Over more than three decades, the East Fairmont High Busy Bee Band and Honeybees have made travel an ensemble tradition. In the past, they've gone from their home base in West Virginia to such distant locales as New York, Toronto, Disney World, and the Rose Bowl. This year, in its most exotic journey yet, the band took a cruise through the Bahamas to a performance in Nassau.
"There's nothing like watching these young students' eyes open up for an experience they might never otherwise get," says Earl McConnell, who's been East Fairmont's band director for 33 years. "They feel a lot more mature and worldly when they come home."
Indeed, travel of any sort - to performances, competitions, or other events - can be a bonding, life-broadening experience for students and teachers alike. Consistent annual travel can also be a strong incentive to draw students to a school's music program; East Fairmont's band attracts close to 25 percent of the student body.
But gearing up for these trips requires plenty of advance planning, precise communication with students and parents, and lots of patience.
Map It Out
Seasoned trip leaders know that following a few basic guidelines cuts down on time, stress, and sometimes cost. Step one is to decide on a destination as far in advance as possible, keeping in mind your budget and the type of experience you'd like your students to have. For overseas and long-range domestic trips, it's recommended that you start planning a year ahead of time. For travel closer to home, six months is a good number.
Be sure to first determine requirements of your school, school board, and in some cases the state. Is there a list of pre-approved venues, companies, and hotels you need to work with? Is there any money available to help fund the venture?
The next and most frequently suggested step is to seek out professional assistance. "The best advice I can give someone, especially a new director, is that you would be foolish to try to do it alone," says Doug Earlenbaugh, music director at Norfolk Christian School in Norfolk, Virginia, who recently led his band on a jazz-specific tour of New York. "It's okay to surrender and delegate." (Parents and PTOs can also help share the load.)
Many educators may be surprised to discover the breadth of companies that now specialize in organizing student tours, performance group tours, or a combination of the two. While they do charge a service fee, these tour operators can save you big bucks - and headaches - in the long run. It's their business to make connections with hotels and venues, understand the special needs of transporting instruments, and stay on top of the revolving idiosyncrasies of air travel. They will work with teachers to customize a trip to meet the school's needs, and most will send a guide to accompany the group for the duration of the trip.
"Most companies are going to charge the same amount whether you're doing ten things with them or three things, so you may be selling yourself short if you decide to plan half the trip yourself," notes Koryn Young, tour director at Educational Performance Tours in New York.
When seeking out a tour company, "get feedback from your colleagues. The ask the tour operators for their return traveler success rate," says Dawn Krosnowski, CEO of Sunshine Travel in Burnsville, Minnesota. "Repeat travel speaks volumes for a company."
After narrowing the destination list down to a few good prospects, some teachers like to personalize the trip even further. "The kids should be the ones that ultimately have the final decision on where we go," notes Doug Earlenbaugh. He generally offers three to five well researched destinations, the lets the students vote. "Then my pitch to the parents is, 'This was what your kids and I decided to do.'"
"The buy-in from parents is so important," echoes Terry Valentine, vice president of WorldPass Travel Group in El Dorado Hills, California. "It helps so much with fundraising and chaperoning when the parents have a voice."
Show Me The Money
These days, engendering parent and community support is more critical than ever as soaring fuel prices drive up the cost of travel.
"One of my philosophies is that whenever the community asks us to participate in something, we need to do it, because then when it comes time for a fundraiser, they go out of their way to support us," Earl McConnell says.
Rather than raise money for each individual trip, the Busy Bees stage fundraisers - including a citrus sale and annual Broadway-style show - whose proceeds go into a rolling bank account that funds travel. But even when funds are pouring in, McConnell makes sure his band students take some ownership of the cost. "Parents and kids need to provide some funding," he says. "I don't' want people to join the band just so they get a free trip."
At Norfolk Christian, Earlenbaugh motivates his students by having them raise money for their own portion of the trip rather than a general account for the whole class. "Each child has his or her own account," he says. "It motivates them because it is their own personal trip."
The Busy Bee Band & Honeybees during their Bahamas Cruise from the inside of Teaching Music
Once travel plans are set, it's critical to communicate details early and often. Experts suggest teachers hold a minimum of three student-and-parent meetings during the months leading up to the trip. Most tour companies will provide ancillaries like PowerPoint presentations and brochures, and some will even send a representative on-site to field questions.
"You want to show parents lots of specifics about locations, the things their kids will see, and the venues where they'll perform so they can really understand the trip," says James Mahaffey, concert tour coordinator at Casterbridge Concert Tours in Staunton, Virginia. Questions can span everything from the weather forecast to flight schedules to the amount of spending money needed to whether the chosen hotel has foam or feather pillows.
These meetings, tour operators tell Teaching Music , are the best place to go over travel logistics, checklists for items like passports required for international travel, chaperoning needs, performance expectations, and, most important, safety concerns.
Since 2001, the threat of terrorism "has changed the game for a lot of people," Mahaffey notes. "It is important that tour guides be highly trained and able to handle emergency situations, and that they speak the language [in a foreign country.]"
Rules of the Road
Chaperone ratios are determined by the school or school board, though operators surveyed suggest anywhere between one chaperone to four students and one chaperone to eight students. Seasons teachers also suggest mixing a few doctors or nurses in the chaperone pool when possible, placing a few adults several fee behind the band during parades, and staggering chaperones along major parade routes so they can react quickly if necessary.
Earl McConnell's Busy Bee Band and Honeybees "carry around bottled water like crazy so no one gets dehydrated." They also have invested about $8,000 in private-channel radios that cover a five-mile radius and are "invaluable" on the road for communication within a large group.
Along with designated parents, Doug Earlenbaugh always takes along a school administrator. "You are sending a message from the school that we want to promote the arts," he says. "Also, although we don't want the kids to feel smothered, if they are thinking about getting away with anything, it's less likely to happen with the principal along."
Most schools ask that boys and girls be housed on separate hotel floors when possible; some require that doors be taped after curfew. "Ultimately, it's the band director's decision, and we will facilitate their needs," WorldPass Travel's Valentine says. "Most directors know their students really well and know what they need to do."
McConnell's students must travel in groups of four, stick to a dress code that prohibits denim - among other choices - for the duration of the trip, and keep all receipts for purchases made. "What you find is that the students start to take pride in what they are doing, the way they dress and act," he says. "The older students end up including younger freshmen [in their activities]. There's a strong hand-me-down feeling."
Last but not least, McConnell advises teachers to keep their kids busy on the road. "Downtime is where we end up having problems," he ways. "These are not vacation trips; they are work trips."
From Teaching Music, August 2008. Copyright (c) 2008 by MENC: The National Association for Music Education. Created for MENC by In Tune Partners, LLC. Used with permission. No further use or transmitting without written permission from MENC.