Sometimes I am amazed at where I ended up in music considering that I almost quit band after my eighth-grade year. This past fall, when it was time to pick a topic in my graduate research class, I knew exactly what I wanted to research: Retention in Band from Middle School to High School.
There has been plenty of research on the motivation to continue instrumental music after the first year of instruction and continuing instrumental music after high school. The recent studies in music retention have shown the decision to continue in instrumental music is highly influenced by the (a) social interactions, (b) life experiences, and (c) support systems that are accessible to students in the early stages of music making.
Even though researchers have found some elements related to retention in instrumental music after the first year of instruction, very little research focuses on the student perspective to continue instrumental music from eighth grade into high school and how it correlates with the recruitment tactics of the high school teacher. In my study, I interviewed five high school band directors about their current recruitment practices and the relationships they maintained with their feeder schools. In addition, their freshmen students (N = 148) completed an online 19 item questionnaire on a 5-point Likert scale with open-ended responses.
Findings from this study found that freshmen band students were considerably involved in other programs including other music ensembles (41%), AP classes (49%), and extra-curricular activities (85%) – particularly female students. This additional involvement was a powerful deciding factor on whether or not students signed up for band in high school.
Although students who excel academically are more likely to stay in band, internal scheduling conflicts could reinforce student drop out within school band programs with 91% of students indicating future AP coursework.
The social and life experiences were rated the highest in students’ decision to join high school band. Students were more driven to sign up for band if they knew someone in band and if they had reoccurring interactions with the high school students. Marching band provided social opportunities for freshmen to create a vast network of friends before their first day of high school. Current band students attributed student drop out because of a lack of identity to music, or their life was moving in another direction.
View or download my TMEA research poster.
What We Can Do as Directors
While some of these factors are beyond our control, many remain which we can influence. Here are some suggestions for ways we can help retain our band students into high school.
Visibility in Feeder Programs
As soon as students enter our programs in beginning band, they need to have constant interactions with their future high school director. This helps to develop a level of comfort for students. I have been in situations where there has been very little to no interaction between the high school director and my middle school. It’s an incredibly tough job to sell band in high school when students have not seen their future director. As tough as it may be (especially if you’re a singleton high school director), make the effort to see your future students! Here are a few examples of these types of interactions:
- High school performing with different ensembles at their feeder schools (including elementary feeders)
- High school director leading middle school sectionals
- Have high school director conduct a piece with each middle school group for a concert
- Around contest time, have high school director judge and clinic groups
I hate to say it, but this does have an impact on whether or not our students continue in our elective classes. Enthusiasm is infectious and contagious! Our students need to know that we value them as individuals not only when they are in our class but also outside of our band halls. This is especially true for middle school directors. If we cannot hook them early in middle school, they might drop before they even get to high school.
- Be visible outside of the band hall
- Attend/work at sporting events, plays, concerts, etc.
The more opportunities to collaborate with your feeder programs, the more likely students will continue band after middle school. This includes having high school students socialize more often with middle school students. By placing high school students in mentoring positions, they help take away the “fear” factor of high school band.
- 8th grade (insert sporting event here) night
- All-city concerts/band-o-rama
- Joint concerts at the high school
- High school students mentoring middle school students with music
- Side-by-side rehearsals with middle school contest music
8th Grade Parent Night
The prospect of high school band can be overwhelming for new parents and students. To help, have a meeting (before the high school scheduling process begins) to inform students and parents about high school band.
- Discuss time commitments during and outside the school day along with financial obligations and concerns
- Provide mock four-year schedules for different career trajectories
- Provide opportunities for new parents to ask questions to the veteran band parents
- Have high school students give tours to middle school students as the parent meeting is happening
Our students, like ourselves, are busy people involved in multiple organizations with varying responsibilities. Being flexible and accommodating is the key to keeping every student in band because it is a powerful deciding factor on whether they continue. Although students who excel academically are more likely to stay in band, internal scheduling conflicts could also reinforce student drop out within programs. It doesn’t hurt to know the preferences and favorite foods/drinks of your scheduling department.
Students should be required to have a conference and/or fill out a survey asking them the reasons why they want to discontinue. This level of reflection could provide additional opportunities to be explored before students leave especially between eighth and ninth grades. We will never know if we do not ask.
As much as we would love it if every student continues music year after year, drop out is inevitable. Remember to focus on the students that you did win over. Just like beginning band recruitment, recruitment for high school takes careful planning and collaboration between all parties because there is a direct correlation between director involvement and the numbers.
Every student deserves our best, every day.