#1 Recruiting Mistake to Avoid

Elisa Janson Jones • February 2021MusicEd: Mentor Minute • February 5, 2021

Unless your band and orchestra classes are compulsory, you’re likely starting to think about how to recruit for your ensembles next year. Building a robust instrumental program can be done using the tools and resources available to you online, many of which you may have used before, but there are a few paradigm shifts that you can make to ensure your recruiting efforts are more successful now than ever.

Years ago I was sitting in a leadership training seminar, listening intently to the incredibly dynamic speaker. I was biting, hook, line and sinker to everything being said, until I heard, “We don’t want all of the students in our music programs. We want the right students in our music programs.” Now perhaps I heard that wrong, but at the time I disagreed. I understand the sentiment: We want the most dedicated students, the hard workers, those that will stick with it.

In addition to this filtering mechanism of only wanting the right students, the tradition has been to “test” or “fit” students for instruments. The justification for this is largely placed on setting up proper instrumentation for our ensembles. After all, the football team needs only so many quarterbacks, and the band needs only so many lead trumpet players.

We put students through a series of trials to determine which instrument meets their aptitude. We rank them. We cheer them when they do well on an instrument and we tell them to move on if it doesn’t seem like a good fit. We test their ability to maintain a steady beat, or match a certain pitch. Then we tell them which instrument they are going to play. This is the way.

We justify this by assuming that if they can’t perform on a first try that they may struggle on the second or third. That their frustration may overcome their passion, and they will be ripe for a transfer at the semester.

But this year, what might happen if we focus less on their aptitude and abilities and focus entirely on their interest? What if instead of deciding which students are right for music, we decide that music is for all students? How about we don’t expect them to come to us will skills, but we use our skill to help them meet our expectations?

After all, if a student has a great desire to play the flute and we tell them we’d rather have them on horn, how likely will they be to stay in band at all? If a student is passionate about the cello, why would we put out that fire and tell them that the bass is really for them? How different might your classroom look if the only qualifying characteristic we looked for in our incoming students is their interest?

Ranking students by ability tell us nothing of the able musicians they may become. Anyone who has taught longer than a few years can speak of students who came to them with seemingly no aptitude at all, who became, in time, a passionate musician. And anecdotally, we may also see the opposite: Students with great ability who couldn’t muster the passion to stay.

Here is the paradigm shift, my friends: That music of any kind isn’t for the select, the elite, those that fit our expectations, or who are willing to take a second or third choice of instrument because there were “too many” other students who selected their first choice, too.

Music is for all students, regardless of their ability to match pitch, or keep a beat, or play all three intervals on the trumpet. Music is for the delinquent to learn discipline, for the tone-deaf to learn pitch, for the kid who can barely walk to learn how to dance. It’s not about concerts and contests, it’s about content. And it’s about helping our students feel content.

All students can learn, and we can teach them.

Elisa Janson Jones is the director of operations Conn-Selmer Institute, writer and producer of the Music Ed Mentor Podcast, founder of Music Educators Creating Online Learning Facebook Group, a columnist for SBO Magazine, author of multiple books for music educators, and conductor of her local community band.

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