To describe her as an inspiration just doesn’t seem to do her justice!

Last updated: Jun 4th, 2024

She’s organised 17 music tours in 17 years, giving thousands of students from Saffron Walden County High School the chance to perform, grow and learn in beautiful destinations around Europe ­– to describe music teacher Gillian Smith as an inspiration just doesn’t seem to do her justice!

Having worked in the marketing department at Rayburn Tours for over five years, I spend my days writing about the benefits of touring and sharing teachers aspirational stories, in the hope of inspiring other teachers to take the plunge and organise a music tour for their school music group. If you’d have asked me last week if I truly understood the benefits of a music tour to both students and teachers I would have said ‘absolutely’, but this week, when I met Gillian at Saffron Walden County High School, I had my eyes opened as I listened to her speak so humbly and share her heartening stories. As I entered the magnificent state-of-the-art, 730-seat Saffron Hall, it was clear that this school were giving students a diverse array of performance opportunities from right here in the grounds of the school to stages all around Europe.

The school’s music tour history dates back to 1998, when students and teachers embarked on their first music tour to Valkenburg in Holland, and there’s been a tour every year since. Gillian told me, “I know touring every year seems a little extreme, but I think I would get a lot of grief from the students at the school if we didn’t go every year, and, fortunately, the parents are happy to fund it. We’re also very fortunate that our Head Teacher allows us to put the music tour on the calendar every year.”

So, why does Gillian do it…?

2013 tour to Tuscany, Italy

For the students?

Partly, yes! From Holland to Italy, Spain to Austria and most recently Prague, the opportunities Gillian and her team of supporting staff are giving these students is remarkable. Gillian explained, “They gain confidence. They gain friendship. They gain great comradeship, as being together as a group is terribly important. They certainly come back as better musicians! I’m also a great fan of languages, so giving them the chance to speak German in Germany for instance is yet another added bonus.”

Platja Sant Salvador, El Vendrell (3)
2012 tour to Barcelona, Spain

For herself and her colleagues?

Whilst the benefits to the students are of course paramount, the benefits to a teacher shouldn’t be overlooked, after all there’s got to be a reason that Gillian takes on the additional task of organising the tour year after year. “It gives me a big buzz. I love teaching and I love being with the students. It improves my conducting, I hope, and improves me as a player too. And the team of staff, from the music department get to have quality time together, so as musicians and teachers we eat together, travel together and we have time to talk and reflect.

Believe it or not, it makes us value students much more, because in school you can be terribly busy and you don’t truly realise how good these kids are and how much they do practise.”

2011 tour to San Remo, Italy
2011 tour to San Remo, Italy

To create hard-working and dedicated ‘teams’?

“Like many schools, we’ve found it hard to get students to attend rehearsals at certain times of the year. The fact that they are going on music tour suddenly means more commitment and responsibility. It’s amazing how students begin to realise that they need to be reliable and that they are part of this team, part of this band, part of this orchestra, and that they’ve got to play well and turn up.”
For Gillian, the benefits certainly seem to outweigh the work that she has to put into organising the tour, but as she said, “I love organising them, but I couldn’t do it without Rayburn Tours”.

Gillian has chosen to work with Rayburn Tours on her last seven tours, but how do you pick the right partner for you? She said, “picking a tour operator isn’t easy, and I haven’t always got it right, so perhaps start with a recommendation from a colleague or someone like myself with plenty of experience. Look for reliability and someone at the end of the phone. I know I can phone Rayburn in the evening and I will get through to Judy or another member of the team. Look for an organised, knowledgeable, consistent team at a reputable tour operator.”

I was only with Gillian for an hour, but it’s easy to see why she continues to organise these amazing music tours every year. As I left the school I felt moved to hear that the services that we offer can help inspirational teachers like Gillian provide students with such fantastic opportunities to grow, learn, develop and have fun, creating fond memories of their school music career. I began to wonder why every teacher doesn’t do it, if not every year like the fortunate students of Saffron Walden County High School, then every other year or every three years? The rewards are immense!