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Music, Majesty, and More

Thomas Palmatier • October 2022Travel/Festivals • October 13, 2022

For 26 years, the Virginia International Arts Festival has brought a star-studded cast of musical performers to the Hampton Roads area each spring. From its inception, the signature event of the arts festival has been the Virginia International Tattoo. For those who may be wondering why they have a festival for body art, it’s not that kind of tattoo. The term dates from around 1600 during the Thirty Years’ War in Belgium and The Netherlands. Drummers from the garrison were sent out into the towns each evening to inform the soldiers that it was time to return to barracks. The process was known as doe den tap toe (Dutch for “turn off the tap”), an instruction to innkeepers to stop serving beer and send the soldiers home for the night. The drummers continued to play until the curfew. Tattoo, earlier spelled tap-too then taptoo, are alterations of the Dutch words tap toe, which have the same meaning. Over the years the process became more of a show. Bands and displays were included, and shows were often conducted by floodlight or searchlight. Tattoos were commonplace in the late 19th century, with most military and garrison towns putting on a show or entertainment during the summer months. Today, the most famous of these is the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo but the Virginia International Tattoo is known as one of the finest in the world.

To preserve “journalistic integrity,” I must disclose my connection with the Virginia International Tattoo. In the 1990’s I was commander of the TRADOC Band, and we staged a military tattoo at historic Fort Monroe. After the performance, Robert Cross, percussionist with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and soon-to-be founder of the Virginia Arts Festival, told me they were thinking of putting on a tattoo and asked if I would help. I became music director of the tattoo for its first six years, and they still use some of my music arrangements.

The tattoo has grown tremendously in size and quality over the years. In 2023 it will feature groups from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, and Singapore in addition to many wonderful groups from the United States. A cast of over 1,000 and the incredible sound of massed bands and pipes and drums is guaranteed to bring chills to any listener.

Over the past quarter century, the Virginia Arts Festival has been a “must experience” for music educators and their students. From its beginning the tattoo has hosted a full house of public-school students for a rockin’ dress rehearsal.

Since its inception, the tattoo has occurred at the same time as a NATO festival hosted by the Supreme Allied Command, Atlantic, the only NATO command based in North America. Each year one or more bands or other groups perform in the tattoo from NATO countries. The festival has always included a spectacular Parade of Nations and it only seemed natural for local and visiting school bands to be part of this majestic international event.

Not only do visiting groups march in the parade, but they also can perform in a concert festival in prestigious Chrysler Hall where awards are given to the best of the best.

For unrivaled pageantry, unforgettable performance opportunities, and a musical experience like no other, make the Virginia International Tattoo one of your “bucket list” school travel destinations.

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