In early March, I had the pleasure of joining the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers during their concert tour of Germany and Austria. This was my first time traveling with a choir, and since I was primarily there to watch and learn, I compiled a list of a few things to keep in mind when preparing for a European performance tour.
DO: Appoint a “Luggage Crew” to load/unload luggage, music stands, instruments, etc.
The Singers had pre-assigned a crew of about six people who were in charge of loading and unloading luggage. This really expedited the process – rather than everyone standing around and waiting for their chance to grab only their suitcase from the bus, we waited in our seats while the crew unloaded everything. Two people were also pre-appointed to retrieve and distribute hotel room numbers and keys. Once all of the suitcases were lined up on the sidewalk, we could just grab our bags and go. This efficient system allowed all 60 of us to get checked into a hotel within ten minutes!
DO: Expect to do a lot of walking. (But DON’T wear brand new shoes, unless you want blisters.)
In the United States, we get accustomed to driving everywhere and pulling into a parking lot right in front of our destination. But Europe was built long before tour buses and motorcoaches came into existence, and many old city centers and small towns are still only accessible by walking along narrow, cobblestone streets. Considering the distances that we covered during walking tours, while independently exploring cities, and en route to concert venues, we easily averaged at least 3-5 miles each day.
To avoid blisters, aching arches, and swollen ankles, be sure to bring along good shoes. Not necessarily new shoes– but comfortable shoes that are already “broken in”.
DON’T: Forget to pack warm clothes that can be worn for performances, if you are traveling during any time of the year other than summer.
The churches and cathedrals that had been selected as concert venues for our tour were breathtaking, and unlike anything I have ever seen in the United States. They had been chosen for their symbiotic relationship to the music that the Singers had come to perform. Their soaring ceilings and vast stone interiors had been purposefully designed centuries ago specifically to showcase the works of Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and other Baroque and Classical composers of the day. Likewise, these same compositions were often inspired by and written for these venues.
However, although these elements are aesthetically and acoustically ideal for a venue, they also predate modern central heating systems and, in early March, they make for perpetually cold concert environments. The Singers always looked very sharp in their concert dress, but they must have been freezing. They were troopers though, and never once complained, but I was trying not to shiver despite wearing long pants, a sweater, and a jacket. During their final concert at the Kollegienkirche in Salzburg, the women were encouraged to wear black pants underneath their skirts and a scarf around their shoulders, which seemed to help a little.
So unless you plan to travel during the warm summer months, you may consider packing some long underwear or fleece leggings to wear underneath your concert attire, and perhaps ask the women to invest in a simple black cardigan or shawl that can be worn during particularly chilly performances.
DO: Give impromptu performances whenever it’s appropriate (and after obtaining permission).
After Dinner or Tours: Monique, our tour manager, would frequently invite the Singers to sing a song or two after finishing dinner at the hotel or upon completing a walking tour or museum visit, as a way of thanking the servers and guides. These songs were always very appreciated and well-received.
Outside of Performance Venues: We had a little extra time before rehearsal began at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, so the Singers assembled in front of the church and sang for the audience of passers-by that quickly gathered to listen. It was a great way to promote their concert later that evening, and the onlookers really enjoyed the spontaneous performance.
At Meaningful Sites: The Singers were able to pay tribute to Bruckner in the chapel above his grave at the Abbey of St. Florian, and let their voices ring throughout the ornate Haydn Hall. Such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities were some of the tour highlights for these music students.
For me, the most powerful moment on the tour was when we were leaving the Buchenwald concentration camp. We had stopped for a visit to Buchenwald on our way to Leipzig, and spent a couple of hours quietly roaming among the foundations where overcrowded dormitories and ominous crematoriums once stood, and viewing the black-and-white photo exhibit on display in the museum there. The Singers were denied permission to sing a memorial song on the grounds, so instead they sang on the bus as we drove away. Their hauntingly beautiful rendition of Biebl’s Ave Maria gave me chills as we rode down the winding roads lined with beech trees that, only decades before, had been the site of such sadness and despair. My mind recalled the images that I had just seen of liberated prisoners—hardly more than wide-eyed skeletons—walking past these very trees on their way towards freedom, and the Singers’ soaring vocals carrying that hopeful melody made it a reverent, moving experience.
DON’T: Leave your umbrella at home!
This may seem like a no-brainer, but even though I consider myself an experienced traveler, it somehow never occurs to me to pack an umbrella. After yet another long Michigan winter, I think I was too optimistic about the weather we’d encounter while in Europe. Sure enough, our first few days were beautiful– sunny and spring-like– but then on Wednesday morning, we woke up to a light but persistent drizzle that lasted throughout the day. Most of the group members had remembered to bring their umbrellas, and our bus driver Rein had a few tucked away to lend to people, but I was reminded to add “Umbrella” to my mental checklist the next time I pack my suitcase.
DO: Ask someone to be the tour photographer.
If you have any non-performers traveling with you, ask them to be in charge of taking pictures during your trip! Taking photos is a great way to remember all of the amazing things that happened, and sharing them on social media allows your friends and family back home to follow your tour from afar.
With all of the excitement and activities that go on during a tour, there’s not always time to pause and pull out your camera—especially during a performance. On the other hand, if you spend the entire trip peering through a lens because you’re worried about missing a photo op, you’ll miss out on actually experiencing everything first-hand. By appointing a couple of people to take pictures, you can relax and enjoy each moment as it happens, reassured by the knowledge that all of the memorable ones are being properly captured and preserved.
Furthermore, if you have a very large group, you may find that assigning a couple of tour photographers will save you time during museum visits or walking tours. Instead of holding up a guided tour through Haydn’s house just so that 20 people can take the exact same picture of his wig, your one or two designated photographers can be entrusted to thoroughly document the experience for everyone. Plus, it reduces the risk of anyone getting lost or missing out on interesting information from the tour guide, simply because they were still in the previous room Instagramming a marble bust of J.S. Bach.
Lastly, be sure to encourage your photographers to post their work on your group’s social media pages for everyone to enjoy!
To purchase the USD Chamber Singers’ CD on iTunes, click here: Yours In Song (2013)