Recruitment and Retention in the School Music Program


Much has been written about recruitment and retention for music programs.  With the uptick in access to social media, there are even more opportunities to share and acquire new ideas every day.

Sure, everyone appreciates a new tool or tactic for getting more students involved in singing, be it building music pride through uniforms, special themed concerts, or even music department trips to various theme park destinations. But ultimately, I found that the key to getting kids involved in your program, whether instrumental or vocal, and keeping them there is a coordinated effort to establish a strong feeder program within the district.  Although the following examples come from my experience as a choral director, these principles can easily be applied to instrumental programs.

recruitmentquote-blacktextcroppedIt starts in the elementary schools

If you’re teaching at the high school level, your first priority for recruitment to your program needs to be a strong feeder program.  The elementary and middle schools that funnel students to your high school need to know who you are, and that you are interested in them – both the students and the teachers.

It can begin with setting up visits to the elementary and middle schools – by you, or better yet, by you and your choral students!  Nothing works better to stir a young student’s interest in music than a mini concert or demo by older students. I can still remember the impact that the high school barbershop group made on me when they visited the middle school I was attending and gave a short performance. Wow!  I was amazed, and I couldn’t wait to get to that high school program to join that group!

As a high school choral director, I would schedule times to visit the feeder schools – typically around concert times when music was already prepared, and especially in the spring, right before the time middle school students were scheduling their high school courses. Make sure you participate in any choir festivals your district organizes – they are great opportunities to share your program with everyone.

And when you are in recruitment mode, choose music appropriate for the age of your target students. Elementary school students are less likely to appreciate your choir’s performance of an advanced piece; more often, a light concert or well-performed pop piece will appeal to younger audiences. When possible, I would travel with my auditioned group because within that choir were members of smaller ensembles that could perform at these functions as well, like madrigal singers and a cappella quartets.

The bottom line is:  teachers and students will appreciate the time you take to visit and share your program, especially if you are friendly, maybe a little funny, and always warm and welcoming.

Articulation of standards across grade levels

After you have developed a good rapport with the music educators in your feeder schools, engage them in conversations about student preparation across the grade levels.  I found it helpful to express to the middle schools what skill set the students should have by the time they reach high school.  Districts in many states already have this mapped out and documented via standards-based curricula, often using the National Core Arts Standards as the basis for formulating state and district standards.

Still, if you are an advocate of sight singing like I am, you will want to make sure that the middle schools are teaching their students in a similar fashion.  And the middle schools in turn should reach out to the elementary schools to make sure that they are preparing students properly to enter their programs. If you are fortunate enough to have an Arts Coordinator or Music Supervisor in your district, he or she will more than likely coordinate these types of conversations. Absent this position, it’s up to you and your colleagues.

The payoff, though, is overwhelmingly positive.  Cooperation among music educators (or educators of any subject, for that matter) ultimately benefits the students in the system.  A coordinated educational effort from K-12 helps to create a strong program, worthy of continued funding and increased support from all stakeholders:  parents, community members, teachers, and administrators.  A strong program, in turn, will generate more student participation and higher levels of student retention.


All of this can be for naught if you don’t tell anyone what’s going on.  Effective communication between the school, parents, and the community at large will keep everyone informed of what you’re doing and increase awareness about the positive outcomes of a strong music program.

Newsletters, emails, updated music department webpages, and social media all contribute to getting the message of your efforts out to the public.  Anywhere you can post photos of your students having fun while participating in the school music program will go a long way toward endorsing music’s important role in the life of a child.  John Rutter stated this beautifully in an interview with J.W. Pepper when he said,

“Choral music is not one of life’s frills.  It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls.  You express, when you sing, your soul in song.  And when you get together with a group of other singers, it becomes more than the sum of the parts.  All of those people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony, which is kind of an emblem for what we need in this world, when so much of the world is at odds with itself… that just to express, in symbolic terms, what it’s like when human beings are in harmony.  That’s a lesson for our times and for all time.  I profoundly believe that.  And musical excellence is, of course, at the heart of it.”


Tom Sabatino
Tom Sabatino
Tom Sabatino works as the Manager of Choral Product Sales for J.W. Pepper & Son. Prior to working with Pepper, Tom taught general, instrumental, and vocal music in Delaware public schools for 31 years. He was active in the Delaware Music Educators Association where he served as President and All-State Chorus Chair, and ACDA where he served as chair for High School Standards and Repertoire. Tom is also the Director of Music for Covenant Presbyterian Church in Malvern, PA, and serves as a Performing Arts Supervisor at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA.


  1. I am an elementary music teacher in Tennessee. I have a chorus of 4th and 5th graders that perform in the fall and usually direct a musical in the spring. I enjoyed this article very much. It has inspired me to do more to recruit and encourage students to stay in musical programs. Each year 4th and 5th graders show interest in my programs and sign up but I am always disappointed when some drop out. I believe there is more I can do to keep these kids involved and excited about music education. I am also interested in the idea of reaching out to some of my colleagues in the county and see if we can do more to make music education a more unified effort. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    • We’re so glad you enjoyed the article, Charity. It is wonderful to hear from such dedicated music teachers like you! We wish you the best in your efforts to inspire your students and reach out to other music programs in your county. Please feel free to share the article with your colleagues.

  2. I am an elementary music teacher in Minnesota. I have a chorus of 5th and 6th graders. We perform around Christmas time at many locations including a community band concert in which we are special guests. I started a choral festival for 5-8 students. We get a clinician to come in and work with the kids, do a concert in the afternoon, and then spoil them rotten with ice cream sundaes. Kids love to sing and EAT! Sing on!


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