The Imperative for a Quality Recruitment and Retention Program
In a recent interview appearing in Yamaha’s SupportED magazine, composer Eric Whitacre expounds upon his believe that music is a fundamental form of expression in that…
"it’s built in—it’s hardwired into our systems. . .and…when practiced together—creates empathy, creates compassion, creates a bond between people that is singular. There’s really no other discipline or practice that creates a bond like that and I don’t mean just a spiritual bond, I mean a biological bond, a chemical bond. Hormones are released in the brain that cause you not only to be less stressed but cause you to bond—chemically bond—with those people around you. (https://yamaha.io/2vdRAex)"
Ultimately, this is the essence of music-making—the enhancement of our lives through these and many other related experiences. Why, then, wouldn’t we want to do everything in our power to enrich the lives of as many people as possible, as early as possible, through the joy of music-making.
The focus of this article is thus to provide innovative recruitment and retention ideas that could be implemented to help directors reach an increasing number of young people. Perhaps your program is already using some of these strategies, but others may be new and provide a boost to your list of R&R activities.
Common Beliefs of Successful Recruiters
The best ideas come from directors who have established successful recruiting and retention practices. The Music Achievement Council, a 501 (c)(6) non-profit whose purpose is “to enable more students to begin and stay in instrumental music programs, [and] to share real-world, successful strategies developed by instrumental music teachers,” has taken the lead in identifying and interviewing these directors as well as sharing their best ideas back out to others through a variety of complimentary publications. (www.musicachievementcouncil.org)
Many of those interviews were held in Chicago with directors who either have taken their groups to perform at the Midwest Clinic or have been widely recognized for sustaining quality programs in the long term. Below is a strand of common beliefs regarding equity that revealed itself consistently.
- Every student will be interested and welcomed.
- All students will have an equal opportunity to succeed.
- Music is an integral part of every student’s total
- All students want to play because it looks like fun!
We know that music impacts the lives of all students favorably so approaching recruitment through the lens of these equity beliefs helps directors expand their view of potential student participants.
An important facet identified repeatedly was the culture associated with the music program. The following key steps were provided to help attract an increasing number of students.
- Students are attracted to programs that have high visibility. Rehearsal rooms are generally located in a far corner of the school building so the suggestions below were provided to help increase visibility apart from that of the more traditional, formal concert setting.
- Meet with your supervisor to ask for a list of birthdays of the school staff. On that person’s special day, send a small group of students from any of your classes to barge right into that person’s classroom/work area to honor them by performing a short serenade and presenting a small gift—perhaps a balloon decorated with your program’s name or logo along with the students’ signatures. The birthday “celebrity” will love it and the students in that classroom/work area will get a real kick out of it and perhaps view the music ensemble from a new perspective.
- Whether you direct a high school or middle school program, schedule assemblies at the elementary schools to generate excitement in music-making as early as possible. Program a march for the performance—perhaps something the students might recognize—and just prior to starting that selection, turn to the student body and ask, “Who would like to direct the band?” You can be assured that almost every hand will shoot upward immediately. Choose a student, give them a baton to use (or even keep) then let him/her have at it. (Be sure to have your ensemble ready to stay together no matter what ensues!) During the piece, every student watching will wish that they had been the one chosen—THIS IS A GOOD THING! At the conclusion, have your students make a big fuss over the chosen student conductor in front of his/her peers. In fact, this will probably become a big part of (what you hope will be) the annual assembly at the elementary school. Students at this age are highly impressionable and will gauge an experience like this favorably. Directors have shared that their students often recounted their memory of seeing the band perform for the first time at the elementary school assembly and that this singular performance had a significant impact on their eventual participation.
- Open out-of-school rehearsals to non-involved students. This not only increases visibility, but also promotes an atmosphere of inclusion. Offer an Open Rehearsal and Pizza Night where music students are encouraged to bring a friend who is not (yet) involved.
- We all know the phrase, “music makes students smarter” but have you ever thought about the fact that informing parents of the benefits of an education in music makes them smarter as well? Increasing visibility to parents whose children are not already engaged can however, be a challenge. Below are several ideas for enlightening all parents in addition to school and district-wide administrators, school board members and superintendents.
- Every school has a regularly scheduled parent newsletter, and, in most cases, the editors seek input from staff for good news to share. Music educators could offer to provide a quarter- or half-sized regular “Music Corner” that would publicize upcoming performances but more importantly, feature advocacy-laced news items that inform all parents of the benefits of music-making. Because school and district-wide administrators, school board members and superintendents also read these newsletters, they too will have access to the advocacy information provided. Below is an example “Music Corner” entry designed to engage with prospective parents.
- Local shopping areas and malls are always looking for special events to bring in shoppers and providing a semi-annual Petting Zoo takes the instrumental music program out into the community while also providing children with the opportunity to get up close and personal with all kinds of instruments. Involve the high school music students. They will generate additional excitement and enjoy the experience of sharing their talents with the little ones. Invite your local music dealer to bring their newest bright and shiny instruments to help attract the families and perhaps include a small memento for the high school students to give to the kids. Don’t pass up this opportunity to share advocacy information with the parents as well. I recommend the Why Learn to Play Music? brochure published specifically for parents by the NAMM Foundation and available to order in packages of 50 in English or Spanish at no cost. (http://bit.ly/WhyMusicEd)
- Remain accessible to all parents by sharing information about your program regularly at PTA meetings, parent advisory council meetings and through any other platform where involved parents gather. This can be accomplished by the director, a booster representative or both. These parents understand the value of having children involved actively in their education whether through the arts, athletics or other club activities. Be sure that these parents have your contact information and offer to have your students perform for these meetings or for events for other organizations to which these parents may belong—e.g. Chambers of Commerce, service organizations and non-profits. What is important here is high visibility—especially to those who may not know about your program (yet).
- Provide opportunities for the general school population to see how much fun your students are having. One director shared how her students presented a humorous version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” at a school-wide assembly while involving faculty members in the performance. Band students made signs for each of the 12 Days with “revised lyrics” as appropriate on the placards. As each sign was raised, the entire student body was encouraged to join in on singing the appropriate phrase. On the “First Day,” a science teacher, sitting in a kiddie pool surrounded by two band students, had an egg cracked over his head right on cue as the student body sang each, “a partridge in a pear tree” over and over. On the “Third Day,” a math teacher, sitting one chair down from the science teacher, had to endure three French Horn students playing the melody to the revised lyrics of “three French Horns” with one on either side and one just behind. This went on and on with the other 12 Days until they had progressed through the entire song. It was great fun for all of the students as well as the faculty and helped promote visibility.
Recruitment and Retention Activities Recommended that WORK!
Each of the ideas below were provided by directors who take the extra steps needed to ensure that an active recruitment and retention program is solidly in place. It takes considerable planning to get started but once in place, these activities will provide positive, memorable experiences for students and their parents.
- Most high school bands invite their middle/elementary beginning students to participate in one of the halftime shows but here are some ideas to make that experience even a bit more special.
- Empower the high school band students to become part of the recruiting process by asking them to send out personal invitations to like-instrument beginners to join the high school band in a pre-game pizza party and/or to sit/play in the stands during the game.
- Encourage the high school boosters to host a middle school parent reception during the pre-game pizza party and invite the principals from the participating schools to speak about the value of the music programs. Provide VIP seating/treatment for the guest parents so that they have an unobstructed view of their students on the field. The key is for the parents to view first-hand the level of enthusiasm of their child in this setting.
- Work with the beginning band director to prepare students for performing in one of the halftime shows. This can be easily accomplished by having the high school band form an arc centered on the field facing the home side. The beginning band students rush onto the field from the side lines at a given time to rousing applause as prompted by the program announcer and accompanied by an appropriate cadence from the percussion section. The beginners take their place in front of a like instrument partner who high-fives their like instrument beginner partner. At a given point, the high school band plays a few bars of repeated chord changes then the young musicians join in by playing a given pattern of notes in unison (it only takes 3) to cover the simple chord changes. With a bit of collaboration among all the directors, this performance could be the one experience that germinates the students’ interest in continued music-making. Be sure to end the performance with the announcer acknowledging the beginning band parents with “I’d like to ask the parents of these future high school band musicians to stand. Please join me in congratulating them on a wonderful first halftime performance!”
- Invite the elementary recorder students to play in the high school Spring Concert. Feature them in a couple of their own selections and also ask them to perform with the “big kids” in a piece to which a simple recorder part has been written. The young musicians will just love performing alongside their older peers. Be sure to allow time after the concert for parents to get photos of their children with the high school students. Break the “traditional” mold by allowing parents to come up onto the stage to get good close-ups. Consider inviting the elementary teacher to direct the band in one of their selections. It helps to bridge the gap when students and parents to see the elementary teacher conducting the high school program.
- A Pennsylvania director recommends having each 4th grade student touch, hold, and play three instruments of choice. He then follows up by sending a personal letter home advising parents of the success their child experienced on the (instrument). The resulting number of new band students “went through the roof.”
- Personal invitations can make students feel valued. Below are a couple of examples.
- Send/distribute invitations to prospective students to try out instruments for band. Below is one such example that was shared by a director in Texas.
- Send a personal invitation via the U.S. Mail to invite students into the program. The invitation could simply read, “Congratulations! You have been chosen to play (instrument) in the (name of school) band/orchestra, etc.” with subsequent directions outlining the next steps. It’s important that the director follow up to ensure that the student indeed gets enrolled into the proper class.
- Students don’t quit if their parents remain involved ACTIVELY in the program! They want to help! They just need a little guidance in how to assist effectively. After all, most of the parents of beginning music students don’t know what normal is. These recommendations will help guide the parents and, subsequently, the students.
- Teach parents how to support their child’s practicing.
- Establish a regular, daily practice schedule and stick to it.
- Set up a specific place for the student to practice.
- Provide a chair that promotes good posture.
- Provide a music stand.
- Ensure appropriate lighting.
- Most important: Make time to listen to practice sessions weekly and praise the student for his/her progress. Parents should also be encouraged to video song snippets to send to family members who reside out of town so that they may share in recognizing the student’s accomplishments.
- Give parents ideas of how to keep their children motivated.
- In most cases, students only know the sound of their instrument from what they hear at school and at home. Taking beginners to a live performance will reveal to them the incredible potential that lies in their future. Audio and/or video recordings just don’t have the same effect as a live performance.
- Take the beginning student to a live performance where their child’s specific instrument is being featured and arrange seating so that the instrument (as well as its performer) is in full view. Local libraries and universities often provide free or low-cost performances of high-level chamber ensembles or student recitals that serve this purpose well.
- Arrange for the young student to meet with the like-instrument performing artist after a live performance. Accomplished artists always seem to make time for our youngest players and the result can lead to a more inspired music student.
- Continue to show support and interest in the child’s progress by speaking about it to others. If the child “catches” a parent doing this, they will be motivated by it.
- Encourage parents to play an active role in the learning process.
- Help parents become more knowledgeable about their child’s instrument and its accessories by posting/sharing short videos either via your band’s YouTube Channel or school website. Your local music retailer can be of great assistance in coming up with these. Several such videos were created by A&G Music and are posted at http://bit.ly/BandParentTips.
- Schedule an annual Parent Band performance. Here is how it works. At the beginning of the school year, students are instructed to teach one or both parents, sibling, or other family member, to play their instrument over the course of the year. The Parent Band then performs several selections from their student’s method book at the final concert. Not only is this a fun way for parents/others to show support for their student, the student learns a great deal from teaching their instrument to someone else. A video example has been posted at http://bit.ly/ParentBand.
Contributing Factors Leading to Increased Retention
If you were to ask students why they continue to remain in the music program, they will respond with many non-musical reasons such as the family atmosphere, the overall enjoyment they get from it, and the satisfaction they derive from participating in a program that challenges them to perform at a higher level. All of these certainly contribute to the successful music-making experience but there are additional contributing factors that lead to increased retention.
- Appropriate scheduling is vital to establishing and maintaining a successful program. The most successful programs use the vertical alignment model where the high school director teaches the beginners and the beginning directors teach at the high school. It helps both students and parents to see the long view of the music program. The focus is not so much on the individual school’s program but rather on the individual student’s program. The point thus becomes to prepare students for life-long music-making by ensuring their participation in music throughout high school and, hopefully, beyond. This is the prevailing Texas model and it works but it does “take a village” to work cooperatively to coordinate the schedules. Rather than identifying as elementary, middle or high school music educators as an end unto our own programs, we should see ourselves as one, district-wide music education faculty with a variety of talents that can be used more effectively to benefit the needs of the students.
- Performing early is critical for beginning students. We can all remember the excitement of our first performance—dressing uniformly; being the center of attention yet within the security of a group setting; and especially hearing the rousing applause of an excited and supportive audience! Successful performances early in the career of beginning music students will ignite and accelerate their level of enthusiasm for music-making.
Developed by the Music Achievement Council, a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization, the First Performance National Day of Celebration (FPNDoC) is a turnkey demonstration concert designed to recognize and celebrate beginning instrumental (although it could certainly be adapted for vocal/other ensembles) students for their achievements. Based on the participation concept for beginning soccer programs where students demonstrate their athletic skills immediately, the FPNDoC program allows our youngest musicians to showcase their newly-acquired musical skills for the very first time in a public setting within the first 6-7 weeks of school. It is a scripted event that provides parents with the opportunity to hear their child’s progress in a short educational and entertaining program that requires little or no extra work for the teacher while also providing school administrators with an opportunity to view the joy and pride that our students, as well as their parents, experience in these early weeks.
The objectives of the First Performance National Day of Celebration are:
- To reduce beginner dropout rate,
- To provide short-range incentive goals,
- To encourage communication with parents,
- To further strengthen administrative support and
- To celebrate the musical accomplishments of the students.
The First Performance National Day of Celebration kit contains most of the concert support needed including:
- A sample letter/invitation to parents,
- A sample letter/invitation to the principal/administration,
- A fillable PDF Certificate of Advancement and
- A complete 20-minute concert with scripted narration to be delivered by the school principal/designee with optional introduction delivered by the local music dealer.
All directors need to supply is:
- Appropriate performance material to play during the performance, likely from the beginning band method book or from the Music Achievement Council’s own First Performance–A Demonstration Concert publication (Hal Leonard),
- A representative from the school administration, parent organization or the high school director to serve as the narrator,
- Advance publicity across the school and community including posters and school-wide announcements,
- Light refreshments to be provided following the performance and
- Printed certificates for each student musician celebrating this major advancement from beginning instrumental music student to Member of the Band/Orchestra/String/Guitar/Mariachi Program. (Fillable certificates available online at www.musicachievementcouncil.org.
The First Performance National Day of Celebration has been designed as a demonstration of progress. The ultimate goal is to reduce beginner dropouts, encourage positive communication with parents, strengthen administrative support for the program, and create a memorable experience for the students.
The sound of applause early in a musician’s life is infectious and can lead to a lifetime of music-making. The resulting memories will last for a lifetime. There will never be a more excited group of performers and supportive audience members than these young musicians and their families and friends. The First Performance National Day of Celebration is designed to provide a singular opportunity for students, parents, administrators, student peers and the community at-large to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of beginning instrumental students. It will also help to ensure a strong program overall. The complimentary materials provided to facilitate the event include a FPNDoC Toolkit as well those items referenced just above which are all available as a complimentary download at www.musicachievementcouncil.org.
- Reassuring students who may be on the borderline will make a difference. From time to time, all directors have to work with students who come to them to express the fact that they want to drop out of the program and this is when we must show that student that we aren’t willing to give up on them easily. There are a number of reasons that students seek to leave the program. Some include:
- The first disappointment,
- A perceived loss of interest,
- A dislike of the teacher and
- Conflicts either with the teacher or fellow students.
So, what can directors do? The most important thing is to show interest by speaking privately with the student to probe for the real reason they are choosing to quit. Check their instrument to be sure that it is in optimum working condition. Perhaps the student has become frustrated simply because he/she is struggling due to an instrument malfunction. Contact the parent to visit about the student’s situation. It could be that there is something that can be done to remedy the problem and keep the student in the program. The Iowa Bandmasters Association came up with an Exit Survey to consider using if students express a desire to leave the program. This a very effective tool to help students reflect about the program as well as to help directors hone in on the underlying reasons that a student might be unhappy in the program. A copy is posted at http://bit.ly/IBASurvey.
Modeling Through Student-to-Student Communication
It’s important to emphasize the importance of modeling by the high school students. The Halftime Show activity as described above is one such example. Another was shared with me by a high school director in Georgia whose students write cards/notes to the beginning (and sometimes intermediate) band students, congratulating them on their recent accomplishments. Encourage a high school trumpet student to write something like, “Congratulations on your performance at last week’s band concert,” or, “I heard you play at festival last week and you did a terrific job!” to a middle school band student who also plays trumpet. This can help inspire the younger students and spark their level of excitement. As we know, athletes get constant reinforcement from their older peers and this particular activity helps to provide the same for music students.
The First Performance National Day of Celebration event also described above can be enhanced even further by involving the high school instrumental students. Capitalize on the modeling that high school students can provide to beginning students and parents by having them available (in uniform or dressed uniformly) to distribute programs, answer questions, serve refreshments, or assist in tuning instruments prior to the performance. Younger students will want to emulate their older peers and parents will see how participating in music has benefitted these high school students. An added benefit is that the high school students will bolster their own sense of ownership in their program through this leadership experience. (FPNDoC also provides Certificates of Achievement for Music Education Leadership for participating high school students.)
As the younger students do something extra special (e.g. performing at Solo & Ensemble Festival) the word needs to get passed along so that the student can be recognized. When a student is signing up or trying out for the high school band, make sure a card/note is sent along saying something like, “Looking forward to having you join us in the band program next year.”
The focus is to open communications between those students who have gone on from the middle/elementary program and those who are just beginning. Maybe the older students could also play a role in a series of Saturday morning coaching sessions or a music camp for beginning players held over the summer to get the beginners started on their instrument even before the school year begins.
Some might think that the high school students are too busy to take on this task, but experience shows that the high school kids enjoy it. They come to realize that they are taking on the responsibility of retaining the beginning band students and it really works. It’s very exciting for them to know that through this type of nurturing leadership, they are leaving a legacy that will last for years to come.
The key is to promote regular, direct student-to-student communications. The younger students idolize their older peers and want to be just like them so demonstrating desired behavior through quality modeling activities like these is a great way to get them connected in a meaningful way. You’d be surprised how many of these young students can’t wait to get to high school so that they can become mentors to future beginners.
Your Enthusiasm Matters!
Kids are just amazing! We have the ability, the duty really, to “flip the switch” that can set each of them on the path to a more fulfilled life, but we have to remain enthusiastic about all that we do so that our efforts come together to keep our students engaged and motivated.
Music educators have the responsibility to do all that is possible to allow for every young person in this country to discover the joy of music-making. Although not always given the proper amount of attention—even by music educators themselves—recruitment and retention must be a year-round, highly-organized strategic part of the program in order to engage increased numbers of students. We must remember that the music skills rehearsal room is also the life skills rehearsal room where students learn how to build relationships and collaborate to build something greater than the sum of its parts. We can work to help students acquire these skills once in our music programs, but the responsibility ultimately rests with us to get them there and keep them.
Undoubtedly, music contributes to our well-being and it benefits all of us to establish a personal relationship with music. Nothing leads to a more in-depth relationship with music than music-making itself. You can’t get the same authentic, living art experience from a book, television, movies, or any other media. It must be created by the self.
I will close as I started with another quote from Eric Whitacre’s interview for SupportED magazine which sums up this imperative succinctly. “I think it’s not overstating it to say that music will help to save humanity—that the more people play music together, the better citizens we’ll all be.” https://yamaha.io/2vdRAex
About the Author:
Marcia Neel is senior director of education for the Yamaha Corporation of America, Band and Orchestral Division. She is president of Music Education Consultants, Inc. and serves as the education advisor to the Music Achievement Council, a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization. In these capacities, she presents sessions with practical success strategies for music educators at state music conferences, district in-service days and dealer workshops. She can be reached at email@example.com.