Taking It on the Road: Touring for Choruses
Choruses and tour companies share their wisdom about touring.
For many choruses, some of their most moving and memorable experiences happen on tour. Group travel can bring members closer together and enhance the music-making and stature of an organization. To make the most of the experience—and the expense—both tour companies and choruses with touring experience recommend thinking carefully ahead of time about big picture goals and the nitty-gritty details of travel.
The very first thing a chorus considering touring must do is take a good hard look at what the organization hopes to accomplish by going on the road. “Really understanding the answer to that question will help resolve a lot of other questions along the way, but it’s one that many groups forget to ask themselves,” says Amanda Bauman of ACFEA Tour Consultants. “I ask groups early on: If your tour had a mission statement, what would it be?”
Building camaraderie is an important goal for many ensembles. Tour chair Karen Toppila of Chorus Niagara, which in recent years has traveled to England and Scotland, says that touring “brings congruency to our group. We see each other for breakfast, lunch, supper; we’re together all day and into the evenings. You don’t get that closeness when you rehearse once a week and then give four concerts a year.”
For some choirs, touring accomplishes the very purpose of the ensemble. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is charged with being ambassadors of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and according to general manager Scott Barrick, touring is an important part of fulfilling that mission. “The members of the choir and orchestra are able to share their love of music and their love of God by giving performances,” he says. Touring is also a reward for choir members. “We pay for their travel and expenses, so it's a ‘thank you’ to them for their long hours of volunteer service.”
Other benefits include collaborating with choruses across the country or around the world, or gaining perspective by seeing how other cultures do things differently—from serving food to organizing rehearsals and concerts. Traveling together can build a choral program through intense shared artistic experiences. Touring can also generate publicity for a chorus, which helps in recruiting and retaining members, and can raise an ensemble’s stature nationally or internationally.
The San Francisco Girls Chorus has toured to many locations including Cuba, Berlin, and Washington DC. The chorus recently re-evaluated its touring philosophy. Now its primary touring goal is to showcase the group on the international stage by engaging in collaborations with highly-regarded professional musical ensembles and youth choirs in other countries. According to executive director Melanie Smith, “now our tours are really based on the highest quality musical experience for our choristers and the organization.”
Where to Go: Domestic or International?
When a group begins to plan a tour, one of the first questions is where to go: stay in-country or travel abroad? The decision depends on a variety of factors. Often the destination is determined by opportunity or projects, as when groups collaborate with other ensembles or perform for festivals or competitions. For example, the San Francisco Girls Chorus will travel to the Nordic countries in June on a tour planned around artistic director Lisa Bielawa’s contacts with youth choirs there.
Many groups that choose to tour domestically are interested in shorter trips so that more members—many with limited vacation time—can go along. Another factor that tilts groups towards in-country travel is cost. “A lot of choruses alternate domestic and international trips to keep costs down,” says Tori Cook of Encore Tours.
Sometimes, however, international touring can generate more interest despite the higher price tag. New Jersey’s Harmonium Choral Society has traveled to Italy, Spain and Portugal, Eastern Europe, and Greece and Turkey. “We have always gone internationally,” says artistic director Anne Matlack. “It’s easier to build the excitement and give people the chance to do something they wouldn’t otherwise get to do.”
Groups are experiencing local communities differently: "less through the bus window and more into the villages." - Amanda Bauman
CoroRio, a children’s choir from Tennessee, discovered that member interest in a destination is a major factor when they floated the idea of travel to Costa Rica by their singers and families. Executive and artistic director Joelle Norris says that after a successful tour to Atlanta and Savannah, “we tried to put together a trip to Costa Rica, thinking for our first international tour we’d go a little closer to home—the price would be substantially less than a European tour especially with the economy being a little shaky. We put it out there and people just weren’t interested.” CoroRio is currently planning a tour to Italy with tour company Maestro by Tumlare; for this tour, they have a waiting list. “I thought Costa Rica was a financial thing but it just wasn’t,” says Norris. “It was interest.”
ACFEA’s Bauman says there’s a misconception that touring internationally is significantly more expensive, but that in reality airfare prices account for almost all of the difference in cost. “Groups want to make travel as accessible as possible by making it as affordable as possible, but we want choir members to get something they can’t get on their own,” she says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that a domestic tour can’t fit the bill, but groups should be cautious about touring domestically for the sake of the budget while sacrificing elements that might be crucial to that group’s mission in touring.”
To Self-Produce or use a Tour Company?
Another important decision for a choir planning a tour is whether to use a tour company or to self-produce. For many groups that self-produce the decision is based on cost; they save on the tour company’s fees by planning the tour on their own. The San Francisco Girls Chorus self-produces for this reason and because, according to Melanie Smith, “our host organizations essentially present us. Sometimes it involves homestays, which the girls love, and sometimes we find accommodations, but we have resources on the ground to help us.”
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s unique situation makes it easier to handle touring arrangements in-house. “We realized we could save by using in-house Church travel staff, and we have the advantage of having a huge in-house travel department because the Church sends missionaries around the world. We also have key partnerships with Delta Airlines and Marriott Hotels,” says Scott Barrick. The organization has touring down to a science, with rooms pre-assigned, luggage pre-delivered to rooms, buffet dinners with four serving lines required for efficiency, and a preference for large conference hotels. “Sometimes even large hotels will tell us they're used to handling convention guests, and we tell them that when we bring 700 people into the lobby at the same precise moment, you're not going to be prepared for that unless we work together to implement what we’ve learned over the years,” says Barrick.
"Our host organizations essentially present us. Sometimes it involves homestays, which the girls love, and sometimes we find accommodations, but we have resources on the ground to help us." - Melanie Smith
On the other hand, many ensembles choose to use touring companies to take advantage of the companies’ experience and contacts. Pennsylvania’s Valley Choral Society used Tour Resource Consultants for their recent tour to Washington DC—the group’s first tour in many years and the first under artistic director Patricia Conrad. Says Conrad, “it wasn’t even a consideration for me to try to do that ourselves. Not being familiar with the process, I thought it would be easier to let someone else do the planning.” Tour companies can also help choirs make contacts with ensembles at their destination. According to Harmonium Choral Society’s Matlack, their tour operator ACFEA is “always willing to work with us, to find connections with a group they know we will enjoy, and go back and forth with the group about what we will sing.” Matlack adds that having a professional guide along for the tour is a huge bonus. “In Spain and Portugal, we had a really good guide. She was willing to do almost anything. She would call ahead to a town to reserve tickets with her own credit card.”
For other organizations, whether to use a tour company or self-produce can vary tour to tour. For Chorus Niagara, when they have contacts in a host country they plan the tour themselves with the aid of a local travel agency at home to book the plane tickets and hotel stays. For their future plans to travel to Europe, however, “with the language barrier, we’re dealing with touring companies that specialize in musical tours,” says Toppila.
Current Trends in Touring
In recent years, ensembles have gotten more adventurous with their destinations and the activities they do during their travels. Tori Cook says that Encore Tours’ repeat clients are more willing to branch out to destinations that were traditionally off the beaten path, like Argentina, China, the Baltics, and Costa Rica. Groups that are newer to travel tend to start with more common European destinations: “Ireland because it’s budget-friendly, France because of the prestigious cathedrals there, Austria because of its musical heritage, and the UK in general—which is easy to start out with because there’s not much of a language barrier,” says Cook. “It’s a bit more comfortable for people completely new to travel.”
In terms of activities, choruses are more and more interested in connecting to local communities through collaborations, benefits, and volunteer work. For the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Chorus Niagara, collaborating with local choirs is the main impetus for travel. In each city where Chorus Niagara travels, singers come together with a local choir and rehearse, share a meal or two, and sing a joint concert. This provides the group with “wonderful social and musical connections with other choral communities,” says Anne Matlack. The Valley Choral Society chose to sing at Washington DC’s National Presbyterian Church on their recent tour because “my choir sings mostly in churches and we do church outreach at home,” says Patricia Conrad. “So we’re used to being involved in the community in that way.”
Some choruses choose to give benefit concerts to raise money for local charities while they’re on the road. According to ACFEA’s Bauman, the rewards of giving benefit concerts are twofold. “It’s a good way to give back to the community, and it helps a lot with audiences, cross-marketing,” she says. “One year we tallied up the money raised through benefits and other fundraising activities on tour. It was $60,000 for the season.”
Bauman also mentions that groups are experiencing local communities differently: “less through the bus window and more into the villages.” ACFEA recently sent a college choir from Cambridge, England to India, where they spent a week working on music lessons and performances with lower-income children and orphans. “Then they gave a full concert with orchestra in Goa,” says Bauman, “but that’s not what they talk about. They talk about playing hand drums with the children in the slums of Mumbai.”
"The advent of social media affects every aspect of touring, just like in other kinds of business. For example, Facebook senses momentum when likes and engagement increase on tour and it amplifies the reach of your message in amazing ways." -Scott Barrick
“One of the biggest things now is people are a lot more interested in giving back to the community,” says Cook. Joelle Norris says that CoroRio’s ten-year goal is to offer a music camp at an orphanage in another country, as “an opportunity for our students to see that there are other ways to use their gift of music. We want them to have more practical ways to use the gifts that they’ve been given.”
Another new aspect of touring is the opportunity to use social media before, during, and after the trip. “The advent of social media affects every aspect of touring, just like in other kinds of business,” says Scott Barrick. During the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 2013 tour, the organization saw how much impact being on tour can have on social platforms. “For example, Facebook senses momentum when likes and engagement increase on tour and it amplifies the reach of your message in amazing ways.” Harmonium Choral Society’s Matlack recommends connecting on Facebook with a host choir in advance. “We gave a joint concert in Greece with Greek choir Μελωδοi, and corresponded on Facebook before and shared videos after!"
Effects of the Economy
The current state of the economy has affected touring, but less than you might expect. According to Encore Tours’ Cook, chorus travel was down after September 2001, but has been picking back up. “Flight prices continue to go up, and that’s difficult for a lot of touring companies because we have no control over that. We’re seeing an increase in baggage fees and fuel fees, but we’ve seen a steady flow of tours since the post-9/11 period.”
Tough economic times do lead choirs to make careful decisions, however. Because they ask that members pay part of the cost of travel, the San Francisco Girls Chorus took a good look at their touring activities and goals. The cost of travel can also affect an ensemble’s choice of destination. The Harmonium Choral Society tries to stay away from the countries with the most expensive travel costs, says Anne Matlack. “We haven’t been to Scandinavia yet; we’re planning a Baltic tour for 2016 and hoping that will be reasonable.” Reflecting on CoroRio’s scrapped tour to Costa Rica, Joelle Norris concludes that “people are still willing to spend money, but they’re more picky about what they spend it on.”
To ease the financial burden on members who pay their own way, many choirs are careful to begin planning far in advance, and spread out the payments so that they are reasonable, as Matlack says, “about the size of a car payment.” Ensembles can also use the free tickets that come with their tour packages to bring along members who can’t pay their own way, or do fundraising to help members meet the costs of the trip.
For groups that self-produce their tours, the economy offers additional challenges in terms of filling audiences. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir likes to sell out their concerts 30-60 days in advance, but, says Barrick, “in a slow economy, people hold onto their money longer. They're not so quick to spend on discretionary items. A larger percentage of our tickets are sold close to the concert date.”
Cook from Encore Tours thinks that touring ensembles have always been budget-conscious, whatever the economic times, and now “there are many new fundraising outlets that make it easier to raise funds. There are so many options—for example, Amazon Smile, Kickstarter, and Facebook—that make it easy to network online and ask for funds that it actually makes fundraising more fruitful for choirs now than it has been in the past.”
Choruses that tour continue to find that the benefits—tangible and intangible—outweigh the costs. “Overall, what touring brings to a program is the sense of being part of something bigger,” says ACFEA’s Bauman. Toppila says that with touring “we become part of the community of singers worldwide. We reach out of our community, our small little world. And that is valuable.”
Kathryn Mueller is a writer and freelance soprano. She lives in Raleigh and is on the voice faculty at East Carolina University.
This article was adapted from The Voice, Winter 2014-2015.