Life as a tour guide

Last updated: Jan 30th, 2019

Wessex Youth Orchestra with Roy of Rayburn (!) at Calais

I was once told that “kids who are committed to music are good kids”, and it has been my happy experience to see the truth of that time and time again.

For several years I have acted as a tour guide, accompanying music groups on coach and occasionally flight tours, mainly to destinations in Germany and Austria. Most of my tours are with school groups or county music ensembles, with youngsters who are keen to take part and perform well, showing a lively interest in the trips and excursions which, together with the concerts themselves, make up a concert tour.

So what is my role as a tour guide, and what goes into it? You could best sum it up as assisting the group leader in ensuring the smooth running of the tour, but, to achieve that, much is in the pre-tour planning…

For me, a tour begins when I receive a draft itinerary from the team at Rayburn Tours, usually some months in advance. If the group is new to me, I always like to have a look at the school or group website to get an impression of their musical activities, their experience, and an idea of their repertoire. I also take a look at the tour routes and timings, the hotel website, and the events lists on local tourist websites to see if the concerts are there. Similarly, with excursions, it’s useful to have some background information about what is on offer, especially where the proposed excursions may be optional.

Just before the tour, a meeting at the tour company helps to finalise everything and clear up any loose ends. In effect, before the tour, I need to know where I’m taking the group, how to get them there, and what we’re doing when we arrive. There is nothing more apt for a tour guide than the scout motto to ‘be prepared’; an essential prerequisite for that smooth-running tour!

So, the tour itself. A coach tour often starts around midnight, with the practicalities of loading the coach and checking passenger numbers. I try not to be too intrusive at this point, as the party leader already has plenty on their mind! If anything, my main task here is reassurance – Yes, it’s ok for your lead clarinetist to pop back home and get their actual clarinet, yes, we will have a comfort break before Dover, yes, I really can speak German, and yes, I do know where we’re going!

Waiting for the ferry at Dover is usually the first chance for my introduction to the group, and for a ‘getting to know you’ chat with the group leader, other staff, and the coach drivers. Then, during the tour itself, it’s usually all go from morning to night!River Rhine

A typical day might start with me talking to the hotelier, such as on behalf of the girl who had worriedly told me that she’d “lost her pyjama bottoms in the night” and now couldn’t find them, and the boy who reported that the handbasin had come off the wall in his room, after all he did was “sit on it!”

Then, we’ll be heading off for the day’s events. There may be a morning excursion such as a Rhine cruise, and I’ll pick up the tickets at the landing stage, making sure everyone knows at which of the several stops we’re due to leave the ship. During the cruise, I’ll call ahead to the concert venue to confirm our time of arrival for the afternoon concert.

At the venue itself we arrange the changing rooms, the stage set up, the power supply… Oh, you’ve lost the continental adaptor? I have one in my bag! Your flautist has left his flute on the coach and his black shoes at the hotel? A quick call to our obliging coach driver, who brings the flute, but your flautist will have to play in his black socks, less obvious than his white trainers… What? The second trombone can’t find her black trousers? I notice that our obliging coach driver is wearing black trousers. He tucks himself away at the back of the coach in his underpants, she wears the trousers. Whatever the dilemma, I’ve seen (and solved) them all.

With the concert successfully over, it’s back to the hotel for our evening meal, perhaps followed by an evening activity such as bowling. Finally, at the end of the day, there’s time for a quick run through the programme for tomorrow with the group leader and coach drivers, before it all starts again…    Contemplating basses

The highlight of a tour is of course the concerts themselves and many of them have been a true delight. I have learnt a lot about repertoire that I’m not familiar with, I have been touched by the enthusiasm of the young performers, moved by a vocal ensemble’s soaring voices in the cathedral-like Menin Gate – along with around 2000 spectators, listening in reverential silence – and I’ve even been invited to play along at impromptu concerts on hotel terraces!

In other activities, I’ve been down salt-mines and summer toboggan runs, up cable cars and round German castles, not to mention the numerous theme parks. Perhaps scariest of all was having to judge the end of tour talent show and announce the winners – not something for the faint-hearted! Quite simply, it is all this that has made working as a concert tour guide such a busy but rewarding experience;  one that I hope to continue for years to come.


– Roy Varney, Concert Tour Guide for Rayburn Tours