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UpFront Q&A: Andrew Yaracs

Eliahu Sussman • Travel/Festivals • June 17, 2014

A conversation with the author of Travel 101: A band director’s guide for planning student travel

Andrew Yaracs recently retired after a 39-year career as a music educator, band director, percussion arranger, and music instructor. During a prolific 15-year stint running the Butler Senior High School Golden Tornado Marching Band in Butler, Pennsylvania between 1997 and 2012, Yaracs boosted the ensemble and program into the national spotlight, in large part due to his determination that he would take the entire 350-member band on a trip every year. Alternating between major excursions and more economical ones, the Golden Tornado Marching Band represented the town of Butler, the high school, and their community at such notable events as the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade (in 2000 and 2007), the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (in 1997 and 2002), and the Fort McDowell Fiesta Bowl Parade in Phoenix, Arizona (in 2004 and 2010), among others.

Yaracs cites the genesis of this ambitious travel schedule as his time performing with and then managing a drum corps. “That experience of getting out there, performing in different venues and meeting new people taught me a lot about life and growing up,” he says. “That was something that I always felt was a great incentive. I marched and graduated from the high school that I later taught at. When I was in the band in late ‘60s, we only had 90 members in the band and all we did was go to football games and one or two local parades. I had always hoped that someday I would become a band director and thought that if I did, I would do something for those kids.”

Drawing upon his vast and varied experiences on the road, Andrew Yaracs recently published Travel 101: A Band Director’s Guide for Planning Student Travel, a book chock full of anecdotes, sample forms and checklists, and advice and best practices. In this conversation with SBO, Yaracs speaks about his philosophy regarding band travel, fundraising, and some tips and tricks for having a successful and rewarding experience.

 

SBO: Of all of the trips you took with your high school band, which ones really stand out?

Andrew Yaracs: The Pasadena Tournament of Roses parades are a pinnacle kind of parade. I always tell my students it’s the same in my eyes as when a football team reaches the Super Bowl. In 2000, we were featured in a documentary about our trip to  Pasadena  – how we raised over half a million dollars and how we got there. In fact, we were the first high school band to charter a 747, with over 400 people on board, as our band was very large – over 350 students. We also had a corporate sponsorship with the H.J. Heinz Company that year.

After we did that trip, our superintendent started getting letters from people all around the globe who had seen our band perform, and we got invitations to perform in Australia, Ireland, England, the Vatican, and so on. That exposure for the band, the music program, and the school was phenomenal.

We’re just north of Pittsburgh. My band had everything from kids who couldn’t rub two nickels together to parents who could just write a check for a trip. We traveled yearly, so I tried to be careful about alternating more expensive trips with trips that were more economical.

 

SBO: Why were you so intent on the Butler Band becoming a travel program?

Yaracs’ Butler HS Band at the 2007 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

AY: I have a background in drum corps and DCI, where I marched and then managed a corps, and I did a lot of touring and traveling with that corps in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. That experience of getting out there, performing in different venues, and meeting new people taught me a lot about life and growing up. That was something that I always felt was a great incentive. I marched and graduated from the high school that I later taught at. When I was in the band in late ‘60s, we only had 90 members in the band and all we did was go to football games and one or two local parades. I had always hoped that someday I would become a band director and thought that if I did, I would do something for those kids. You’re going to play at those football games on Friday nights no matter what your program is like, but you don’t get to the Tournament of Roses unless you have a high quality band. So for my students, it was an incentive and something they could work towards and build pride around.

In 1994, I was the music department chair and we used to have two marching bands, one for ninth and tenth graders and a second for juniors and seniors. I spearheaded combining those and we set up a whole different program. In 1997 and ’98, when I became the director, I wrote it into the curriculum that the band was going to be a travel program. Students had to audition to participate, and they understood when they auditioned and were accepted that there were some commitments around the group’s travel goals. The band was close to 350, and we maintained those numbers.

Whether we like it or not, a strong marching band is one of the few groups in a school that people in the community will see. The perception of the music program is magnified, and people will think more highly of your department, school, and community, when your marching band is out there in the public eye. It was a good public relations vehicle for our music department, school district, and community.

 

SBO: The flipside of that is the significant cost involved. I imagine many directors would look at what you did and think it was just impossible. What was your strategy around fundraising and managing cost?

AY: We had a phenomenal booster organization that was great at helping with fundraising events. Aside from the typical product sales that people do, we have done all kinds of other things.

One year we raised $55,000 profit from a local car dealer (Mike Kelly – he’s actually a congressman in Washington D.C. now). He is a graduate of our high school and still owns the dealership in our town, and when we were going to the second Tournament of Roses parade, he donated a Chevy HHR Steelers edition, which we then raffled off.

One of the things we have done annually is what we call a gasoline raffle, where basically we sell a raffle ticket for five dollars that gives people three chances to win a gasoline gift card. We had several prizes, one for $1,000, two others for $500, and because of the increasing cost of gasoline, those things sold like hotcakes.

 

SBO: You had also mentioned corporate sponsorship?

Andrew M. Yaracs

AY:  In 2000, we were sponsored by the H.J. Heinz corporation here in Pittsburgh, and they contributed to the tune of $80,000 to our fundraising. We also had 160 business make donations to our cause, as well as individuals. One person in our community, a philanthropist, wrote us a check for $10,000. Like I said, we raised over half a million dollars. In addition to our typical fundraising, we sent out promotional letters to businesses in our community. We started with a database, looking at the businesses where the parents of the kids in the band worked. We had a corporate committee, and we sent letters out asking for anything from a dollar to whatever they wanted to contribute. Even the smaller companies, most of them gave us $100 to $250. We got several donations for $5,000, $10,000, and $15,000. We raised more than $100,000 through those donations, in addition to what Heinz gave us. For each of the major trips – the Pasadena trips and the Fiesta Bowls – in addition to our typical fundraising, we had corporate sponsorships. And again, we spread those major trips out over a number of years. Pasadena was 2000 and 2007, so there was a seven-year difference.

We didn’t hit up our communities every year. On the years when we planned smaller trips, we didn’t even talk to the businesses. Still, I always made sure that we were the subject of news clips and so on, because I really believe that public relations for your program is important – if you don’t promote, there isn’t anyone else who is going to. So every year, whether the trip was small or big, I’d always send press releases to the local TV and radio stations. Many of them would come up yearly and do a little blurb on the kids – get footage of them rehearsing and practicing. Several of them sent crews out to film us when we traveled on the major events.

 

SBO: That probably helped with fundraising, too, when sponsors or contributors could say that they were a part of something that was generating that sort of excitement in the community.

AY:  Absolutely. Also, one of the things I prided myself on was that I never had a major problem with the kids when we traveled. If we had had a discipline or safety issue, I would have stopped traveling immediately. But I think a lot of that was due to how we prepped and planned, and the supervision that my chaperone team and I provided.

The Butler Band marches at the 2002 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

In today’s world, if I were asked to rate the things that I think are most important for band directors to think about when planning a trip, if you’re taking a group of kids anywhere, you better understand safety and security. That starts with transportation – making sure that you’re dealing with established companies who have  good safety and maintenance records, whether you’re flying or taking busses.

When I first started traveling, I went online and researched who had gone to the Macy’s parade and the other places we were interested in going, and then I called those directors up. Almost every time, they were gracious and would tell me, “Here’s something you need to know about this event,” or, “Here’s who you need to work with,” or, “This is what you need to do.”

After I started getting out there and people started recognizing my band, it was nice because I was able to return the favor, and young band directors would call me all the time. . There are so many little things that can make a world of difference. For example, we always had at least four registered nurses on every trip, and I can’t stress enough how important that is. We carried 17 two-way radios, and every chaperone was a part of a cell phone chain, so we had communication pretty well figured out.

 

SBO: What would your advice be for someone who is reading this and maybe thinking that it might be unrealistic to gather that much infrastructure and support, at least the first time around?

AY:  It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling with 50 kids in the band or 100 kids or more: you’re going to have the same bases you have to cover. Let’s say you have an 80-piece marching band with no assistants and you want to travel. My number one recommendation would be to get a few more teachers or administrators from the school district to go with you, in addition to chaperones. The ratio that I like is usually around one chaperone to every 15 students, which is fairly standard. Whether you’re doing it on the scale like I did, where we actually had to buy out restaurants for three hours at a time, or whether it’s 80 kids, the concerns are pretty similar.

My book has a checklist for getting started from square one, beginning with the question of whether or not you should travel in the first place. What’s your objective? It’s going to be different for everyone. It could be that you’re just going overnight to a competition or maybe it’s more of a reward to go travel and see some sights. Or maybe it’s do to a seminar. Those objectives need to be defined before you can start the planning process.

I was fortunate that I had great backing from my administration and community, but I think we built a lot of that support through the pride in the program and through getting the word out. You have to promote it. You have to give kids a reason to belong to something. If all a group is doing is marching at the football games and in a local parade, there isn’t that much incentive for the seniors to stick around after they have been doing it for several years. By keeping the kids interested, that also helped my symphonic band, the jazz band, and all of the other groups. They were the same kids; because of the travel opportunities and the pride we built into the program, they wanted to stick with it all four years.

 

Learn more about Travel 101: A band directors guide to travel here.

 

 

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