Mike Lawson • Archives • April 1, 2003

Based on responses gathered in SBO‘s fall Budgeting Survey, two points are abundantly clear: annual budgets for school bands and orchestras are typically miniscule – somewhere in the $1,000 to $5,000 range – and, in many cases, non-existent. Also, with limited funds available to music directors, the key to fulfilling their programs’ needs is careful planning. A little creativity and resourcefulness can also help directors stretch their funds during a budget crunch.


Sheet music, instrument replacement, instrument repair, music technology software, equipment and uniforms top the list of budget needs for music programs across the country. Prioritizing these needs is the first step toward a successful budget plan.

Take sheet music, for example. Obviously, purchasing sheet music for the concert band, marching band, jazz band, orchestra, and other ensembles is a top priority for directors. Like a soccer or football team without a ball, band and orchestra programs are virtually directionless without music to practice and perform. But having to order music for all of these ensembles each year can really add up.

A swap system with other schools in the district or nearby districts is one cost-cutting measure to consider. Just be careful not to violate any copyright laws, and be sure to give your music an identifiable mark of ownership so that it can be returned. Of course, as in any swap situation, there’s the risk that people won’t come through on their end of the bargain. Be sure to establish a solid rapport and “rules of conduct” with prospective borrowers before sharing music. The benefits will hopefully outweigh the risks. It is also important to seek music programs with ensembles of similar playing ability so that you don’t end up with music that is far above or far below your own ensembles’ skill level.

Some directors are adamant about having new music every year – something current that will excite the students and make them glad they play an instrument. Scores from movie soundtracks, such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” fall into this category. Adaptations of these popular pieces range in price from $9 to $150, depending on instrumentation, with some complete sets for full orchestra topping the range at $700. Under the swap scenario, directors could stand to save a few bucks by trading scores the minute they’re finished with them – so the music does not become stale. When dealing with newer music, this system would of course work better with music programs that perform more than one concert per school year. (But, since both of these films have multiple installments, these particular scores have slightly more staying power.)

In music programs where the focus is on traditional classical repertoire – Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc. – the swap system can also work well, since this music never goes out of style. Favorites from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” range in price from $45 to $80, and popular classical selections from Bach and Mozart are also in this range. Carefully storing and saving this sheet music in your music library will prolong its life and render it a good long-term investment for your program.

Swapping music with other schools is also a cost-effective way to expand your ensembles’ musical horizons into other realms and styles that you, as a director, may not typically select for your students to play.

Planning Ahead

In a weakened economy – or, in some cases, regardless of the economy – music directors can rarely rely on receiving a consistent budget amount. Some directors may receive the same allocation every year, and not a penny over, but then one year find that their budget has been sliced in half, or eliminated altogether. Other directors may be at the whim of the administration or school board, receiving sporadic funding, if any. Still others must share a small budget amount with several other directors and some just get the “leftovers.”

These types of situations can make planning ahead for future purchases nearly impossible. But for those who can, planning pays off. Spreading purchases over a period of three to five years, for instance, can take the strain out of annual budgeting, and make it seem like less of a crunch time.

Take uniform replacement, for example. The uniforms were supposed to last 15 years, and they’re already looking a bit tattered at the 10-year mark. As directors know, uniform replacement – especially with bands numbering in the triple digits – doesn’t come cheap. Some directors report spending as much as $20,000 on new marching band uniforms. Unless it is brought up in advance as part of a long-term budget plan, this figure may startle administrators, who will see it as an unusual and costly spike in an otherwise small year-to-year budget. (The fact that uniforms are a once-every-15-years-or-so purchase may help or hinder this budget request.)

Another option is to ask for the funding in installments and save up for the year of purchase: request a $5,000 budget allocation for four consecutive years to cover the cost of new uniforms. The downside to this approach is that the request could be approved one year and rejected the next. In many cases, directors and booster organizations conduct ambitious fundraising campaigns to cover the cost of uniforms – just in case the school funding doesn’t come through, or in place of making this school budget request. Some directors find that raising the money themselves saves them the trouble of asking and being rejected.

Instrument replacement is another expensive undertaking that many directors must face. Because of the high cost of instruments – particularly larger instruments like tubas, euphoniums, timpani, vibraphones, bassoons, basses, etc. – many directors have no choice but to keep tired instruments in play. As directors well know, broken and worn out instruments are not rewarding for students to play. In fact, dilapidated equipment can cause students to become frustrated and disinterested, and can lead them to ultimately quit the band and orchestra – a fate that can be avoided with a strategic instrument-replacement plan in place.

Obviously, small budgets prevent directors from replacing all of their instruments in the same year. Once again, prioritizing plays a major role: Which instrument is the oldest/in the worst condition? Which instrument is needed most/soonest? How much life is left in the instruments that need to be replaced? Can some get by with repairs for another year or two? Spreading out the replacement of instruments over a period of years (a five-year plan, for instance) will make the expense more palatable for school boards and administrations. For information on purchasing musical instruments, visit For information on instrument repairs, visit


Every director’s situation is different – some receive a considerable amount of financial support from the school district, while others rely exclusively on the assistance of their music boosters. Whatever the case may be, persistence is the key to reaching and accomplishing your budgeting goals. Just because your requests have been rejected or postponed in the past does not mean that will always be the case. School board members change, as do members of the administration. You may be surprised one day to find that your requests are taken more seriously than before. But you’ve got to keep asking. If you don’t, the people making the budget decisions will assume that you have solved the problem yourself or that the problem wasn’t as much of a concern as you had originally suggested.

Also, if you are making very little progress, seek out the guidance of other music directors in your area who may be having better luck. Find out what strategies have worked for them and learn from their successes. Another option is to generate publicity about your program’s need for resources through the local newspaper. An in-depth look at how students’ musical education is being adversely affected by an under-funded school budget may help get the message across to the administration and school board. If possible, attend budget hearings and make a presentation to the board so members can understand your program’s specific needs.

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