In a perfect world, all students who wanted to take band would find their way to their school’s beginning music program, pick out their lifelong instrument, begin their musical journey tutored by their school’s music educators and remain a die-hard band member through college.
However, in the real world, music as a school activity has to compete with sports, work, family, other school groups and the perceptions about music that have been around for 50 years. In addition, technology has created more competition, which makes recruitment of new members more critical than ever. Recruiting new students is in addition to each music educator’s efforts to retain the students who are already invested in the program – as if there wasn’t enough to do. Knowing that every school district, school music program, music educator and community are different, following are some ideas from music educators across the country on what can be done to recruit and retain music students.
• Have a school group perform for every student in your school district at least every year, and include key special programming for each group (Pops for middle schoolers, instrument introductions for elementary, etc.).
• Have talented high school, college or local community members provide an instrument demonstration to show students that music is enjoyable lifelong. Offer music groups to perform for local community organization meetings and special occasions (Kiwanis, Lions Club, School Board, VFW, etc.). The more people know about the program, the more they will support it and encourage others.
• Take your group on a trip that is mostly educational, not just performance-based, and bring non-members along so they can see what music students are like when they are not playing.
• Hold a Parent Band Hour where parents of potential band students are invited to practice with the current marching band for one hour. The parents show up and are handed an instrument (even though they can’t play it they are required to carry it), and they are handed a sheet of marching drills. The parents are encouraged to learn 32-64 counts of a drill. The current students help the parents learn how to read the drill set sheet, understand the commands, how to stand at attention and how to march smoothly in a line. The parents are immersed into the drill for an hour, and then the current band students and the parents “perform” the set of 32-64 counts with the parents marching (and carrying a horn) and the students marching and playing side-by-side. It gives the parents of the potential band members appreciation for the skills required to be part of a marching band and, in turn, they encourage their children to give it a try for themselves.
• Have your 8th grade band (and friends) join your high school band at a Friday night football or basketball game with pizza to follow.
• Have your elementary and middle school bands attend a rehearsal with your high school band. Rehearse one or two numbers from each folder with everyone playing along (good sight-reading for the older students).
• Use high school students to mentor younger musicians.
• Have students offer to speak about music and band in elementary classrooms just before band signup day.
• Solicit the help of a fellow teacher in finding a way to have students earn credit in their class by attending a concert, researching a piece of music, etc.
• Program one piece each year that can then be connected to another subject area and work with that teacher to incorporate the two efforts (Kandinsky’s use of Stravinsky’s music in Art, “Of Sailors & Whales” to connect to the reading of Moby Dick in English, movie themes to drama or theater classes, etc.)
• During the weeks prior to when student’s sign up for high school courses, have your band leaders offer a presentation with the student perspective of “What I wish I had known about high school band.”
• Promote yourself as a teacher like no other in your school. You teach a ‘fun class’ that is active, engages all students and has a sense of pride, tradition and teamwork without being competitive within. Students take music because they want to – not because they have to be involved in music. Give them personal reasons to be involved in music.
• Find ways to demonstrate the instruments and music to the general school population by having soloists or small groups perform for various events or just in the cafeteria once a month or week. Perform yourself and play just one pop tune.
• Include the “other instruments” prominently in your offerings, demonstration and performances. Play trombone and use the glissando, Charlie Brown’s teacher voice and pedal tones to emphasize the fun in playing different instruments. Promote the euphonium, tuba, bass clarinet as the foundation of the band and the instruments that hold it all up.
• Support your school’s drama club performances by offering yourself and your students for the pit orchestra in their musical or just interlude or background music in their other performances (also a good way to find opportunities for the composers in your school to write music specifically for a play).
By reaching out and showing students that music is for everyone and is enjoyable, your program will do well despite declining school enrollments and buck the trend that students participate less and less in group activities. By providing musical performances for students in the lowest grades, you plant the seed early on that music is for them. Everyone has music in their lives on a daily basis, so make sure everyone is aware that they cannot only be music listeners, but music makers.