Making Your Horses Thirsty

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • August 30, 2018

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In my first year of teaching, the superintendent of schools told us the following: “You can lead a horse to water; you can’t make him drink. But you can put salt in his oats.” To be candid, the man was not a stellar administrator. But for some reason, for better or worse, this little tidbit has stuck with me for 30 years.

The sentiment of course was encouraging a desire within your students to “drink in” the content of what you’re teaching them daily. As music educators, it goes beyond what we’re teaching to developing “buy in” of the entirety of the program—the outside of the rehearsal hour aspects that include everything from extra practices, parades and contests on weekends, signing up for the spring tour, and fundraising to make it all happen. Often for your plans to succeed the buy in must extend to administrators, parents, and even the community at large.

Time to go to Costco for a BIG bag of salt.

Through years working in the performance travel and festival planning field, I’ve seen this become increasingly challenging for music educators as it relates to their tour plans—both in terms of recruiting sufficient participation to make a trip viable and in developing the actual content of the trip itself. This challenge appears to be hitting younger teachers the hardest, who struggle with the ability to assert their goals towards a generation of both students who are used to instant gratification and parents who are hyper-involved in decision making regarding their child.

The unfortunate result can be the abdication of the decision-making process to a popular vote by students and booster groups—the reasoning often being, “It’s their money, and they’re doing the fundraising. And if the trip isn’t fun they won’t go. We just have to perform somewhere. Plus, I just don’t have time for the argument.”

Valid points, but consider: absent any other reasons for consideration, their decisions will be made based upon what they know and understand. For the students, that will most likely be what they perceive as how many fun activities they get to do on the tour. For the adults, that will most likely be the perceived value of the tour—in other words, how much do the students get to do for the money they’re spending to attend…and sometimes more directly, which option has the least cost. Based on this logic then, decisions surrounding an event that could have enormous impact for your program are being relinquished to factors based on fun and cheap.

Let that sink in. So, what to do to chart a better course? Seek the unique. You can perform for free in a mall or lobby close to home, so why travel hundreds of miles to do the same? Instead pursue musically-focused activities that are going to be unique and meaningful, because those are the types of experiences that will go beyond being an “excuse” to call it a music tour to something truly memorable and beneficial—which in turn gives you a way to boost the enticement of the tour. It can be an exceptional concert hall or simply a venue nicer than the gym floor back home, it can be a clinic with a conductor from an unfamiliar university or a well-known name in music education, it can be a talk back session with an unknown swing from a Broadway show or a Tony-award winner…the point is any of these things, while adding cost to your tour, are also adding a value to your program and the experience you bring into the lives of your students.

Educate and inspire. That all being said, the next step is to make sure you communicate to everyone—students, parents, and administration—the significance of this unique aspect you have included in the itinerary. Being musicians, the “who/what/where” of our “world” is second nature to us, but it’s usually not to our constituents who don’t live and breathe this stuff. Let them know what is significant about where you’re going to perform, or the clinician that is going to spend time with the group, or the conductor and ensemble you’re going to witness at the concert, and why it’s worth the extra investment.

Paint the picture of your vision, then…Show the results. Successful programs that use these types of activities to provide growth opportunities for their young musicians can be cited as examples. Outline how programs in your area—or programs similar to yours in terms of size, ability, and demographic—have grown and benefitted from participating in these types of musical opportunities while touring. A caveat: this is where well-meaning parents or administrators who do their own research (thank you, internet) may present the option they believe looks better in their view. Here is where you need to be prepared regarding which experiences produce real results, and which are just “good marketing” with gimmicks and incentives. Therefore…

Get help with the “sell.” Your travel planner, the organizer of the event you’re considering, and especially fellow directors who have done these types of events (and know firsthand genuine vs. gimmicks) can be tremendous advocates for your plan. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them to take advantage of their expertise in the field and “been there, done that” perspective.

They can provide that dash of “salt” that will guide your group to drink from the right pond.

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.

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