By Tom Merrill
My whole life started because of a music trip.
Wait — that sounds worse than it is. What I mean is that so many of the incredible things that have become my life started because of a music trip.
The summer before my senior year in high school, our marching band was invited to represent the state of Iowa in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C. I was drum major, and more important than leading the band down Pennsylvania Avenue in one of the most memorable experiences of my life would be the leadership experience the role would bring. That spring not only included a high level of performance preparation — with the pressure of knowing that our band was now on a national stage — but also the added layer of activity that accompanies a large venture like this.
Countless fundraisers. Intense teamwork. Lots of public events to generate support. And being drum major, I was often tapped as a representative face of the band — attending everything from Kiwanis breakfasts and Masonic Temple meetings to a ceremony with the governor. The side benefit of all this was it helped my introverted self-develop the key life skill of confidence in public speaking and presentations in front of an audience of strangers, something that in retrospect has contributed to not only professional success, but some fun opportunities. It is a skill that has served me well.
The trip itself was eye-opening of course. Up to that point, aside from a single family trip to Orlando, the boundaries of my travels had been Mt. Rushmore, Duluth, St. Louis and the Wisconsin Dells. This would be the largest and most diverse place I’d ever been, and I would see more of the country than I’d ever seen before. When we finally reached the Capitol, seeing all these sites that up to that point had been images in history books, movies, and the nightly news would whet an appetite for a bigger world.
Where did it go from there?
Because of a music trip, I eventually went into music education. I took my own groups on trips and broadened their circle of experiences in the same way. Eventually that led to a career as a performance travel planner, creating experiences for thousands more students.
Because of a music trip, I’ve been to the Rose Parade and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. I’ve met an Oscar winner and a Disney legend. I’ve seen landmarks from the Grand Canyon to the Big Apple. I’ve been on stage in some of the great concert halls of the world. And I’ve seen miracles happen when communities come together to reach a goal.
Because of a music trip, I can navigate cities far removed from my rural Iowa roots. I’ve come to understand other cultures rather than fear them. I’ve learned to accept other lifestyles and respect other beliefs and opinions rather than reject them. And I’ve met countless people who have touched my life in amazing ways.
Because of a music trip, I went to grad school. I kept learning and growing as a musician, and met incredibly talented people who became dear friends and colleagues. Because I went to grad school, I met my wife, and we have two outstanding, clever, fun, and loving boys.
So, here’s the thing. What if for me that music trip never happened?
That’s the unfortunate reality for many students today. Finances and circumstances too many times don’t allow for individuals, and often times entire groups, to have the kind of experiences that can be so formative. How many life trajectories could be changed for good if the resources were there?
I was reminded of this when we attended the recent Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA) conference in Baltimore. Their philanthropic sister organization, the SYTA Youth Foundation, exists to create ongoing awareness and assistance programs for the direct benefit of deserving youth who may not otherwise have these sort of opportunities. Their mantra: “Travel Changes Young Lives For Good.”
Their various programs provide scholarships and grants that make it possible for these students to have the same kind of life changing experiences I had. My family and community were able to financially support this endeavor, and I was very fortunate in that regard. Thanks to SYF and their programs, the financial gap has been filled over the years for hundreds of youth who have been able to expand their horizons and have their lives changed for good. And yet, SYF has only been able to award a small percentage of the requests they receive.
I cannot even imagine the course my life would have taken had these experiences not been a part of my youth. How so many things would be different than the life I enjoy today.
If you can appreciate the difference that travel can make to a young person, the way it can open eyes and minds and futures undreamed of—and if you know a student who could benefit from this program—please learn more about the SYTA Youth Foundation at sytayouthfoundation.org. And if possible, consider supporting their cause.
Because a music trip can go much further than the bus will carry you.
Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.