While travel has been part of our nation's school music programs for more than a century, the majority of those trips are single-day events within driving distance of the school. Taking dozens of teenagers on overnight trips to regional or national music festivals involves extensive planning, a clear approach to the logistics involved, extensive fund-raising, as well as preparing for the inherent risks involved.
However, such travel is a part of the high school memories for hundreds of thousands of student musicians annually, provided by dedicated music educators, understanding administrators, supportive parents and involved communities. The musical, educational and just plain fun aspects of such trips are an invaluable part of school music programs, providing students with opportunities to explore different cultures and expand their understanding of history, while continuing to develop as individual musicians and performing ensembles. And they’re so enjoyable for all participants – young and old alike.
Today, school music educators are looking beyond our borders for memories and more to share with their students. International travel offers a broader experience in the way of cultural and historical learning opportunities.
With the support of school administration and parents, along with the organizational efforts of their music teacher/tour director, any school ensemble can experience travel to most of Europe as well as select South American and Far East countries. From exploring the Colosseum in Rome, swimming in the Aegean Sea, visiting the sights of Rio or clapping along with flamenco dancers in Seville, students are bringing their music and their appetites for edutainment with them around the globe.
But are these international trips worth the time, energy and expense, often multiple times what a domestic trip would cost? In addition to the expense, there are logistical challenges with moving a large group of people, as well as the difficulties that performance ensembles entail – equipment, performance spaces, the need for an audience.
It takes more than a year to plan an international trip even with the help of a qualified tour company (of which there are many) and it costs a great deal of money, albeit funds that come from multiple sources and little, if any, from the taxpayer provided school budget. At what point does the cost in time, energy, resources and funding outweigh the benefits that such a trip provides for each participant?
The cost is easy to determine with most eight-to-ten-day trips to several geographically close countries through the many respected tour companies running $3000 to $3500 per person (based on departure from a major airport). And there will be costs in getting everyone to that flight, properly packaging the needed equipment, purchasing travel liability insurance, additional meals en route, etc.
Some would suggest the time spent in preparation including rehearsals, fund-raising and planning meetings should be considered a cost, but those activities may prove as valuable to those involved as any other aspect of the trip.
Any assessment of the value of such an expensive trip must include the preparations and the follow-up as well as the actual multi-day experience. Having students consider a long-range goal that initially seems out of reach gets them to dream beyond tomorrow. Working as a group to find creative ways to raise funds provides opportunities to think outside of the box as well as judge the potential success of each effort and its profitability.
Selecting a program of music to perform for culturally different audiences, possibly several different ethnicities, which will be worked on for a longer period of time than most rehearsal-to-concert cycles allows students to challenge themselves to reach previously impossible levels of musicianship and skill.
The focused rehearsals during regular school hours provide exceptional educational and musical connections among the students and between the students and conductor. Those rehearsals provide the students with the chance to focus on extended musical preparation and to familiarize themselves with the language, history, culture, cuisine and geography of the locations they will visit during their trip. And while the trip may have a musical ensemble focus, the preparations include learning that fits in with curriculums in history, language arts, fine arts and foreign languages.
The trip itself generates its own value in a variety of team-building ways: sharing responsibilities for managing shared equipment; group travel through multiple modes, airports and venues; following guidelines in housing, meals, recreational time and sight-seeing; completing performance preparations in a timely manner; and staying on schedule as a group. It also provides value through the students’ exposure to the culture, history, music, folk life, people, language, economy and traditions of the locales being visited. From those opportunities come the memories that stay with each participant for life.
The challenge comes in providing that value for all participants. To be successful, such a trip requires more than funding and preparations, destinations and transportation. To provide its full value, such a trip requires a group of dedicated students who are responsive to the experience’s possibilities and opportunities, led by a group of caring, passionate, flexible adults who have the vision to see all that can be gained by the total experience. Shaping the trip so that its preparation, participation and follow-up are viewed through multiple eyes is how the trip’s true value is realized.
And then the trip becomes priceless, easily balancing against any cost invested or effort spent.
Steffen Parker, a member of the High School Today Publications Committee, is a music educator, computer geek and instructional support specialist from Vermont where he organizes music festivals and supports other states with online services for their events.