Taking on the World

For marching bands that love to travel, international destinations—from London to Malaysia—open up worlds of opportunity for cultural and musical exploration. Get ideas from those who have journeyed before you on how to take advantage of performance experiences outside of the United States.

Photo courtesy of Gateway Music Festivals and Tours

It was New Year’s Day in Rome. The Pope had just given his New Year’s Day blessing as the crowd in St. Peter’s Square breathed in the hope and the energy. Among the listeners, Adrienne Rall, a color guard section leader with the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK), had just marched a spectacular parade route from Castel Sant’Angelo onward to the Vatican as thousands cheered. She took one last look before she fell in line, then the drumline began a cadence back toward the buses.

As band members loaded their equipment to the cadence, an audience began to form. Several dozen became several hundred, so the band obliged with an impromptu concert.

“They huddled around our buses, dancing and singing and wanting more,” Rall remembers. “People began opening their windows to listen and to dance to our music. We even had nuns dancing with us! I couldn’t believe the overwhelmingly positive and joyous atmosphere surrounding us. That singular day made every early morning marching in the cold, every summer day spent in camp instead of on vacation, every bruise from a flag pole … worth it.”

International marching band trips introduce young performers to different cultures, rich historical locations and the skills needed to open up a lifetime of travel and exploration. More and more band directors are including a trip abroad as a regular part of their program every three to four years.

Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Day Festivals, New Year’s parades in London and Rome, the Calgary Stampede in Canada and Caribbean cruises rank as the most popular international destinations for marching bands.

Exploring the Past and Future

Why choose an international trip over a less complicated, stateside festival?

“Being culturally literate and aware is a primary goal of education,” says Dr. Randal Dickerson, band director at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who has led the Blugold Marching Band on three international trips since 2008. “I try to pick locations my students will probably not visit on their own. My tours always venture outside the comfort level and expose the students to cultures that widen their perspectives.”

In 2014 the Blugold Marching Band will be traveling to Tokyo, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand through the Royal Caribbean cruise line.

Dr. Neil Schnoor from UNK chose Italy twice during his tenure as director for many of the same reasons. “I wanted our students to have a rich cultural experience as well as perform for varied audiences in varied settings,” he says. “The richness and diversity of the historical, artistic, archaeological and cultural fabric of Italy and Rome are truly exceptional.”

Whether it’s visiting the Sistine Chapel in Italy, the Blarney Stone in Ireland or The Tower of London, the places that students read about in books become real. “[The students] become historians as Mr. Keller [band director] plans a variety of tours that are historical as well as cultural in nature,” says Jim Person, principal of Ashburn, Va.’s Stone Bridge High School, which has traveled to the London New Year’s Parade twice in the past five years.

And that understanding of history isn’t limited to the physical buildings that the students visit. It also extends to the music they study. “We chose Ireland because of the culture and the Irish influence we find in our music,” says Alex Claussen, band director of Bartlesville (Okla.) High School.

Claussen has continued Bartlesville’s tradition of traveling internationally every four years. “I feel it is important to use music as a vehicle to show students the world,” he says. “I was fortunate as a teenager to go on a seven-country European tour with the U.S. Collegiate Wind Bands, … and it changed my life. That experience was one of the many reasons I decided I wanted to teach music. I feel strongly about the life lessons students can learn through travel.”

And the response of international audiences can be incredibly rewarding, “Audiences in other parts of the world aren’t accustomed to U.S. marching bands, and they respond with unbelievable enthusiasm,” Dickerson says. “On our last cruise [out of Italy], we performed in the main theatre three times. Every performance was filled to overcapacity, and the audiences stood and chanted for more encores every time.”

Indeed, parents say these early positive experiences instill confidence and inspire the possibility for future study abroad. “With the opportunity to travel with a group and on a schedule, it takes away some of the fears of international travel,” shares Bartlesville parent Jeanette Miller.

Ellen Vlcek from Stone Bridge concurs. “It really opens up their minds to the possibility of traveling overseas in the future,” she says. “My older son, who is now in college, and other students that went on that first trip are eagerly seeking out study abroad programs. The trip helped him to form a different perspective on how the rest of the world lives.”

Timing is Everything

Band directors typically review both festival schedules and school calendars to determine the most appropriate times to travel. Choosing a New Year parade allowed Schnoor’s students to “enjoy the Christmas holiday at home with family, experience Italy for a week … and return in time for second semester without having to miss any classes,” Schnoor says.

Similarly, band director Mike Peterson was searching for a parade competition in the summer months when he planned his first trip to the Calgary Stampede with the Fulda (Minn.) Marching Band in 1990. Traveling in the summer fit perfectly with this parade band’s season and avoided the busy winter months when band trips interfered with sports tournaments and family holiday celebrations. Once Fulda attended its first Stampede, a.k.a. “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the band was hooked! It became a favorite trip, one that the group repeated three more times before Peterson retired last year.

“The fantastic rodeo, the beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery and the hospitality of the Canadian people were just outstanding,” Peterson says.

By Land or Sea

Peterson also chose Canada as a destination because he wanted a trip that would accommodate a smaller budget and allow travel by coach bus. Indeed, most tour companies cite airfare as the largest expense and greatest uncertainty associated with international travel. Ticket prices, delays, baggage fees and instrument transport via air can be complicated.

International travel by sea has also become a popular and sometimes less complicated option. “I want to expose my students to more than one culture, and cruising provides that opportunity without having to check in and out of multiple hotels,” Dickerson says. “You travel at night and spend all of your daylight hours performing and visiting cultural sites. Since all meals are included, I don’t have to worry about a student potentially running out of money. Once the equipment is loaded onto the ship, we don’t have to lug it around from place to place.”

While Dickerson’s group flew to its point of departure in Italy, many groups are able to drive to a port right here in the United States.

During cruise festivals, marching bands typically perform standstill performances for adjudication although some may choose a parade review that involves marching a length of the pier (approximately 100 yards) while at one of the ports.

The Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico and Bermuda are the most popular cruise destinations, according to Dennis Rhoads of Music Festivals & Tours, which hosts the popular Cruise Festivals for marching bands. He notes that some marching bands depart from Port Canaveral, Fla., after spending some time participating in one of the popular theme park festivals for an added parade experience.

Paul Bahr, principal of the Milwaukee (Wis.) Lutheran High School, has been taking his music groups on international cruises since 2006. His marching band chose New Orleans as a point of departure for its rich musical offerings and organized a performance with a local New Orleans high school prior to leaving port.

From Dream to Reality

So you’ve chosen your dream destination. How do you get started?

The first step is choosing a musical performance tour company, which has expertise that an average travel agent may not have. “Pick a company that has a proven track record of successful tours with school groups,” Dickerson recommends. “The company must be able to secure the required permits for the concert venues. This may include copyright issues. They must also understand equipment transportation and storage. Check for their insurance coverage.”

Then, enlist the support of your band parents and administration. “The logistics of moving more than 115 musicians and their baggage—that includes instruments, uniforms and medications to go along with personal belongings— through airport security still astounds me.” Person says. “One band director cannot do it alone, so he is dependent on a core group of assistants and parents. It becomes an energizing, feelgood, prideful community event.”

A good tour company will walk parent volunteers through the steps needed for securing foreign currency and passports and may even send a representative to help educate the group on local culture.

Allow 18 to 24 months for planning and fundraising, recommends Mark Hoffman of Gateway Music Festivals & Tours. “If you start at two years, it’s a good goal, so you can narrow down your destination, plan and still have 18 months to collect payments. There are bands that do it within a year. But especially with marching bands, with more passengers, it’s usually a bigger undertaking.”

A musical performance tour company will also understand the complexities of how to deal with instruments. Tori Cook of Encore Tours says this can involve transport and fees on airlines, storage and transport on land, rental opportunities, insurance options and assistance with any unexpected damage or claims during the trip. She explains that some countries even require special documentation called a “carnet” for bringing instruments into their countries without paying a customs duty.

To make planning easier, Claussen schedules an inspection tour prior to the big trip. “It makes a huge difference to have seen where you are going before you take everyone over.”

Still, despite best efforts, the unexpected is bound to occur. It is important to look for a tour company that will have a representative available to you 24/7 while you are traveling to solve any problems.

“We try to teach our students that ‘adversity is our asset,’” remarks Claussen, whose groups have dealt with unexpected obstacles including an airline strike that delayed flights home for part of the group. “It makes for a much more fun trip when we don’t let things we can’t control get the best of us.”

Are you wondering whether an international trip might be the next step for your band program?

“International travel for any performance group offers the opportunity to grow in the understanding of cultural differences of people around the world and yet share the fact we all speak the same musical language and the same love of performance,” says Lloyd Whitehead, who has traveled internationally as a band director at Ida (Mich.) High School and as a tour consultant for Brightspark Travel. “The thrill of sharing a performance with an audience in another part of the world or performing in a mass ensemble with students from other countries cannot be replicated in domestic trips.”

Since that trip to Italy in 2005/2006, Rall has traveled with the UNK program again as a member of the staff. What’s her advice? There’s no time like the present! “How often do you get to share your music and your culture with people halfway around the world?,” she asks. “These trips with your band family will be what you talk about for years to come.”

About the Author

Catina Anderson has been involved in the marching arts for almost 30 years, first as a performer and then as an instructor. She is the founder/editor of www.colorguardeducators.com, a website for color guard coaches. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Towson University and a master’s degree in education from Marymount University.