The Long Game: Multi-Year Planning

December 13, 2016

By Tom Merrill

Living in the northern Chicago suburbs, I’m a proud Chicago Cubs fan. And this year they finally won their first World Series in over a century.

Which only goes to show you—having a good long-term plan will usually pay off in the end.

Over the years, particularly while I worked in the area of student travel, I’ve seen groups who would embark on over-ambitious plans that in the long term may do more harm than good. There were the occasional groups that would travel every year, and always go to high cost locations like Hawaii, New York, and Orlando. And, they would always lament about how expensive the tours were, how hard it was to raise the funds, and how few students could afford to go. 

Similarly on the festival side, we see groups that overreach on their repertoire selection—programming works that are beyond the technical or musical capabilities of the group. Whether this is in an effort to impress adjudicators, to perform at an “expected” level, or to conduct works they enjoy—the outcome is the same. Frustration for the conductor and performers.

It’s almost a by-product of our profession. There’s often a tendency for us to be very driven, high achieving, Type-A personalities (guilty as charged). We want to get where we’re going…NOW. And while the lofty goals are admirable, setting a healthy pace will in the long run lead to a better outcome for all.

A well-thought, multi-year plan can give you an effective step-by-step path to those higher goals, promoting balance from year to year and preventing your students, community, and you from becoming overwhelmed. There are three primary areas that come into play.

Educational

Yes, you fell in love with the music of Eric Whitacre in college. But Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine might not be the best repertoire choice to take on in an early year with your ensemble. The great news is that there is more creative and accessible repertoire being written by quality composers. Many more are writing compositions for younger ensembles with the same style characteristics and emotional meaning as their advanced works. And while your repertoire options will be influenced by your ensemble strengths from year to year and new works published, a good “core” plan can give you a roadmap to follow for purposes of programming, budgeting, teaching, and even anticipating conducting those masterworks you love.

Experiential

This category encompasses things like tours, festival events, clinics, and special performance opportunities. A long term plan should include a natural progression of events that will meet your educational goals and “performance dreams” in a logical order, happening at a time and in a sequence that will be meaningful and beneficial to the group.

To illustrate what I mean: many times I’ve heard directors in programs with smaller or less experienced choirs indicate plans to submit an application for a major ACDA Conference or highly selective concert festival. It’s certainly an admirable and attractive goal. Who wouldn’t dream of a “bucket list” performance of this stature? But the reality is that the ensembles in these events have built an impressive resume of smaller experiences over time.

Rather than taking a “giant leap” likely to create disappointment, set a pathway to success that incorporates appropriate educational means to an end. Being active and successful in local performance events progresses to state and regional opportunities, leading to national level invitations and experiences. And there are no shortcuts—never sacrifice your educational values for the sake of “winning.” Remember, the road to Carnegie Hall usually begins with the local Rhubarb Festival!

Financial

While this facet isn’t as fun to plan for (or dream about) as the first two, it is just as vital. Knowing your long-term plan empowers you to determine ways to finance it. A balance of large and small projects each year can keep the financial needs manageable and not overburden your budget or community support.

Along with the experience and repertoire planning, the financial aspect also has to take into account purchases of equipment, choir robes or uniforms, and other tangibles. This is why the “big picture” planning is so important. Returning to the example of groups with big tour plans every year—a wiser route might be to set up two or four year plans alternating large and small scale ventures. Staggering the large scale experiences may create more stable retention, with fewer students “in it for the trip.” And you will likely find it easier getting funding for that new set of choral risers when you’re not financing a European tour at the same time.

Having a long-term plan helps you and your program remain true to yourselves—a living “mission statement.” It will evolve as your program does, and may very well provide a foundation that lasts beyond your tenure. It is the guide that allows you to step back and consider the expense—financial and otherwise—of getting to a lofty goal and decide whether it is the healthiest thing for your students, your community, and even yourself.

Tom Merrill is the Executive Director of Festivals of Music, with over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner and festival organizer.

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