Planning a Choir Tour

Most choir directors at one time or another have dreamed of taking their choir on a performing tour to Europe. The image in one’s mind of directing the choir in some of the great churches and cathedrals in Europe is inevitably an appealing one. However, fears of whether the choir will be good enough, of the cost and of the intricate organization of the tour are, more often than not, enough to prevent even taking the first steps to turning the dream into a reality. So what is the reality? Would it be madness or the experience of a lifetime? What are the steps that a choir director should take and the potential pitfalls that he or she should avoid?

Over many years I have been involved with most aspects of making choir tours happen. I have traveled all over the U.S. visiting choir directors who were thinking about travelling to Europe with their choirs. I have traveled all over Europe as tour director with choirs and I have sat at a desk in tour operations making all of the arrangements for the trips. Nowadays, I run a tour company specializing in tours for choirs and I perform all of the aforementioned tasks. Hopefully, therefore, I am well placed to offer a few tips and warn of some of the pitfalls involved in embarking on a trip to Europe with your choir

The first step for any choir director is to establish that you want to take the choir on tour to Europe. It is almost inevitable that the choir will want to go and, once you have let the genie out of the bottle it would be only with some difficulty that you would be able to put it back.

Before you approach a tour operator you need to have an idea of when and where you would like to go. When you travel will be dictated by your group members to a large extent but bear in mind that prices, particularly of flights, are considerably less expensive at off peak times. Deciding where you travel to is perhaps the most exciting part. Britain is the most popular country to visit for a performing tour because of its fine choral tradition and its numerous old cathedrals with their great acoustics. An additional advantage is that they speak almost the same language. Also, it is naturally of particular relevance to Presbyterian and Episcopal Church choirs just as Italy is for Roman Catholic ones. Austria and Central Europe are also popular due to their associations with Bach, Mozart, Strauss and other composers.

Once you have at least a rough idea of when and where you wish to go, the next stage is to approach a tour operator. It is, theoretically, possible to organize everything yourself but the amount of work involved would be enormous and the saving probably minimal as your buying power would be small in comparison with that of a tour operator. There are a number of tour operators who specialize in trips for American choirs wishing to tour in Europe. Choosing the right one is a vital decision. Is the focus of your tour to be your performances or the sightseeing? I am not going to risk legal action by mentioning names but there are a number of companies that are basically student tour operators who slot in a few concerts to the sightseeing program. Check what is included so that you can compare like for like. Some quotes will include all of the evening meals whereas some may not. Some will include most of the cost of admission to sights whereas some will have blank days with expensive optional excursions. The rule of thumb should be that your tour operator should provide you with exactly what you want. Of course, they should advise you what is and is not possible and give suggestions where there are gaps in your knowledge. Based on the information you give them, they will produce a suggested itinerary and venues together with a provisional quote. They will arrange the venues for your concerts and or services, the publicity for them, rehearsal times and all of the other little details that are so important to a successful touring experience. The best venues for your concerts can become booked up about a year in advance, so ideally, you should be planning your tour around a year in advance with a view to sending deposits around nine months before departure.

Inevitably, a tour to Europe is not cheap and, unless you are lucky, there are likely to be members of the choir who find it difficult to afford the cost. If these happen to be your key tenors or sopranos (or altos or basses, sorry!) the choir may not function as well without them. You therefore need to find a way to help. Many tour operators will build in a number of free places in to the cost of your trip. As director and organizer you will more than likely deserve one yourself, but any others could be given in whole or part to the members mentioned. As you can imagine, this may well be information that should be kept secret so as not to upset those not receiving help who feel they need it, too. If you are intending to organize fund-raising events, our advice is to be bold. Selling candy is not likely to raise significant amounts, although every little helps. We had one group who raised several thousand dollars with a silent auction. The choir director’s husband was a talented local artist and he painted a picture that he donated. That raised $1000, and other choir members donated services such as half a day’s tree surgery or a weekend at their beach house.

Choir directors will find that, once the tour is definitely going ahead, attendance at rehearsals is more consistent and that there is an increased sense of purpose in the group. Nobody wants to sing in a 900 year-old cathedral in Europe and be the one who messes up. The overall standard of the choir will almost certainly improve.

A performing tour of Europe really bonds a group together. It is an opportunity for shared experiences, musical and spiritual growth, learning, exploring, fun and fellowship. The experience of a lifetime? – perhaps it would be madness not to.

Clive Richardson is director of Richardson and Gray Ltd. and can be contacted via www.richardsonandgray.com or directly via clive@richardsonandgray.com