Because of a Band Trip

My whole life started because of a band trip.

OK, wait...that sounds worse than it is. What I mean is that so many of the incredible things that have become my life started because of a band trip. So many other incredible things that have become my life happened because of a band camp just a year earlier--but that's another story for another time. However, that one formative year set the course for pretty much everything that's happened since.

It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and our marching band had been invited to represent the state of Iowa in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C. I was drum major, and more important than leading the band down Pennsylvania Avenue in one of the most memorable experiences of my life would be the leadership experience the role would bring. That spring not only included a high level of performance preparation...with the pressure of knowing that our band was now on a national stage...but also the added layer of activity that accompanies a large venture like this.

Countless fundraisers. Intense teamwork. Lots of public events to generate support. And being drum major, I was often tapped as a representative face of the band...attending everything from Kiwanis breakfasts and Masonic Temple meetings to a ceremony with the Governor. I was the face of the band in other ways too...

That's me on the right. Note the look of uncontrollable teenage euphoria.

But the side benefit of all this was it helped my introverted self develop the key life skill of confidence in public speaking and presentations in front of an audience of strangers, something that in retrospect has contributed to not only professional success...but some fun opportunities. It is a skill that has served me well.

The trip itself was eye-opening of course. Up to that point, aside from a single family trip to Orlando, the boundaries of my travels had been Mt. Rushmore, Duluth, St. Louis and the Wisconsin Dells. This would be the largest and most diverse place I'd ever been, and I would see more of the country than I'd ever seen before. When we finally reached the Capitol, seeing all these sites that up to that point had been images in history books, movies, and the nightly news would whet an appetite for a bigger world.

Where did it go from there?

Because of a band trip, I eventually went into music education. I took my own groups on trips and broadened their circle of experiences in the same way. Eventually that led to a career as a performance travel planner, creating experiences for thousands more students.

Because of a band trip, I've been to the Rose Parade and the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. I've met an Oscar winner and a Disney legend. I've seen landmarks from the Grand Canyon to the Big Apple. I've been on stage in some of the great concert halls of the world. And I've seen miracles happen when communities come together to reach a goal.

Because of a band trip, I can navigate cities far removed from my rural Iowa roots. I've come to understand other cultures rather than fear them. I've learned to accept other lifestyles and respect other beliefs and opinions rather than reject them. And I've met countless people who have touched my life in amazing ways.

Because of a band trip, I went to grad school. I kept learning and growing as a musician, and met incredibly talented people who became dear friends and colleagues. Because I went to grad school, I met my wife...and we have two outstanding, clever, fun and loving boys.

So, here's the thing. What if for me that band trip never happened?

That's the unfortunate reality for many students today. Finances and circumstances too many times don't allow for individuals, and often times entire groups, to have the kind of experiences that can be so formative. How many life trajectories could be changed for good if the resources were there?

This is why the SYTA Youth Foundation exists.

The philanthropic sister organization to the Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA), the purpose of the SYTA Youth Foundation is to create ongoing awareness and assistance programs for the direct benefit of deserving youth who may not otherwise have these sort of opportunities. Their mantra: "Travel Changes Young Lives For Good."

Their various programs provide scholarships and grants that make it possible for these students to have the same kind of life changing experiences I had. My family and community were able to financially support this endeavor, and I was very fortunate in that regard. Thanks to SYF and their programs such as Silver Lining, Next Generation, the Ripley Hunter "World is a Classroom" Essay Contest and the Road Scholarship, the financial gap has been filled over the years for hundreds of youth who have been able to expand their horizons and have their lives changed for good. And yet, SYF has only been able to award approximately 12% of the requests they receive.

This is where we all come in as a community. At the recent SYTA conference in Orlando, my colleagues and I were honored to present a donation to the SYTA Youth Foundation on behalf of Festivals of Music, our sister organization Music In The Parks, and the Wells Foundation. This is one way we are proud to give back in gratitude of the success we have had within the performance travel industry.

As you can see from my face, this was much more enjoyable to pose with than a trash bag.

But more help is needed. If you can appreciate the difference that travel can make to a young person, the way it can open eyes and minds and futures undreamed of, we urge you to make a donation of any size to this worthwhile cause. Every dollar counts and helps a deserving student get one step further on a thousand mile journey.

I cannot even imagine the course my life would have taken had these experiences not been a part of my youth. How so many things would be different than the life I enjoy today.

Please support the SYTA Youth Foundation. Because a band trip can go much further than the bus will carry you.

How Band Geeks Vacation

Yes, the blog has been on a bit of a vacation. More like a hiatus. Perhaps sabbatical would be a better word.

In short, the busy festival season started, and unfortunately this fell by the wayside. Which I hate, because I love writing. But I wanted to give my full attention to the season, which was full of great successes, wonderful performances by our participating ensembles and a few lessons learned and ideas sprung that we are already implementing for the next season to continue improving what we do. More on that later.

For now, it's been summer and that means time for a well-earned breather.

We decided to take a week-long road trip to Washington, D.C. from Chicago. Our sons are in their early teens, so we thought they had reached that age where hiking around museums and monuments all day would be tolerable, and they might find some lasting meaning in the history immersion.

What we didn't take into account was immersion into heat and humidity both in the mid-90's all week. But we reminded them that hiking at Boy Scout camp was worse (OK...a lie...) and pressed onward. In the end, it proved to be a memorable and even educational week for them.

As I was looking over the photos I had taken, however, I did begin to see a trend. First, at the Smithsonian American History Museum where we found:




President Bill Clinton's tenor saxophone...




Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, Herbie Hancock's keyboard, and a painting of Ella Fitzgerald by Tony Bennett




....and a display of Marine Band memorabilia.

Then there was Tuesday night, which we spent outdoors...after being in the heat all day...on the west steps of the Capitol Building in the sun...for a concert by the United States Air Force Band.




Beautiful setting though. And a program of repertoire that made the continued profuse sweating totally worth it.

The next evening we were wrapping up a long day of monument visits, and happened by the Capitol where the United States Marine Band was setting up for a concert. My wife and I looked at each other...paused...looked at our teenage sons, whose eyes and body language clearly screamed, "we need pizza and a shower...NOW", and thought better of it.

And on our final day on the way home at the Gettysburg Battlefield, where in that museum we found a display of Civil War era instruments:




And, not to be outdone, a group in Civil War era uniforms playing them outside:




That's when it hit me. This is how band geeks vacation.

Not that it's a bad thing. In fact, what it did was serve as a great reminder to just how much music has permeated our history and our culture. How important it has been in good times and bad. You realize that when you see these lovingly preserved instruments displayed next to the muskets and cannonballs that were also a part of those three tumultuous days at Gettysburg, and when you hear one of the reenacting musicians describe to the audience that this is how the soldiers would regain and retain calm on the battlefield. 

It makes you want to fight to preserve it more, whether it be threatened by a budget cutting school board or congressperson. You realize how meaningful it is in your life.

One more photo...this one being the end of a 23-year quest, that ironically was completed by a 10-minute morning walk from our hotel.


In 1993, when I took the high school band I was teaching in Iowa to Washington, D.C. one of the things I asked the bus drivers to do on the way to the Friday Night Parade at Marine Barracks was to swing by this small, unassuming row house located about two blocks away from the parade grounds. This was an important location to American music and band history, and I wanted these kids from small town Iowa to see what great things can come from humble beginnings. One of our buses made it down this small street; mine got lost and I never got to see it. Until last week.

It was in this small house in 1854 that a military bandsman, a trombonist named Antonio Sousa stationed just two blocks away at Marine Barracks, and his wife welcomed into their family a son...John Philip.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


In Memoriam: Jean-Baptiste Lully (Or, Don't Let the Job Kill You)


Last week was the anniversary of the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who died in 1687. A French composer of the Baroque Period, he was also one of the world's first conductors. And the job killed him.

No, seriously. Here's how it happened, and immediately qualified him for music history's first and, still probably best, Darwin Award.

He was conducting a performance of his Te Deum at a celebration of Louis XIV's recovery from surgery (irony alert). In those days, a conductor's baton was actually a long staff--somewhat similar to a mace like you would see a ceremonial drum major carry today in a military band. They kept time by banging the pointed end of the staff on the stage floor, which ultimately led to the creation of Dr. Beat...but that's another tragic story.

In his excitement, at one point Lully missed the stage and instead struck his toe. The wound developed gangrene, but Lully refused to have his leg amputated because he still wanted to be able to enjoy dancing. He died of blood poisoning in two months.



Fortunately, thanks to new advancements in modern baton technology, this is less of a problem.

We're about to dive into a time of year that, in all seriousness, can be hazardous to our health as music educators, festival organizers and travel planners. It is perhaps our busiest and most stressful time of year, and I have experienced it in all three of those vocations.

For music educators, we are simultaneously managing such things as solo and small ensemble contest, production of spring musicals, preparing for spring large ensemble festival and final concerts, submitting ever-shrinking budgets for the following school year, fighting over the calendar for the same coming school year, coordination of music for numerous end of year celebrations, possibly embarking on a spring tour, researching summer music camp options for our most dedicated students, hiring summer band camp staff, and finalizing and promoting multiple fundraising efforts to even be able to afford it all.

For travel planners, this is the point where everything you have been working on for the past 12 months or more comes to fruition in the span of three months of long days and short, sometimes worry-filled nights. Will a bus break down in the middle of Nebraska? Will that blizzard hit Denver and shut down the airport at the same time six groups are trying to fly to both coasts? Will that hotel forget about the 200-member group arriving tomorrow?

The festival organizer has similar worries. Will an adjudicator get the flu the night before the contest? Will the trophies arrive at the right place? I'm finding this is where the internal conversation of "festival organizer OCD" kicks into high gear. ("Did you order those four timpani to be delivered? Better check. Are you sure? Better check again.")

Behind all of this is one simple truth--we are this way because we want these experiences to be the best possible. We're all artists and we're wired for nothing less than excellence. If there is anything I've finally learned after 25 years experiencing the spring rush in these vocations, it comes down to two things.

First--be kind to yourself.

  • Take breaks--mental and physical--when you can. Preferably away from a computer screen.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help.
  • Eat well, even (and especially) when you're on the road. I force myself to order salad more when I'm away from home.
  • Sleep well, or at least as best as you can. I've started using a sleep mask, and besides feeding my inner super hero it works wonders.
  • Exercise. This in my opinion is the world's best stress buster. We have a treadmill here that just recently broke down after 12 years of almost daily use. (Yeah, bad timing on that.) It has probably saved me more than I know.
  • Find a fun stress buster. One year during a particularly rough spring I got really good at Tiger Woods Golf on our Nintendo Wii. (Sadly the skill does not transfer into reality.)
  • Finally, when you mess up (and you will), simply this--take responsibility and own the problem. People will respect you infinitely more, and hiding it and being found out makes you feel infinitely worse. Then whenever possible fix the problem, because nothing feels better than that. Then move on.

Second--be kind to those around you.

  • Remember you're working together toward the same goals.
  • Remember to take care of each other.
  • Say "please" and "thank you". A lot.
  • A fun little surprise will make you both feel better.
  • Find the humor in the everyday. Laugh about the ridiculous things that happen. Because they do.
  • Finally, when someone else messes up (and they will), simply this--don't waste time playing the blame game. Focus on solving the problem. Give kindness and service, because nothing feels better than that. Figure out how to make it better the next time.Then move on. 
And, hopefully unlike Lully, you'll live to dance another day.


Prevent a Blizzard of Worries: Have a Travel Planner

As I write this, Winter Storm Jonas is bearing down on the east coast, bringing with it advisories ranging anywhere from "blowing and drifting" to "repent your sins." And as I sit here and contemplate, two things consistently go through my mind:

  • We're really naming these after boy bands now?
  • Thank goodness this isn't tour season.

Even though I don't plan group travel anymore, I have a lot of longtime friends and colleagues who do...and I feel their pain. When the weather wreaks havoc like it is this weekend, it can be an extremely stressful time for even the most seasoned travel experts. I remember many times in December or March or April, being glued to The Weather Channel, watching radar reports and looking at my list of what groups were where and when. It didn't even have to be bad where they were going, or where they were leaving. A shut down of a major hub like Denver or Chicago-O'Hare could put a full stop to plans simply by the ripple effect it creates.

Travel planning is not for the faint of heart.

I was extremely fortunate...meaning, I was extremely lucky. I only had a handful of groups that were adversely affected by travel weather conditions over a twelve year period. One of those was a group that couldn't return to Colorado because of a blizzard there, and were forced to spend another day at their destination.


Yeah, probably shouldn't include them on the "adversely affected" list.

I was also fortunate in that, even though I was the travel planner, I had a support team of people in my organization who were true experts when it came to working with the airlines and navigating the waters when weather created challenges. It is not a job that I would have wanted to take on.

Unfortunately, in a lot of ways dealing with weather situations while traveling has become even more difficult in recent years.

  • Global warming arguments aside, weather events appear to be more extreme and at stranger times of the year.
  • The trend I have seen with airlines is that they are downsizing more aircraft, which means fewer seats. For large groups this means you are on more flights, creating more exposure to delay potentials due to weather.
  • The other trend I have seen is a tendency for airlines to preemptively cancel flights before weather sets in. This happened today with at least one airline cancelling most of their flights in the northeast.

Consider those last two points in particular. You have lots of cancelled flights, with far fewer available seats. And everybody wants them. While the circumstances may not change--your group is going to be stuck on the C Concourse for awhile--you have to ask yourself this question:

"Do I want to be the one trying to fix this?"

There are many groups that for varied reasons will make their own travel arrangements. They want full control of the plans, they're familiar with the destination, or--most likely based on what I've seen--they want to save cost by doing the work in house. And that might seem OK when things are going great.

Here's the thing: if you're in line at the ticket counter and Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel crew are walking past with microphones and cameras...things are not going great.

A travel professional working on your behalf is vital in conditions like this.

  • Because their relationship with the airlines involves not just your group, but spans multiple groups over several years of experience, they know how to best advocate for you. They can help you make the best of a bad situation.
  • Once you have the flight crisis solved, what's next? Do you need hotel rooms for an additional night? Do you need a bus to get there? Something to do the next day with a hundred bored teenagers who just wanted to go home? Or worse--thought they would be spending the day at Disney World and instead are devising ways to turn the baggage carousel into a thrill ride? They can solve multiple concerns for you.
  • Perhaps most important, and often overlooked. With them focusing on the travel issues, you can focus on the kids and make sure they're in good shape--keeping morale up against the disappointment of delay. They need reassurance from you that work is being done to get their adventure back on track as soon as possible. 

If you already work with a trusted travel planner, you know that these are the moments where they truly shine and their value is pure gold. If you don't--you have to ask yourself if whatever you saved was worth it at a time like this.

My advice? These people are professionals. Don't try this at home.

Getting the Most out of Your Festival Experience

NOTE: This story appeared in the November 2015 Choral Director Magazine and December 2015 School Band and Orchestra Director Magazine.


As soon as I saw my French horn section taking a nap outside the auditorium, I knew we were in trouble.


It had been three long days in the theme parks, including a parade performance that consumed much of an afternoon. Late nights taking in every last ride and fireworks finale was beginning to take its toll. And now on the day of our adjudicated performance that we had worked so hard to prepare musically, the energies were starting to fade.


Well, I thought. So Childrens March and Nimrod are going to go really well today.


Fortunately, the troops rallied. We somehow, somewhere, got a second wind, went onto stage and performed wonderfully….ending up receiving first place in our division. Deep down I knew we had dodged a bullet that could have shot down weeks of preparation and deflated the confidence of the students in the wind symphony. I had learned my lesson.


It's no surprise that bringing your ensemble to perform in a quality festival experience can be an educationally rewarding opportunity for musical growth. As a teacher, the ability to have your group perform and receive feedback from experts in the field helps them improve as musicians and helps you improve as a conductor--and usually reinforces the lessons you teach from the podium every day!


Along with the musical preparation necessary for success, an additional important ingredient to remember is to set a pace for the performance day that will allow your group to be at its best. This means not packing every moment of the day full of activities, but rather building a lighter and more flexible schedule into the day. And while it may run antithesis to common thought, you will likely find that it will make for a more optimal experience in the long run.


Conventional wisdom usually falls into one or more of the following camps:

  • A full schedule means less idle time for problems to arise

  • We've come all this way to "x" destination so we need to make the most of every minute to get our money's worth

  • I don't want the students complaining that they're bored

  • This may be the only time some of these students get to travel to "x" location, so we need to see everything and can't spare any down time

All valid reasoning, but consider the following as well: your musicians need to be in a condition (physically and mentally) to perform at their best to avoid all your preparation being for nothing. That means they need to have had adequate rest and arrive at the festival with sufficient time to warm up, tune, and otherwise prep for the performance.

 

I can't tell you how many times I've seen groups arrive at a festival (or clinic, or workshop, or rehearsal with a guest conductor) where the students are in a "fog" or even beginning to nod off because they have been running at such a breakneck pace since they arrived in the city and are exhausted from getting little sleep combined with being "on the go". This becomes magnified if your group is performing as part of a mass ensemble (such as a bowl game performance or collaborative choir) and affects the performance quality of fellow musicians who have also worked hard--and often paid a substantial amount--for this opportunity. Now your sluggish and seemingly unprepared or uncaring musicians are branded as "that ensemble" for the duration of the event. Not a fun place to be.

 

Add to that the effect of "sensory overload" present in some locations. Believe me, I love Times Square and theme parks as much as the next person....but the constant lights, sounds and crowds are cumulatively overwhelming. Throw into the mix doing this all while probably on a diet of more fast food, snacks and caffeinated sodas than usual....even for teens. This is where exhaustion can very quickly transform to sickness and take performers out of commission.

 

Then there are the cases of the groups who arrive for their event late due to unexpected traffic issues because they were squeezing in another attraction. Or had "that one student" who got stuck in the museum gift shop, or lost track of time, etc. The students leap off of the bus, hurriedly grab (or toss) instruments and concert wear out of the bus bays and go dashing to a warm up room while slapping a reed on a mouthpiece or organizing their music....all while harried chaperones and directors are prodding them to move quickly. Not exactly conducive to creating a memorable rendition of a lush, serene Grainger work.

 

Being a parent gives me a new perspective on this. You know those parents that you see at “X” theme park? The ones who look like they’re on their last nerve, about to fall over, with two kids under 10 in tow having the “meltdown to end all meltdowns” due to missed naptime because they didn’t want to sacrifice having a magical experience?


Yeah, this is you now. Except its performance time and you have to hit the stage, not take everyone for Dole Whips.


This was me. Frazzled. Don't be this guy.


While you can't control the atmosphere of the city, and try as you might you can't completely control when they actually go to sleep or what they're feeding themselves, you CAN control the itinerary to make certain that you're not setting the group up for failure. Just as much as you want to gain the most "value" of your sightseeing time, don't overlook getting the most value out of the cost of your festival experience.


Plus think of the ancillary advantages:

  • Having one or two fewer attractions might save you some overall cost.

  • One of the things that we know is always good for young musicians is to listen to other ensembles. Taking the time to sit in the audience to listen to other groups in the festival is a great and usually no-cost way to make this happen. (And, it teaches the importance of concert etiquette and being an appreciative supporter of fellow musicians.)

  • It's always possible that one of the other ensembles will perform a work your group is doing later in the year, or that you're planning to introduce next season. Who knows....you might even hear a new or unfamiliar work that will be perfect for your ensemble.

  • This will help you avoid having to deal with possible schedule conflicts. The reality of most festival situations is that for many and varied reasons performance schedules often can't be finalized until closer to the date, or may change at the last minute. We all know there are times when events unexpectedly run behind schedule. Setting up an admission activity for that day could lead to losing funds that were spent on tickets that will go unused....and the associated unnecessary stress.


Instead, plan flexible activities for the festival day that are not dependent on a particular time--exploring parts of the city in chaperone groups, seeing unique neighborhoods or parks or doing some souvenir shopping, for example. Or simply take the time to hear some of your fellow performing ensembles--they'll likely be grateful for having you in the audience, and maybe will return the favor and stay for your performance. What a tremendous way to build community.


Certainly you always want your musicians to have a fun and memorable experience. However, you also want them to take full advantage of these opportunities to have a performance that reflects the hours of preparation you've dedicated (and the true quality of your program) or to completely absorb the wisdom of a renowned clinician. A "less is more" approach will usually lead to a quality over quantity result...and allow you to keep the musical and educational focus that is critical to the success of your program always at the heart of what you do.


Part 2: It's Not Where....it's WHY. Performance Tour Philosophy.

In the previous post, we discussed two critical points related to performance tour philosophy--developing your overall goals and determining the scope of your experience. In this post, we'll address how depth of experience is more important than quantity.

 

Make It Meaningful

 

So often I see groups doing the same things in any given city, almost to the point of predictability. And while every city certainly has their must see items.so much of the itinerary content I see are attraction experiences that are no different than what a tourist walking up to the admission window will receive. (Much of this, sadly, has been driven by the bid process trend of school districtswhere multiple travel planners have to design a tour to the common denominator, and the low bid wins. A topic for another time.)

 

This could take many formsit might be a hands-on workshop at a museum, an extended behind the scenes clinic experience with a performance organization or show, a multi-day collaboration with a leading conductor, a walking tour that incorporates the history of the area, or even something as simple as having the budget to see both a Broadway show and a symphony concert (rather than only choosing one). The possibilities are as endless as your creativity and asking the question, what if?

 

For example: a good friend in the Los Angeles group travel industry has an incredible program where groups have a private screening of a movie in a historic theater, followed by a Q & A with a star from the film. Twice I've had groups who met an Oscar-winning actor from a legendary film (who brought his statue to show the students!). Yes, these experiences are often higher costbut they are also tremendously higher value, because they are not experiences they can have on a family vacation.

 

This ties into the redefinition of the "big" tour concept that was discussed in the first part of this series. Less resources towards distance traveled gives you more to work with once you're at the location.

 

The side bonus to this: content of this type will likely be easier to justify to administration and school boards, especially in this day and age of ever-increasing scrutiny of time away from school (and ever-prevalent testing). This type of experience places less emphasis on sightseeing and more on educational and musical value.which might help them see beyond the price tag.

 

Pack Light

 

This is not a reference to a suitcase, but rather to schedule.

 

As directors of music ensembles (and I was guilty of the same), we have a tendency of thought that reads fill every minute of the touridle time only means teens getting into trouble. The other reasoning is the concept of getting our moneys worth, meaning that weve come all this distance so we need to see and do as much as humanly possible from breakfast to bedtime.

 

Unfortunately, what we see so many times as a result of this are students too exhausted to appreciate where they are and what they are experiencing. Its a shame to see kids falling asleep in the middle of a Broadway show or a philharmonic concert.not only a waste of an expensive ticket, but more painfully a lost cultural opportunity. Even worse is seeing them sluggish during a clinic or rehearsal with a great conductor/educator, or during their performancetimes when we all want them at their very best. Pacing is everything.

 

Quite simply, its the old concept of quality vs. quantity. Do you look at the experience as a one-shot opportunity, or a way to whet the appetite of your musicians for future experiences?