5 Tips on Student Retention in Music Ensembles

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Have you been in this situation before? It’s the start of the school year. You have returned from a summer of planning and preparation. You have carefully planned your concert programs based on your ensemble’s strengths, numbers, the music’s educational value, and popular culture. You collect master building schedules and seek out the returning students so you can begin to get the year going. Inevitably, you will hear statements that can be summarized as, “I quit.” What are the reasons you hear? “I don’t have time,” “I play sports,” “I have to go to my brother’s soccer games,” “I have too much homework.”

Retention of students is one of the biggest challenges that all ensemble directors face. Even more so is the retention of students as they transition from one level of school to another. How do you keep students interested in the face of “being cool,” sports, weekend social lives, jobs, and increasing academic loads? Hopefully this article will give you some insight and ideas on how to hold on to students as they transition to their next level of academics.

1. Be Seen. Be Known.

Nobody knows the importance of personal relationships better than educators. And when it comes to retention across levels, this step is critical. It is essential that the first time a middle school or high school director sees the new incoming class is not the first day of school.

Everybody has a fear of the unknown, and the transition to a new school is undoubtedly overwhelming. There is so much racing through a child’s head that they can easily concoct, in their own mind, a million reasons why they “just don’t have time.” Already having a personal and functioning relationship with them might be the best way to counter this.

Make some time to guest teach a few lessons, co-direct a couple of rehearsals, attend and assist at concerts, bring your ensembles to perform various concert programs at the elementary schools throughout the year, have concert programs that combine all levels. Anything a director can do to build personal relationships with younger students and their parents while also promoting their own program will pay huge dividends.

2. Get There First

During my years as a middle school band director, both the choir director and I found ourselves constantly battling a sharp drop-off in numbers between fifth and sixth grade – especially after the first month of school of sixth grade. “Why?” was the question we were always trying to answer.

We finally decided to do a survey to try and get to the bottom of the issue. What we found was actually quite disturbing. The number-one answer we were given was that they were being advised that participation in band and chorus would, by virtue of the fact that rehearsal was during the end of the day activity period, take away their time to get their homework and make-up work done and cause them to face academic difficulty.

We immediately called a meeting with the administration and then began building a campaign for a very specific promotional tour of the elementary schools to directly counter this message before the students had a chance to hear it. Make sure you are aware of all the concerns that can deter students and see to it that the students and parents are equipped with correct information. And for goodness’ sake… do this long before course selection!

3. Promote! Promote! Promote!

One of the most overlooked and yet indispensable aspects of building and maintaining a program is promotion. It’s simple: “Why do I want to be a member of your ensemble?” With the advent of social media, and everybody practically having a full movie production studio on their phones, the possibilities are endless.

Advertising is used in every area from business to politics – and in most cases, the name that is best known is the one that gets the business or the votes. One of the most basic and effective ways to advertise the overall program is to keep a section of your bulletin board reserved for news and photos of what is going on at the next level. Is the concert choir performing at a community event? Advertise it. Did the marching band just get home from marching at Walt Disney World? Post photos and show a video. Did the middle school show choir just bring home a superior rating from a contest at Six Flags? Post an article about it.

Do you have a website for your ensemble? A Facebook or Instagram page? Students need to see what amazing things they have to look forward to if they stick with the program. Now, I have run into opposition over the years from people who didn’t believe that I should have been using trips and “fun” as a means to recruit and retain. My answer was always the same: “You can’t inspire who is not there.”

4. Be More than a Program… Be a Family

What an amazing opportunity you have as directors of school performing ensembles. Think back to your first day of middle school… new school, lots of new faces, new surroundings. Or the first day of high school – remember how big and intimidating those upperclassmen were? Now, imagine that you can call those giant individuals your friends and family members. People who will give you a hug or a high-five and offer to help you find your way around. Imagine that peace of mind and sense of belonging. It’s absolutely huge!

Everybody knows the importance of using the veteran players as ambassadors, but what about outside of the rehearsal room or auditorium? Picnics, pool parties, car washes, or any kind of joint events can act as bonding and building moments that create a true sense of community across the grade levels. This is especially helpful in districts where each elementary school has its own contained ensembles and bigger districts that have more than one middle or high school. Work vertically within your departments to come up with ways to fuse your programs into a tight-knit community.

Last but not least…

5. Run a Quality Program

I know… ”Duh,” right? It goes without saying that it’s hard to hold on to numbers if you have a program that is of poor quality and has a bad reputation. But what all goes into a quality program? Francis W. McBeth said, “A good band director does what other band directors don’t want to do.” I use that quote because it can be applied to any ensemble.

Knowing your pedagogy just isn’t enough. Do you have high standards that you objectively and consistently enforce? Do you maintain a clean and orderly classroom/office/storage room? (I struggled with that, I admit.) Do you adequately plan your rehearsals and lessons? Do you maintain excellent communication with parents? Do you go out of your way to inspire and create opportunities for your students?

All of this pays dividends in ways you could not imagine. It matters, and whether or not you notice it, everybody else certainly does. Again, as kids transition from elementary to middle school and then to high school, they are met with heavily increasing academic and social distractions. What is it that you are offering that will make them want to stay involved?

“Quality, not quantity” is certainly one of the best philosophies to live by. However, when it comes to school performing ensembles… both matter. With tightening school budgets and the unrelenting pressure of standardized testing, it becomes more and more critical that we are able to justify the support of our programs. Numbers will play a major role. I can remember a principal of mine walking into my band room, surveying the area for a few moments and then asking, “How many total students do you have?” Translation: “Do you need a space this big? Because I’m thinking of how else it could be utilized.”

I’m not suggesting that you try to hold on to every student at all costs. You won’t get them all. But let’s look beyond just playing the political game (necessary as it is). Imagine the immeasurable good that will come from developing the best individual program you can, and then working with your colleagues to create a sense of family that students and parents want to be a part of throughout their school years. The lives it will touch, the community pride it will create, the minds it will inspire and the friendships it will foster far transcend simply being able to showcase high numbers and multiple accolades.

All the best in your endeavors!


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Joe Snyder
Joe serves as the Music Publications Manager for Wingert-Jones Publications in Exton, Pa. For 17 years he taught K-12 Instrumental and General Music in Pennsylvania and Florida. He is also an active musician, composer/arranger and music copyist. Please feel free to reach out with questions or comments at jsnyder@wjpublications.com.

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