By Tom Merrill
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 possible. It was a wise move and likely helped preserve travel traditions in countless music departments. One of the ways this was done was to find public 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.
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 organization…in 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 performance event—whether a competition or a collaborative effort—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 event 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 as subject to repertoire and ensemble restrictions, performance volume levels or extraneous sound interruptions—all of which may be a factor in a public venue.
- Audiences in a public venue are generally passive and transitory. At a performance event, 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:
- Adjudication commentary, group rehearsals and clinics experiences 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.
- Participation and accomplishment at a national level event 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 adjudicators and clinicians at an educationally focused event 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 an 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.
Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. Prior to festival management, he was a high school band director and a student travel planner.