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– goes to the travel account. We do the traditional candy sales, too, as well as a walk-a-thon, where students will get pledges per lap or even an open pledge. That has proven to be very lucrative. If the kids really try, they can make a lot of money doing the walk-a-thon. Some kids have paid for over half their trip doing just that one fundraiser.
CD: That’s pretty impressive. When choosing a destination, what elements do you focus on?
JN: I rely heavily on outside advice and recommendations. I articulate what I am looking for and then my advisors tell me about other adventures they’ve done that fit the bill, or that they think might work for what I’m looking for, as well as the parameters and limitations of some of the prospective venues (for example, if a certain cathedral will only allow performances of sacred music, and so on). I’m always looking for amazing performance experiences. “Oh my goodness, here’s a 13th-century cathedral we could sing in, how amazing!” Sometimes you find those by touring, where you just happen to stumble around a corner and find something that makes you say, “Everyone, stop! We need to sing right now!”
You have to keep the kids in mind, too, of course. Something that I or some of the other adults might find enjoyable isn’t necessarily the same thing that the kids will find enjoyable. I’m also trying to educate the kids and give them some kind of cultural experience along the way. Sometimes that comes in the form of an exchange concert or going to sing in a school. Sometimes you can get tied into a community event or a festival in a particular city, and those can be great opportunities, as well.
CD: What’s the ratio that you go for in terms of cultural opportunities versus performance opportunities?
JN: I would say it’s about fifty-fifty between cultural and performing. The nature of our trips have definitely changed over the years. At the very beginning, I had a choir of only 15, so we did a lot of chamber stuff. We’ve now been invited to places, because we’ve gone out and met people and made connections. Before, we were trying to find performance venues – an open park, you name it.
CD: Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in exploring travel with a school music group?
JN: I would say call upon your colleagues. Ask around if there’s anybody who has done a trip or worked with a particular company that they feel comfortable with. I personally planned my early trips by taking looking at a number of early itineraries that my colleagues had done. I would let them know what interested me and ask them to walk me through the trip. I would ask about the highlights and what the kids really got out of it. Relying on the advice of colleagues would be my number one piece of advice. Start asking questions and going online and looking up information about places that you might dream of going. Start taking a look at what may or may not be practical for a school trip.
Some places are more expensive than others to visit. It’s important to establish a budget early on – or at least think about what might or might not be possible.
Culturally, you should look at whether a trip is to a distant village in northern Germany, where maybe no one speaks English, and ask yourself, “Would everyone be comfortable with that?”
And as you’re doing your research and preparation, you should also begin building excitement among your students about this adventure – because that’s what it is, an adventure. You have to sell it. Maybe parents have never done anything like that, as well, so there may be some fear tied into it.
CD: That brings up another point: what’s your rule of thumb for chaperones?
JN: I would say that the hierarchy of the whole event is that I am in charge. I’m in charge of the discipline and I’m in charge of the music making. There’s someone who I bring along on my trips, the guy who arranges a lot of the details from over here, and I delegate a lot of things to him. He comes along for free and basically serves as the tour coordinator. He’s the one who makes sure that we get where we need to be. With the parents – because for so many of them, this is also the trip of a lifetime – if I need them to help, I do enlist them. But I also understand how much they are also getting out of the trip, so I do leave them to do their own thing at times. As for the amount of chaperones, I do a screening process to determine who I want to come with us.
CD: Have you had any incidents with chaperons being problematic?
JN: No, but I have had many tough conversations. I usually take care of it in the screening process. For example, if someone is the kind of person who is used to a strict routine where they wake up, go to work 9-5 and has to eat every night at 6pm, then going on the trip is not for them. If there’s someone who might be uncomfortable if, after several days of rain, we completely change the itinerary, they should also not be on the trip.
CD: So it’s all about setting expectations beforehand?
JN: Absolutely. A lot of chaperones get themselves worked up because we may have had the chaperone meeting, but not doled out all of the specific responsibilities – they think that they’re going on the trip to work. I know a lot of people have different philosophies about this, but my philosophy is that I am in charge of everything on the trip. It’s nice to have extra sets of eyes and ears, but I like to handle most things myself.
CD: Is there anything that you’ve learned to avoid or things that might not have worked so well?
JN: The last couple of trips I’ve done, I’ve only programmed all a cappella music. I do that because you never know what the venue is going to have in terms of backing instruments, or what condition they’ll be in. Also, sometimes you’re just on the spot. I would say always have one or two pieces in your back pocket that your kids can sing anywhere. You could be at a dinner and the kids are all dressed up and there are other tour groups there as well, and everyone decides that singing right then and there would be a good idea.
Repertoire is huge. Make sure you know what your destinations – and audiences – are. I do a fair balance of performing music that is native to wherever we’re going with, but it’s also really interesting to bring a Copland piece or an “Oh Shenandoah.” The audiences usually think that these pieces are the most interesting things in the world. As much as we’re trying to soak in other cultures, we’re trying to share a little bit of ours, as well.
One other point is that I don’t take freshman. It’s a maturity thing. By and large, they just aren’t ready yet. So I only take sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
CD: What kind of impact have these trips had on your program?
JN: The coolest thing is that it’s a great recruiter for keeping your program strong. It is a nice carrot to dangle. The students that come with us have to be in the top tier of the ensembles, the auditioned groups. They also have to be involved in the school. They’re part of the fabric of what makes our school run. When they come back from a trip, it often takes them a while to readjust because they’re perspective has usually changed. They’ve seen a bigger picture – dare I say a global picture? I see the students often become a bit kinder, and a bit more adventurous, and that feeds into the next school year. The stories that come out of those experiences get the whole group excited, even those who haven’t yet participated in one of the trips.