among their students.

To the observing teachers, directors, staff and band members from other schools with similarities it helps focus on what can be accomplished with the resources generally available in their typical environment. These concerts are also a means for the music program at the performing school and district to “give back” to the larger music education community!

The Georgia MEA Conference band, orchestra and ensemble concert performances take place in four different locations. Performances in the lobby area of the main conference center included smaller ensembles and choral groups. A dozen such performances took place over the three days of the conference. Other facilities including a full theatre and large meeting rooms hosted fourteen concerts, primarily of the larger performing groups.

Most choral groups performed in a nearby church and included groups from two elementary schools as well as a community men’s choir, the Orpheus Men’s Ensemble from Atlanta. The Suwanee (Elementary) Singers focus on showcasing their talent as one of four choir ensembles at that school. The Cheatham Hill Elementary Chorus and Recorder Ensemble also performed. Both of these groups meet and rehearse outside the regular class room schedule. The Orpheus ensemble is made up of music educators and church musicians and they rotate directing, singing and other roles within the group.

Why plan? The GMEA conference program booklet provided 90 pages of information about the exhibits, presentations and concerts. It is simply impossible to make intelligent decisions after you arrive and first receive your conference information packet. Regardless of the size or purpose of the conference that you plan to attend, have a plan before you arrive! Start planning early – both the GMEA exhibitor and presentation lists are usually ready and posted online more than six months ahead of the actual conference.

Are you attending solo or will you have others from your school or district attending also? That would allow a team approach to both planning and actual coverage of the conference offerings. Are any of your students attending the conference other than to perform and immediately leave? This would provide the opportunity to challenge them to plan their conference time to maximize what they gain from the conference, as well. Prioritize the sessions and exhibits on your plan in case something changes.

Identify those items that could be missed if other, better opportunities become available. Arrive at the conference site early and upon arrival familiarize yourself with all the conference locations so you don’t get lost and miss, or are late for, a session presentation. Identify the tools that are available and how to best use them. Many conferences now offer apps that provide instant current information as well as directions. GMEA offers an interactive tradeshow online application ( which provides some assistance in planning an attendee’s time with the tradeshow exhibitors.

It provides a floorplan with booth numbers and a search function. Exhibitors can be located by their primary business such as college, tour, fund-raising etc. Perhaps the only shortcoming of this search function is that exhibitors of interest are listed alphabetically with no apparent booth location option. It’d be great if the app user could get the group in booth number sequence to facilitate an efficient route through the exhibit hall.

Florida MEA has implemented a mobile app that provides significant planning functions to the user. An overview of this app is provided on the FMEA website This app provides the user with the capability to browse, bookmark, and even add events to their personal calendar! Planning is a reiterative process. Your conference plan, like all plans, should be continually reviewed and possibly shared with co-workers and staff for their critical input. With all of your planning completed before you even arrive, you can then relax, enjoy yourself and truly maximize your time and your school’s investment of time and funds!

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