The Journey Beyond The Classroom

Apr 14, 2015

Travel Notes

The day began at 4:00AM and although not yet 8:30 in the morning, has included loading over 111 individuals (most between the ages of 14 and 18), their luggage and instruments onto two very cramped vehicles which should have been advertised to hold 55 very small people each. We’ve been on the road for an hour and a half of what will be a 12 hour journey to the Big Apple.

Days like this beg the question: “Why do I do this?” This particular trip finds me only a co-pilot rather than responsible for the entire experience. But having planned numerous similar adventures, I find myself questioning the sanity of it all. If you have ever attempted to traverse the New York City Subway System with a hundred young people behind you who are too fascinated by the rats and the smell to realize how petrified you are that you might lose one of them, you know what I am talking about.

I am sure most choral directors at one time or another have traveled or will travel with students. Many of my colleagues have journeyed much farther than I to destinations in Europe and beyond. Some have returned with harrowing tales of hotel and weather disasters. But most have gathered wonderful stories of experiences shared with students which will create life long memories. These memories will be cherished by the students and the director alike. That’s where the answer to “why?” can be found: in the memories.

I have more wonderful memories and funny stories from these experiences than I could ever fit in one short article. Memories like that of an awe-struck young man, who happened to be both a singer and a cellist, walking into Carnegie Hall and saying “Mrs. Gillis, do you think Yo Yo Ma has ever played here?” You can imagine his reaction when I said I was pretty sure he had (probably last week). I have a memory of a young singer being chosen to sing a solo on that same Carnegie stage, only to find on the day of the performance that he had left his white dress shirt hanging on his bathroom door at home. I still have a running joke with my husband about his expedition through the streets of Manhattan to find the cheapest possible white dress shirt with a 15 inch neck. He found it: Egyptian cotton, $85. To this day, I will touch the sleeve of his nicest dress shirts and say “hey, that’s nice. Is that Egyptian cotton?” That same young man is now a choral director himself at a private school in Chicago. Last year, his students sang for Michelle Obama.

Then there are memories like that of my very first trip with students. It was a journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco and I was 24 years old, barely older than the majority of my students. My husband (who happened to be missing his own law school graduation that weekend) and another parent were the only other chaperones. The kids were good as gold and enjoyed every moment. However, the chain smoking parent chaperone that didn’t even make it to Northridge before lighting up in the bathroom of the bus, she was another story.

I cannot leave out the day trip taken with a wonderful group of 6th graders who took an almost perfect 99 out of 100 score at an amusement park festival. They would leave me shortly after that performance for junior high school but they also had just discovered I was moving to the high school and would see them again in two short years. At the end of the long day, several boys surrounded me with hugs and said “Don’t be sad Mrs. G, it’s only a little time apart.” Out of the mouths of babes! Those 6th graders now include a professional actor with performances recently reviewed in the Washington Post and a key grip who has filmed a movie with Jennifer Aniston.

Finally, I must say a person has not lived until they have watched the latest Disney-Pixar film on a charter bus with a group of teenagers. They are finally old enough to really get the humor! And, they take such joy in sharing it with someone else. It is an opportunity for them to be both little and big at the same time without fear of judgment. What a joy!

If you have not yet traveled with your singers, or if your last experience was less than stellar, all I can say is the good will outweigh the bad and either give it a shot or try it again. The memories created, better yet, the people created from those experiences will be well worth the time and energy invested.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the American Choral Directors Association’s Central Division Resound Newsletter. 

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