The Intangible Benefits of the Awards Ceremony

Much has been said about the place of competitions as related to music ensembles and the perceived benefits or educational approach to such an event. Regardless of philosophical stance, an awards ceremony can be a fun and rewarding culminating event for a performance festival experience.

If you’ve been to a Festivals of Music awards ceremony, you already know that it is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of all of the participants and to say “thank you” to the directors and student performers for their hard work and dedication to pursuing excellence in music education. It is also our way of thanking the parents, administrators, and travel professionals for supporting the endeavors of these young musicians by providing the opportunity to participate in our programs. Our approach is much more focused on achievement set against a standard of performance quality, rather than “who scored higher than whom” and gets bragging rights.

One of our signature awards in fact has nothing to do with points on a judge’s sheet or even music notes on a page. The Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser Esprit de Corps Award is given to the group that exhibits the best example of camaraderie, support and enthusiasm for other groups, and positive representation of their school and community. It tends to be the award that generates the most excitement at our awards ceremonies, and is always presented last.

Aside from the ceremony itself, in recent years we have upgraded many of our awards ceremony sites to provide additional benefit by holding the event at locations unique to the host city that have historic or educational significance. This is coupled with added value of cost and time, given that the sites are typical “must see” places on most itineraries. For example:

  •  In Boston, our site celebrates a favorite son of the city and the 35th President of the United States. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum holds a tremendous collection of artifacts and tells the story of his life and presidency.
  •  In Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry has a wide range of exhibits that touches upon many areas of science, history, and culture. It is a popular location in a city with some of the best museums in the world.
  •  In New Orleans, in a nod to their role in the manufacture of D-Day landing craft and to hometown author Stephen Ambrose, the National World War II Museum both outlines the course of the war and pays touching tribute to the Greatest Generation who lived it.
  •  In New York, history and science combine in the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum. Housed on a decommissioned aircraft carrier, students can learn both the incredible history of the ship and see the wide ranging aircraft on display…from World War II and Vietnam era fighter craft to a Concorde SST airliner and beyond. There is extra “wow” factor this year as we’ll be holding the ceremony in the Space Shuttle Pavilion…literally handing out awards underneath the space shuttle Enterprise.
  • In Philadelphia, the birth of the United States is featured at the National Constitution Center. A highlight of the visit is a multimedia presentation titled Freedom Rising, telling the story of our Founding Fathers and quest to form “a more perfect union.”
  • Washington, D.C. is a city known for museums, and one of the newest is the Newseum. Dedicated to journalism and preservation of freedom of the press, the museum is a treasure trove of artifacts and stories that show how reporting the news has been key to knowing and understanding our history.

These cross-curricular opportunities can help directors more easily justify approval of their plans, combining their music events with experiences that touch on subjects of science, history, and civics…perhaps helping “keep the peace” with their fellow teachers whose students they are taking out of the classroom for a few days for a music-oriented tour.

This is one of many ways we seek to provide you more value and benefit as part of your Festivals of Music experience. Don’t miss out on these incredible locations!

The Best Laid Plans for your Festival Day

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.

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. 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 added to the festival day 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 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.

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.

First Year Music Teachers: The Adventure is Just Beginning

The 2016-17 school year is now or very soon will be underway. Our teenage sons are continually reminding us of this. And not in an enthusiastic way.

With the new year there will be a new wave of music educators, out of college and leaping into their first teaching job. And to any new teachers reading this we say, congratulations...welcome to one of the greatest and most important professions in the world. We've been where you are. Your adventure is only beginning.

Part of our mission here at Festivals of Music is to do all we can to provide helpful resources to teachers--whether new or experienced--in order to make the job somewhat easier and contribute to reversing the trend of shortened teaching lifespans among the music teacher population. Speaking for myself, burnout on the profession is something I know all too well.

Don't get me wrong--I'm very happy with my lives as a performance travel planner and now festival organizer. I've still considered myself an educator in these roles. But there are things I regret not having achieved or experienced during the time I was in the rehearsal room and concert hall.

Well, so far anyway...who knows what the future could bring. I could still be asked to conduct Lincolnshire Posy on a future Eastman Wind Ensemble concert. Admittedly, the only qualifier I have to that possibility is the fact that I'm still taking in oxygen. But there's always hope. 

Because being a resource for music educators is at the core of our philosophy, we have begun partnering with organizations such as the National Band Association to create online resources for music educators to assist not only musically, but with the day to day administrative tasks and challenges. These are the topics for which there is not as much collegiate training and is by nature "on the job" training. And, sadly, often the factors that lead to short tenures in the music education world.

We're tapping into a network of experienced teachers to bring together best practices on a number of topics, and you'll see more of that on our blog in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned.

To jump start that process--we wanted to present some of the blog posts from the past year that might be most helpful to young teachers that are just beginning on their journey. Or, for that matter, experienced teachers just needing to see things through new eyes.

Here they are, at the risk of producing the equivalent of our blog's first "clip show":

  • Upon reflection of 25 years in great professions that can still be stressful, here's some thoughts on self care so that you can make it for the long haul.
  • One of the best things you can do for yourself is recharge at music conferences. For band and orchestra directors, here's some of the great things experienced last year at the Midwest Clinic. Consider attending if you haven't--we would love to see you there.
  • If one of the "to-dos" on your list this year is to take your ensemble on tour, we hope you'll give some thought to why and how this can best benefit your group.
  • If you are going to plan to tour with your group, here's reasons to consider a professional travel provider.
  • If on that tour you are considering a festival performance (and we hope you are!), here are ten reasons it can be the best option for your group. And, here are suggestions on how to get the most out of the experience.

There's more to come, and we look forward to sharing the journey with you. Bon voyage!

Ten Reasons to Perform in a Festival While on Music Tour

We lived in the Boulder, Colorado, area for nearly 15 years. If you've ever been there, you know that it is a bit of an eclectic place. Legally now.

One of our favorite things to do was to go downtown to the Pearl Street Mall, an outdoor open air plaza that was usually filled with street performers demonstrating a wide variety of talents. Poets, singers, and activists. Sometimes musicians with guitars or other instruments, always with a case open for spare change. The one that always drew a crowd was "the ZIP Code Guy." This was a person who could tell you the city and state where you lived if you told him your ZIP Code. Freaky, yet entertaining.

I often felt badly for the truly talented ones--and there were several. Here they were, pouring heart and soul and emotion into their performance art...surrounded by shoppers hustling about, the occasional siren screaming by, small children noisily running past them, and any number of other distractions that merely made them part of the scenery.

As the economy slowed in 2008, one of the natural trends in performance travel was to work to keep costs managed to allow as many students to participate as was a wise move and likely helped preserve travel traditions in countless music departments. One of the ways this was done was to find locations where groups could perform for low to no cost, thus being able to maintain the premise of a music tour and satisfy administrations and school boards by having musical content...while saving money in the process.

Open air plazas, shopping centers, lobbies or entrance areas of attractions and even observation decks in skyscrapers became places where groups could perform for little or no cost (besides the price of admission). The unfortunate trade-off was in the quality of the performance setting, and the acceptance of "good enough" for the cost. These talented musicians became simply part of the scenery, and this became a new normal for music tours.

As the economy improves, perhaps now is the time to reconsider this approach. And while it will obviously appear self-serving to hear this coming from a festival the bigger picture should consideration be given to the impression that use of these free locations makes regarding the value placed on music education? Is it truly "good enough" for our young musicians?

Compared to a free performance at an open public venue, a festival offers much more:

  • You are performing in a venue meant for music performance, in a location of acoustic and aesthetic quality where your musicians will be able to sound their best and truly showcase their talents.

  • You are in an indoor venue and not at the mercy of weather conditions. Many free venues are outdoor locations.

  • Nearly all equipment needs—large percussion instruments, piano, choral risers, music stands, chairs and sound systems—are included in your festival cost and readily available for use, rather than being rented and carted to and from the site. A self-contained performance location greatly simplifies your planning and allows you to focus on the performance.

  • You are not subject to repertoire and ensemble restrictions (as you may be in a church), noise levels (as you may be in a museum) or extraneous sound interruptions (as you may experience in an open plaza).

  • Audiences in a public venue are generally passive and transitory. At a festival, those in the audience are people who are engaged in and appreciate your work—whether they are adjudicators, other student performers or music booster parents (your own and perhaps those of other groups). They understand the hard work you put in to achieve what you do.

There is deeper educational and musical value added to your tour:

  • The commentary and clinics from the adjudication panel provide a variety of ideas, opinions and feedback from several experienced educators with differing viewpoints and expertise. This provides a wider range of ways to improve musicianship, all from a single performance.

  • The opportunity to hear other ensembles provides insight on what you may be doing well musically, what areas you can improve upon, and may introduce you to interesting unfamiliar works in the repertoire and other new ideas.

  • Listening to and supporting other ensembles develops community in the music education world, providing the opportunity to hear and interact with student musicians from many different areas and backgrounds. It makes our musical world more connected.

  • An accomplishment quality rating at a national level festival can provide a benchmark that can be a point of pride and program advocacy within your home community.

  • Even if not all of your ensemble members are able to attend, quality adjudication panels at an educationally focused festival understand these tour realities and are able to provide constructive observations in a confidence building manner.

Quality over Quantity. A meaningful music tour should include setting and achieving goals that lead to growth for the individual musician and the program as a whole, rather than a “checklist” of activities. If a performance is to be a part of your music tour plans, you want it to be a worthwhile opportunity that enhances the education and growth of your students and your program.

Ultimately a successful music tour is about balance--putting equal weight on the musical aspects and the fun activities. Making certain that the music portion is worthwhile and rewarding makes it easier to justify the truly long-term value of the experience.

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.

Summer Music Camp...It isn't just for high school anymore

With what appears to finally be a spring thaw arriving here in the Chicago area, there is a realization that eventually summer will happen. And with that realization comes thoughts of summer particular, the consideration of summer music camps for young musicians who want to both further develop their skills and spend a week with peers who share their interests.

We recently had a guest commentary in both Choral Director and School Band & Orchestra Director magazines about the importance of summer music camps, and how it can be a life changing experience for the participants. The thing is, the vast majority of summer music camps in particular...have been oriented towards high school level students, leaving highly motivated middle school age music students with few or no options.

Until now.

This summer, the inaugural Middle School Concert Band Camp will debut as a part of the long time Music For All Summer Symposium at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The camp coordinators, two successful middle school band directors in the Chicago area, have designed the event based not only on where they see needs as music educators...but on the life-changing music camp experiences they had themselves while in high school. An experience that, like many of us, set them on a rewarding career path that continues today.

Keith Ozsvath and Greg Scapillato first attended the Bands of America (which became Music For All) Summer Symposium at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the late 1980's. The experience made such a difference that they attended for multiple summers, and eventually both participated in the drum major and leadership training programs led by George N. Parks and Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser. They were friends in high school, and continued their participation at the camp in college when they returned as members of the SWAG Team--the high-energy counselor staff that helps operate the camp.

Most of the SWAG Team consists of music education majors, and in fact it was within this experience that my path would converge with Greg and Keith's...having myself made a similar journey through the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. All three of us agree that we're living proof of the power of that summer camp opportunity and how it reflects the mission statement of Music For All: "positively life-changing experiences."

The SWAG years were very formative as future music educators. "I feel that it was almost an extension of college," said Keith, "because you got to see the best teachers and the best musicians. I just remember soaking it all in. I remember I'd take notes as a SWAG at concert band--I'd be writing down rehearsal tips and strategies that I would see. And being able to then teach--by teaching sectionals (at camp)--was huge. When I went to student teach, I already had a ton of experience from being a SWAG."

Also key to this experience was the leadership content. "The formative part for me was definitely taking that example of servant leadership," said Greg. "There was something resonating with me, and then I went to this place where it is fostered and encouraged. I internalized it and it made this mark on me and shaped how I look at experiences, and how I shape or try to design experiences for my students now. You're taking that servant leadership and saying 'this is what has to be done to make the experience great for the students and directors.' It's just something that has stuck with me since then."

Flash forward several years into their teaching careers. An annual SWAG reunion had been created by former SWAG and Music For All board member Anmol Mehra, and at the final meeting MFA President Eric Martin was discussing how the focus was on making the organization a reflection of those people who are a part of the organization--and asking what they would want to see happen. Advocating for his constituency, Greg raised his hand and asked, "What about middle school kids?"

The seed had been planted, and over the course of the next two years the idea began to gain traction as it was discussed among the MFA community. With Eric's encouragement, Greg and Keith took the initiative to put together a proposal and brought it before the MFA Educational Team. Keith recalled, "We were selling it to the Educational Team, and when we were done there weren't a lot of questions or comments. I think we sort of knocked their socks off and hit a home run right away."

Said Greg, "The basic premise we came to them with is: Keith and I had these amazing experiences, these positively life-changing experiences. It shaped who we are as educators. But there is no MFA summer camp that we can offer to our students as middle school directors. We didn't think that needed to be the case anymore. There's a need and MFA has the organizational competency to do it."

"Having the background as SWAGs," Keith continued, "we knew how the camp worked. We knew the philosophy, we knew the impact the camp could have on kids. That knowledge helped drive the design of that presentation and delivery."

"Coupled with our experience as middle school directors," Greg added. "We're taking those two parts of our life experience and saying they should exist together. And you have that rewarding experience in life where it all comes together."

With this now on their radar, the Educational Team approved and fast-tracked the program for a 2016 launch. This year's participants will experience the types of components that the Music For All Summer Symposium is known for, within the context of the concert band aspect of the camp. Along with rehearsals under the direction of guest conductor Cheryl Floyd from Hill Country Middle School in Austin, Texas, students will experience sectionals, masterclasses with Yamaha artists, interaction with composer-in-residence Frank Ticheli, and the incredible evening entertainment for which the camp is known--all under the watchful and caring guidance of the SWAG Team, just as Keith and Greg had experienced as campers.

"The overarching thing is it's a camp within a camp. It's going to leverage all those great things the camp has had for years, and it's going to be a camp that is specially attuned to what the middle school needs," said Greg. "We're not just plopping them into a carbon copy of the high school camp."

Keith indicated that would extend into the leadership areas as well. "There's going to be a team-building component to their daily schedule. It's going to be addressing social-emotional things...making good choices...and get the kids to interact with each other. They're not going to know each other at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week, with the activities, they are. They're going to build wonderful friendships."

"Our goal," said Greg, "is to have--much like in your middle school with social-emotional learning components--a session that talks about a topic, and we'll also have SWAGs reinforce that in floor meetings and in sectionals. The SWAGs will be moving with the kids throughout the day, so they're not going to be 'free-range kids'. There's so many ways we're going to take one portion of their experience and reinforce it in other places."

The kids will also get a sneak peek at what could lie ahead of them in high school. They will attend and interact in sessions in the high school areas of color guard, marching band, jazz band and concert band. The end goal being an increased retention in that critical transition from middle school to high school, by showing students the excitement of the high school experience both in terms of the camp and their home music programs. "The kids are going to have an emotional response to this camp," Keith said. "And they're going to bring it home with them and hopefully tell their friends about it. It'll be contagious."

Reflecting on their own experiences that led to the creation of this camp, they hope for similar outcomes for the participants of the camp.

For Keith, "Personally I just want them to be excited about band. Have a positive experience--because that helps their motivation, it helps drive their passion. It will keep you engaged with your instrument for hopefully a longer period of time. My wish is that these kids have an amazing experience musically and socially, that they'll want to come back or keep playing their instrument. Or maybe they'll go to a different camp. It's all about continuing to play music."

Greg hopes that this opens doors for students beyond their own programs. "Whenever my students go away to a different experience--it could be a festival, or an honor band, or in this case the Symposium--it's too easy to get into their heads that it's just the 20 or 30 or 40 kids around them at school. But this is really an amazing activity that kids from all over can do. We're really hoping that we'll have students from a lot of small, rural schools. What a wonderful way for them to expand what their view of band is beyond their experience in their particular school."

Greg recently published a tremendous article about what to consider when choosing the right summer camp experience for your student, regardless of age. It makes excellent points, and I highly recommend reading as you consider summer plans for your young musicians.

The Middle School Concert Band Camp at the Music For All Summer Symposium will run June 27-July 2, 2016.

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.

The Top 3 Things from the 2015 Midwest Clinic

Happy New Year 2016!

Right before the holidays we were in the midst of the 2015 Midwest Clinic in Chicago, an annual gathering of band and orchestra music educators and the music industry professionals who support the work they do with their student musicians. An earlier post described my first experience at Midwest and this year for me hearkened back to the energizing quality of that initial visit, as my time at the conference was spent in a much different way than before.

What did I feel were the top three things about the Midwest Clinic this year?

1. The Crowds

I'm generally not a fan of crowds. Times Square at Midnight, Wal-Mart on Black Friday, midnight showings of Star Wars...not places you're going to find me. But I love being in the crowd at Midwest and similar conferences. It creates an atmosphere that just feels electric, full of a synergy that can spark incredible opportunities and collaborations.

We kept hearing there were record numbers of attendees, and it showed. What this tells me...especially seeing so many young directors and college students that the heart of music education is strong. However, we need to remember to stay vigilant and support these young professionals in order to combat burnout and keep their vitality present in the field.

2. The App

Yes...there's an app for that. And it's fantastic.

If you're going to Midwest next year and didn't get this for your smartphone, get it. If you are the coordinator of a state music conference, you need to talk to these developers.

I had this app last year, but either I wasn't paying attention in 2014 or they ramped this up by leaps and bounds for 2015. Not only does it list the exhibitors, clinics, concerts, etc.--it allows you to create lists of sessions and exhibitors to visit (and keep notes right in the app), check off who you've visited, manage your schedule, send messages, get alerts, find your way around the hall, connect on social media, etc. There was even a scavenger hunt for the exhibit hall that was managed via the app.

This is a brilliant, convenient tool that I found tremendously helpful. Kudos to the Midwest team for developing this.

3. The Value of Connection

As I said earlier, I spent my days much differently this time around and it was like experiencing the clinic from a new vantage point. This time, rather than confining myself to the booth I spent the vast majority of the days visiting with other exhibitors.

Much of my time was spent talking with the many travel companies with which we collaborate to bring our festival experience to performing ensembles nationwide. We talked about the needs of their clients and what will create the optimal performance and educational opportunities for them. There were also numerous meetings with various organizations in the music education field where we are developing collaborations that we hope will provide helpful resources and new opportunities for music educators and their ensembles. These conversations will lead to some very positive outcomes that you will begin to s