The Two Rs: Recruitment and Retention
As an elementary school orchestra and general music teacher, I have heard these two words countless times over the last ten years of my teaching career. We love children, music, and teaching, and that is what any music teacher will tell you. But as much as we love it and know how it positively impacts our kids, we always need to remember that our instrumental programs are sign-up based and not always required. The key to building up and sustaining a successful instrumental or choral program comes right down to a dedicated, talented, and loving music staff. In other words, WE as teachers are responsible for building and sustaining our programs—building a loving musical culture—and while that is no easy task, it sure is a fun and rewarding one!
Music educators know that a successful public school instrumental or choral program begins with a strong foundation, and I am not just talking about your elementary school band numbers. Your schools’ general music teachers are the building blocks of anything and everything that is music. A loving, fun, and talented general music teacher whose kindergarteners excitedly enter the classroom is responsible for creating and nurturing an entire generation of music lovers. These are the future adults who will jam out to music enthusiastically in their cars, or sing and rock their babies to sleep with a good singing voice and a steady beat. They may also be the one who decides to sign their child up for your orchestra program, or could even one day be a member of your schools’ board of education and have discussions about budget cuts. If their experience in music was enjoyable, then they are the advocates for your music program! So, give your general music teacher a big hug, and observe them and how they teach. What words do they use? Do they have a certain style? How do they teach the students to count rhythms? They are the feeders of your programs, and with them we can build our pyramid.
Before I continue, I will use the word program as a simple umbrella term that encompasses many realms of music, and not just your typical band, chorus, and orchestra programs. The word program can apply to music technology, a steel drum band, or even a world drumming music class, so please keep that in mind as you continue reading.
Some districts begin instrumental instruction in elementary school, and others might begin in middle school. There are some schools that have such programs built into the curriculum, while for others it might be co or extra-curricular. Regardless, building or recruiting for your program needs to happen from the beginning. If your program starts in third grade, then that is where you begin. How do you get kids to buy into it and want to sign up for flute? How do you convince your kids’ parents?
Get in the classrooms and perform for the kids. Literally… put on a show. You can’t walk into a third grade classroom, hold up a clipboard and say, “Okay, who wants to sign up for orchestra?” You will definitely get a show of hands, but you can get the other kids too. So, have fun. Play tunes the kids know, perhaps something from a popular TV show. You can play pop music, film music, or famous classical pieces they’re bound to recognize. I use my violin and show them how to make it sound like a police car driving off into the distance. I’ll also tell a Dad Joke and then do a funny wah wah wah on my violin. The kids adore it, and most importantly, they remember my visit and go home and tell their parents!
And that’s the next step: we often forget about recruiting parents! On back to school night, stand in the lobby and play your instrument, or have student ensembles from previous years perform. Smile at the parents and chat with them. Then, pop by their classrooms and introduce yourself. Make jokes, talk about your passion, and encourage them to sign their kids up!
There are loads of ways to start your program, including having older kids come by and perform for them. You can make your concerts interactive. “Where are my 2nd graders? Ahh my future orchestra musicians. This is going to be you next year!” Personally, I love connecting with the kids and their parents right away and being fun.
This does work and it can work for you. I recently began a new position teaching orchestra in two elementary schools, and the numbers were typical to a chamber ensemble. I wanted MORE though. So, I went to every classroom in grades 3–5 and played my violin. I gave presentations, we watched videos, and we laughed and had fun. The best part was always at the end, where I looked at all of them and said I can’t wait to have every single one of you in my orchestra! Don’t forget to sign up tonight. The participation number in both schools increased by over 50%. With a number like that, you have visibility of your program and parents are with you.
Middle and high school teachers can do exactly the same. Visit every one of your feeder schools… multiple times. Sit down and play or sing in the groups. Chat with the kids and have fun. Go to concerts and help tune. Show the kids that you’re friends with their current teacher, because this helps build trust early on. When I taught middle school, I used to go to my elementary teachers and hug them before I spoke to the kids about signing up. Make sure you conduct a rehearsal and show them what life is like with you. You can even co-teach with their teacher. The point is: get in there, and make them laugh! Don’t forget that they’re kids.
High school teachers, you need to do the same, and not just with your feeder schools’ eighth graders. Go down to the elementary and middle schools and be visible. If a program starts in third grade, you have to wait six years before that cohort of kids comes through. Those are six precious years that you can use to build relationships with kids. Remember, there is no guarantee those kids will continue, because our programs are not required. We have to ignite the passion and encourage our students to continue.
This is the retention part of building your program. I got the kids in, now how do I keep them? We can’t keep them all, but you certainly can try. If your program lasts three years and then the kids move on to a new school, focus on keeping them for those three years, and then bridging the gap and trying to get them to go onto the middle school program.
To do so, make sure that your classes incorporate the following:
- Immediate and instant success to grab them from the start
- Rigorous instruction
- High expectations
- Wonderful and fun relationships with your students
- LOTS of laughter, jokes, and stories
- Intrinsic motivation
Most importantly: make sure they know you care about them, and work hard to give them successful concert experiences. These moments help build their confidence levels and your students will trust you more, which means you can continue to raise the bar and challenge them.
The most challenging aspect of retention are the transition years when students leave one school and move on to another. Some programs experience a typically average dropout rate between elementary and middle school. Maybe you had 35 students in fifth grade orchestra, and only 30 continued to middle school. That’s an 86% retention rate, and I’d say that’s a successful transition.
Unfortunately, the largest dropout rates occur between middle and high school, where many schools are barely able to maintain a 30% retention rate. What can you do to help retain those numbers? Well, refer back to the section titled Build It. How actively involved are teachers? Transitioning to high school is challenging and intimidating enough, so make sure all teachers are visible, fun, or engaging. Also, were those early elementary years enjoyable and fun? Did they leave a lasting impression on kids?
Consider the following questions:
- Is the foundation of your program(s) strong? Refer back to Build It.
- Elementary teachers, do you drill note-reading too much? Students find note-reading challenging and this can be an immediate turn-off. Consider allowing students to explore their instruments and focus on posture, ear-training, technique, and tone first.
- Is there a noticeable competitive edge between programs? You can’t tell your orchestra students not to sign up for band. Teachers need to support each other’s programs. Being complacent and saying this is Band Town sets the precedent that other programs are not a priority, which kids and parents recognize.
- Are teachers actively a part of all concerts in the district? Kids love seeing their previous teachers, since they’re the reason they started in the first place. Kids need to see future teachers and build connections.
- Are there fun musical team building experiences? Having a choral festival incorporating elementary, middle, and high school students motivates the little ones to improve and reach higher levels. Field trips are other great ways for students to share music with others.
The final topic I’ll quickly discuss is motivation through either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. The easiest ways to define these terms are to give examples of what they look like in your classroom and at your students’ homes:
- Extrinsic motivation—Students complete a practice record, receive stickers on an incentive chart, and earn a prize. At home, parents tell their children to practice their violin and then they get to play video games.
- Intrinsic motivation—Students play their instrument or sing for the mere enjoyment of doing so, and their reward is playing for others.
These are two HUGE factors that can determine the success of your program. Extrinsic rewards focus on students having to do something in order to earn something in return. They associate practicing their instrument as something they have to in order to get something in return versus wanting to do it. And when the rewards fail to satisfy, what do you think happens?
Intrinsic motivation is teaching students to do it for themselves and encouraging them to share it with others. It’s a reward in and of itself. Can you surprise your kiddos with a little prize that randomly cannot be associated with anything? Absolutely! The point is, don’t make that prize reliant on something such as practicing their instrument. The best thing I hear as a teacher is “I want to play for the class” and “I practiced my instrument for an hour last night and my mom had to tell me to stop and do my homework.” I teach lessons on the stage and at the end of my students’ lesson, students start coming in for lunch. The kids excitedly beg me to go out and perform for their peers. That is a special reward that no one can take from them, and it means something.
Recruitment (Build it) and Retention (Sustain it). Both go hand in hand, and depending upon the culture you have created, it could mean the difference between a giant high school choral program or a small one that dwindles down to twenty or so kids by the start of senior year. What’s the point of having your band students drill scales, note reading, rhythm exercises, and perform playing assessments if they grow up to dislike what it is we as teachers love so much? There are plenty of people in this world who can read very well, but hate reading books. They find no joy, and that’s the biggest issue. Join up with your elementary general music teacher. Have meetings with your colleagues and discuss the vision. A program can grow incredibly fast in only one year, but it’s up to you!
Finally, this article is not suggesting that numbers are the most important factor in the success of a music program. I had a beginning band of 25 students one year and was able to nurture, develop true relationships, and spend a lot of time with them. So yes, there’s the argument quantity versus quality, but even with the 150 orchestra students I have in grades 3–5, I’m still able to nurture and develop relationships with each one.
Good luck in building your programs, and remember to have fun!