The transition between middle school and high school is a critical time for music students. With the growing pressure to take on more academic rigor and increased opportunities to participate in activities and groups at the high school, many students and families can feel anxious about balancing these various interests and time commitments. As a result, music programs often experience a spike in attrition when students progress to high school. On top of these concerns, students working through a year of school during the COVID-19 era may feel somewhat detached from the traditional music experiences they once loved in school. While there are several influences contributing to this challenging transition, I believe well-prepared music teachers can positively affect this reoccurring problem.
In this article, I will provide a few of the most common obstacles that cause attrition problems both generally and with today’s unique environment. I will highlight several factors that contribute to the decision-making processes for students and their families and offer strategies to address these motivations. I will also provide approaches that best market a music program during this crucial recruiting time.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
For the moment, try to think back to what it was like to be a 13 or 14-year-old who was just asked to select their classes for high school. What questions or concerns might likely dominate your thoughts during this process? For example:
- What classes are mandatory?
- What are all of these new elective choices?
- How will I have time for all of this in addition to…?
- Can I still play soccer and do music?
- Am I good enough to play in the high school orchestra?
- What are my friends doing?
- Is choir “cool” in high school like it is here in middle school?
If you stop to think about it, this transition can be a very intimidating time for 8th graders. Many students will feel parental and peer pressure to take the “right” classes for graduation and possibly chart the coursework plan that they perceive best positions themselves for admission and earning scholarships to college. On top of that, music students tend to be involved in additional activities and groups (Fredricks & Eccles, 2006) and as a result, they likely feel anxious about having to choose between the activities they already love while also considering new electives and clubs they now have access to at the high school.
Parents are likely to share their child’s concerns about balancing classes and activities. They may also wonder how their soon-to-be 9th grader’s high school courses and experiences will prepare them for life after graduation. Parents may have questions such as:
- How is my child going to juggle all of these classes and activities?
- How much time does the high school music program take?
- Can I afford all of this (time and money)?
- Where will my child feel welcomed in this new school?
In my experience, parents of 8th grade students may be even more anxious than their children are about this transition. The long list of questions and concerns can result in parents and students perceiving the music program as too time consuming, too expensive, and too overwhelming to continue in high school.
What Can We Do?
Music teachers are actually in an excellent position to intervene and offer support in this transition. First, we typically have greater access to prospective students and parents than colleagues in other academic and elective areas. For instance, music teachers can and should connect with middle school music teachers who tend to be highly invested in seeing their students continue with music in high school. Middle school music teachers are often happy to forward information to their 8th grade students and parents. Furthermore, music teachers have a tremendous advantage to access parents through public performances where we not only display the great work of our students, but also have the opportunity to talk with parents about the program.
They Have Questions, We Have Answers
Every school and music program will have a mix of hurdles during the enrollment season. I believe the first step towards addressing these challenges is to generate a list of the reoccurring (both real and perceived) barriers. In my experience, I noticed that prospective 8th graders often made statements such as: “I can’t join band next year because I heard that I won’t be able do track and marching band,” “I’m not sure I can fit orchestra in my schedule because I have to take modern language,” and “I am afraid that my grades will suffer because I won’t have time for homework.” Similarly, parents often expressed concerns similar to: “I’m worried that my child won’t be able to take AP Biology and other honors-level classes, which best position them for college,” or “I heard that the high school music boosters require a lot of volunteer time from each parent.” As I navigated discussions with parents and students, I found that the majority of these types of concerns were either not accurate or could be addressed with some proactive planning. I also discovered that I could resolve or dispel many (if not all) of these misunderstandings with clear and well-researched communication.
When you have the opportunity to communicate with prospective students and their families, consider addressing these common concerns at the onset of your discussions. You might even consider having a brief “myth busting” segment during your initial parent/student meetings. This communicates the message that you are aware of these common concerns and you are prepared with reasonable solutions. Another approach could involve your current students. They are excellent resources for communicating similar messages with their own story about navigating this transition. After all, they can speak first-hand about how they had similar concerns, how they worked through those issues, and what they value most about their participation in music.
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Students want to be a part of something that is special. They want to know what membership in this music program means. Students often wonder: Will I feel welcomed? Will I fit in? What will the musical experiences be like? Is this a group that others respect? What are the “benefits” of membership and what is the cost? In other words, is this worth it? It is beneficial to consider these inquiries when developing how and when you will communicate messages about why students should be in the music program. The social aspects of high school music participation are likely to be even more important to students who have been away from “normal” school experiences during this difficult era. Music programs should highlight how our classes and ensembles often provide a much-needed “home away from home” and a connection to students from all grade levels.
These types of messages may be another opportunity for current students to help since they may be best positioned to address these curiosities. When meeting with prospective students, I recommend including 2–3 high school students currently in your program who can help address these issues from the student’s point of view and with whom prospective students can identify. These representatives should come from contrasting grade levels, instruments/vocal backgrounds, and outside-of-music activities. For example, I would often include:
- A freshmen who I recalled having reservations about joining, but has now become deeply invested
- A senior in a leadership position who can speak about how their music participation helped them on their journey towards college (or whatever that next step may be)
- A student who is very dedicated to the music program, but has also been able to successfully participate in other activities.
I would recommend gathering with this group of current students in advance of the meeting to discuss some of the frequent questions mentioned above and ask them to reflect on their personal journeys. To further help these “student ambassadors” prepare, you may ask them to provide some tangible examples and stories that may help future students understand how membership in this group is not only worth it, but uniquely special from other activities and classes they may be considering at the high school.
Getting the Message Out
One common principle used in the marketing world is the “rule of seven” (Kruse, 2018). This guideline suggests that prospective customers (or students and families in our case) need to come in contact with the marketing message a least seven times before they will take action. While this may seem excessive, consider for a moment how many opportunities music educators may have at our disposal to communicate with prospective students. Between attending concerts, hosting joint concerts, participating in information nights, visiting middle school rehearsals, sending home letters (digital and paper), working with your guidance counselors, social media, and a new fluency with video conferencing platforms, it seems reasonable that our prospective students and families could encounter our messages seven times (or more) throughout the course of the year.
In light of this, I recommend that music teachers think about the process of marketing (and ultimately recruitment) as an ongoing, year-long, process rather than consolidating communications into the window of a “recruitment season.” For my program, our efforts began in the fall when we hosted a side-by-side pep-band experience. Next, the high school ensembles performed for the whole middle school and I began visiting the middle school classes. During these visits I would conduct or provide clinics when possible. By the winter, I typically attended at least one middle school concert, hosted parent and student informational events (at the middle school) and began presenting about the various aspects of the high school programs and the typical concerns addressed earlier in this article. By the time enrollment came in the spring semester, I brought current students to the middle school and also hosted the middle school ensembles for joint concerts (at these events, I also spoke to parents and students). Next, I sent home physical welcome letters along with communication from our booster parents. Finally, our boosters continuously updated our social media pages throughout the year. All of these efforts were designed with the goal to maintain a positive, constructive, and welcoming presence of our program rather than swooping in like a sleazy salesman only during the course enrollment period. While many of these events will come in different forms this year, I would encourage directors to find creative ways to stay present and proactive. Students in your current program will likely have several ideas to help during this time and this even has the potential to become a creative virtual class project.
The transition between middle school and high school can be a vulnerable time for music program enrollment. However, well-prepared music teachers have the ability to reshape the attrition trend. When music teachers have a solid grasp on their students’ and parents’ perceptions and concerns, they can use that information to develop a marketing effort to break down obstacles and welcome students into the program. In addition to preparing solutions and communicating benefits of membership, the key is developing a year-long marketing strategy that positions your music program as a welcoming group of students who play a vital role in the culture of the high school. This approach not only facilitates the “rule of seven,” but will also help prospective members see the high school program as a consistent supportive presence long before the enrollment season begins. During this turbulent time in schools, students need to hear this message more than ever.
Fredricks, J. A., & Eccles, J. S. (2006). Extracurricular involvement and adolescent adjustment: Impact of duration, number of activities, and breadth of participation. Applied Developmental Science, 10(3), 132-146. doi:10.1207/s1532480xads1003_3
Kruse, K. (2018). Rule of 7: How social media crushes old school marketing. Retrieved October 3, 2019, from https://www.krusecontrolinc.com/rule-of-7-how-social-media-crushes-old-