Jeff Nesseth, director of choirs at Central High School in Burlington, Illinois, loves to travel. Since taking over the CHS choral music program in 1996, he’s brought his vocal groups across Europe, with stops in Great Britain, Italy, Germany, and Eastern Europe, among other locations. Jeff was introduced to the excitement of traveling with a school music group when a local colleague and mentor invited him to come along on a performance tour of England, Scotland, and Ireland that she was planning for her own choirs.
Travel clearly has tremendous potential for fostering personal growth among participating students, and the possibility for some great life experiences for all involved. In addition, these adventures provide a fantastic boost to the choral program at CHS in terms of both notoriety in the school and community, and bonding within the choirs themselves. Of course, there are also plenty of incredible performing opportunities abroad, as well. Recognizing of all this, Nesseth has continued to make travel an integral part of his program’s focus, even through difficult economic and geopolitical environments.
For the inside scoop on how Jeff turns his travel dreams into reality, CD recently caught up with the esteemed director, who was happy to share the details of the goings on in the CHS choral department.
Choral Director: When did the adventure first begin for you at CHS?
Jeff Nesseth: After college, I had a hard time getting a job right away. I spent my first year as a teacher’s aide, and then I ended up getting a call by chance literally two days before the school year was going to start from someone here at Central High School. The previous choral teacher had decided she wasn’t going to come back, so they brought me in for an interview, offered me a job that day, and I had 48 hours to prepare for the year. That was 15 years ago and I’ve been here ever since!
CD: Tell me about the program that you walked into 15 years ago.
JN: The previous teacher had just begun an honors ensemble called “Chorale,” but I wasn’t terribly happy with how that had been set up, so I had to basically start from scratch. I thought that I needed to make good on the promise that I had made to administration when they hired me, which was to rebuild the program, so I just started at the beginning. It turns out that the teacher I was replacing was exceptionally popular among some of the choral students, so it was a little rocky at first.
There were maybe 100 students in two sections of chorus, as well as the honors group, which was a new curricular choir that had 13 students in it. The first thing I did when I came on board was to start an extracurricular girls group, which was in addition to the three groups that met during the day. They met at 7 a.m. twice a week, and it was by audition. We built that up and then four years later started a guys group, called Men of Note. The reasoning behind that was I had a group of hoodlums and I needed to know where they were I started that group just to get them off of the streets. Now, it has blossomed into the “thing to be a part of.” There are about 60 members in the Women’s Chorale and 45 guys in the Men of Note.
CD: And when did you first catch the travel bug?
JN: My fourth year here. In some ways, it was almost a celebration of having made it through my first set of students. We did the traditional bus trip to New York City and we saw some shows and took in some sights. It was an opportunity to get the kids out of the Burlington bubble. There was no performing whatsoever; it was purely an end-of-the-year reward. The next year, one of my mentors invited me along on her school’s choir trip, which was to England, Ireland, and Scotland. She said to me, “I know you’re about to turn 30, this will be a great experience for you, it might help to broaden your horizons, and it might be something that you’d like to do with your kids down the line.” I went on the trip and, immediately upon returning, started planning a trip of my own.
The first trip we took was in 2002. My first parent meeting to discuss this trip was scheduled for September 12th, 2001. It felt like the world was coming to an end and, let me tell you, that was a tough sell. [laughs] I ended up taking 30 participants, 15 adults and 15 kids. I had this great European connection whom I had met on the trip I went on with the other high school. He was the one who set up the performing venues and hotel accommodations, just really solidifying the whole itinerary. We were over here sending him ideas, and he was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean trying to make them happen for us.
I’ve done a trip every two years since then. We’ve gone to Ireland, England, Scotland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy a couple of times it’s just been a great experience.
CD: Typically, there are a number of hurdles that need to be cleared in order to make a trip of that magnitude happen, including planning, parental and administrative clearance, fundraising, and so on. Would you tell me a bit about your process?
JN: We typically start planning 18 months ahead of time. We sit down with a trip advisor, who is someone whom I feed my information to. He’s another teacher in the area ironically, he’s a former student of the woman who first invited me to travel with her school group. He isn’t a professional travel consultant or anything, but he’s done a million and a half trips and organizing is his thing. As a side note, for travel to Europe, the costs are in Euros, and we’re bidding on a trip 18 months ahead of time without really knowing what the exchange rate is. So we’re praying that the Euro isn’t going to skyrocket and we won’t have to go back and ask people for more money.
Anyway, 18 months ahead of time, we take out a big map, look at the places we’ve gone and think about where we want to go next, asking ourselves, “What’s the dream?”
CD: What about your administration how do keep them fully supportive of these adventures?
JN: As long as I have everything covered and I walk them through it and make sure that everyone is clued in to all of the details, they have been great. I’ve had several trips where administrators came along not necessarily because they needed to be the heavy, but because they wanted to go experience the world as well.
I come up with a first draft of a prospective itinerary, and then call a parent-student meeting. There, I tell them what I’m thinking and give them a rough estimate of the expected price. I tweak things throughout the summer, and then right in the first week of September, we meet again. At this point, we go over the adjustments that have been made, and people start to get excited. The next step is to start raising money. I do a minimum of three or four fundraisers.
CD: What types of fundraisers have you found to be most successful?
JN: Entertainment books that sell for 20 or 25 bucks and include every coupon under the sun are pretty good. Now those books come with a card for even more discounts online. We also raise money at our holiday concerts. We do a poinsettia sale, and a whole portion of that, as well as other holiday greenery wreathes and that sort of thing