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Q&A: Thomas J. West

Mike Lawson • Archives • April 9, 2012

Recruiting & Retention: Meeting the Community’s Needs

By Eliahu Sussman

When it comes to bringing kids into a music program and then keeping them there, directors can never have too many ideas. While researching the subject online, I recently came across a relevant blog post by Thomas J. West, a music educator, composer, adjudicator, and blogger, prompting this recent exchange on recruitment and retention. Tom’s blog, www.thomasjwestmusic.com, features a bevy of useful information ranging from performance tips to the music ed-focused “quote of the day.”

School Band & Orchestra: What should educators be doing more of to bring students into their program?

Tom West: The best method of recruitment is getting your committed, go-getter high school musicians (the ones who may become future music educators) involved with your middle school and elementary school music ensembles and lessons. Having a high school student sit in with an elementary band, a middle school baritone choir section, or your elementary cellists is a huge treat for the younger players and a good modeling situation for the high school students. Having high school students run sectionals or teach lessons at the elementary level is also very effective, but takes more guidance on the part of the music teacher. Getting high school students involved in lower levels is a win-win.

Another extremely effective recruitment tool is hosting an all-district concert or other combined elementary-secondary performances. An all-district concert puts the entire instrumental or vocal curricula’s scope and sequence on display. Parents, administrators, and all stakeholders can clearly see how the formative studies at the elementary level build into the performance abilities at the high school level. The elementary students get a chance to see and get excited about being in middle school and high school, and the high school ensembles enjoy being the “flagship” performances.

SBO: Do you see directors using recruiting tactics that are either ineffective or detrimental to their efforts?

TW: Many districts like to do instrument demonstration assemblies for their second or third-grade students to get them interested in an instrument. This works, but it can also be a big turn-off if it is not presented well. Selling an elementary kid on playing the trombone or the cello is a challenging proposition, and a lot of music teachers either make excuses like “Well, it’s big, but…” or go the opposite route and over-sell it.

Having the elementary or middle school band members play with the high school marching band in the stands at a home game can be a great experience, but if the weather is inclement, it might not be so much fun.

When I was a student, my high school marching band used to do a district tour where we went to each elementary school and performed. That was effective because we had a 90-piece band and were playing music the elementary students could recognize, so it was big, impressive, and fun. Modern marching bands that are small, elite, and competitive can actually turn kids off to their program if they do performances like these. The middle school students might come away saying, “They were so good, and that is so hard! I’ll never be able to do that.”

I took my small rural band program to Drum Corp International East Regional in Allentown, Pennsylvania one year as a motivational experience. I explained the differences between marching band and drum corps in both composition and rehearsal schedules, and told them that I didn’t expect them to look like these semi-professional marching musicians. The reaction most of them came away with was still, “This is what Mr. West wants us to be,” despite my pre-game speech. For that band, going to see a local college band in an exhibition would have been a better fit. Showing them something they perceive as achievable was my hard-earned lesson there.

SBO: In your opinion, do instrumental school music programs have an image problem? 

TW: It depends entirely on the community you serve. You have to know the community and what they value. In my first teaching job in rural Pennsylvania, the arts were not valued highly. The town I lived in, however, had a thriving marching and concert band program because the director there had given the community what they wanted: a non-competitive football band that plays entertaining music they recognized. Next to the football and wrestling team, they were the town’s ambassadors and frequently got called up for community events. That was an 85-piece band in a junior-senior high school of only 900 students. That’s nearly 10 percent of the school involved in the band program. He focused most of his music pedagogy and growth on the concert band program in the winter.

In districts like North Penn in Lansdale, Pa., where I taught middle school band for a year as a long-term substitute, excellence and competitiveness are demanded and expected. Their band has a strong competitive tradition spanning over thirty years. That music program is giving that community what it wants and expects. For them, that level of elite performance works. There are too many band programs trying to be something that their communities don’t value or want.

Band and orchestra programs do in general have an image problem, and I believe that we have performed ourselves into a corner. When the average band or orchestra program only serves 20 percent of the student population (and in some places, it’s more like one percent), we are failing to connect with the majority of students who go on to be under-educated music consumers. I think bands and orchestras need to back off the heavy performance literature and rehearsal schedules and leave time for students to experience chamber music, improvisation of all styles (not just jazz band), and simple melodic composition over primary chords. Our band and orchestra community is a self-supporting microcosm that fails to make a cultural impact past “one time, at band camp…”

I spent the early part of my teaching career frustrated that all the great things we were doing in the band room had so little impact on the school and the community, and that the majority of my students went on to college and adulthood with no music-making going on in their lives. I want to give them experiences with making music – not just in performance, but also in ways that makes it possible for them to continue to create their own music in adulthood without the benefit of a band program to be involved in. Electronic music courses are starting to fill that void, as evidenced by the awesome programs of teachers like Richard McCreedy (Maryland), Barbara Freedman (Connecticut), and Scott Watson (Pennsylvania). Google them and you’ll see what I mean.

SBO: What are the biggest hurdles directors face when retaining students, and how would you suggest overcoming those hurdles?

TW: Unfortunately, two of the biggest hurdles are grade-point average and scheduling. When band or orchestra’s credits pull down high-achieving GPAs because of credit weight issues, or when band or orchestra is scheduled against other singleton AP courses, great instrumental students are forced to drop out.

Band programs that run heavy competitive schedules and require all band members to participate in the competition band lose people left and right. My wife is one of four siblings, and three of them dropped out of band for exactly that reason. As band and orchestra directors, sometimes our eyes are set on the heights of playing awesome grade 4, 5, and 6 literature or marching shows with over 100 sets in them when it should be set on providing students with an experience of playing in a full-sized concert band with full instrumentation. Competition has its place, and I have been on all ends of competition as a performer, director, and judge. Competition should not be the reason your band and orchestra program exists. It is a means to an end. The concert band and string orchestra that the majority of your students participate in needs to be the cornerstone of your curriculum.

SBO: What should directors be doing more of to keep students returning to band or orchestra year after year?

TW: Create opportunities for students to get excited about band or orchestra and to feel successful. Spring trips, the occasional popular chestnut concert selection, and chances to be together as an ensemble outside of the rehearsal hall are all important parts of the band and orchestra experience. Band and orchestra shouldn’t be stressful all the time. Too many programs are like that. If your program can’t cater to the average ensemble member who will never be an honors ensemble member, you’re asking too much. You have to get them in the door and keep them before you start opening their eyes to the rich depth of those grade 5 barnburners.

Thomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. His music education blog can be found at www.thomasjwestmusic.com.

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