Mike Lawson • Archives • April 1, 2003

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The results are in: 57 percent of the directors who participated in SBO‘s recent survey on student recruitment and retention say retaining students in their music programs is the bigger challenge.

“I think retaining is more difficult,” says Carl Davick, who teaches orchestra to students in grades six through 12 in Monona, Wis. “Recruiting carries that excitement. After the initial excitement has worn off, you need to keep it exciting.”

Thirty-four percent of those surveyed say they think recruiting students is more difficult, particularly in the grades following the vital beginning years. Directors report that the transition from middle school to high school is the most difficult – and the most crucial.

“Recruiting is my bigger challenge at the high school level, and then trying to keep them involved at the high school level,” notes Mack Golden, director of bands at Northside Junior High School in Jennings, La. “I have sent approximately 240 students in the past six years to the high school and that director is running about 65 students. After I get the students to sign up for band in the sixth grade, I do not lose very many of them for the three years that I have them. It is the time that they exit my program at eighth grade that we lose them.”

Patrick Kearney, director of bands at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, agrees that recruiting at the high school level is especially difficult. But once he passes the initial recruitment hurdle, the students who join usually stay involved.

“I have found recently that more and more students are put off by the idea of our summer band camp and early-morning rehearsals. They don’t seem to want to put in any ‘extra’ time. We have also had more students whose sole (given) reason for not wanting to join high school band is to avoid wearing a polyester uniform on Friday nights in front of their friends,” he explains. “Once we get them into the program, they almost universally find it to be valuable and rewarding. Some of our best students are the ones that we have had to convince to give band a shot. They almost always end up enjoying it and sticking with the program.”

Five percent of directors say recruiting and retaining are equally difficult tasks and four percent report they have no problem with either.

Drop-Out Rates and Reasons

Paul Hermann, who has served as band director at Roy Junior High School in Roy, Utah, for 14 years, has noticed a sudden and alarming decrease in the number of students enrolling in his band program. When he took over the program almost a decade-and-a-half earlier, Hermann was able to build the already strong program from 256 students to about 350. Between them, he and the choir director were teaching almost 75 percent of the student population. But this year, only 188 students are in band; he has lost 83 students in the last three years.

“I recruit harder each year and receive less. Over last summer I lost half of the students that I started,” he notes.

Based on this trend, Hermann is concerned for the future of his program. He has heard various rumors about why kids are losing interest in band, including the high turnover rate in the high school band director’s position. But to learn more about why his numbers are down, Hermann decided to take an informal poll of the junior high school student body. He surveyed the students to find out why those who were in band had quit and why those who wanted to be in band were not.

“Some answers were expected, but several were not,” he recalls.

In the seventh grade, 56 percent of students said they wanted to be in band, orchestra or choir and did not know why they did not get into the class. Hermann contends that “guidance counselors have been helpful in trying to support the band program,” but that there are still scheduling problems, which are exacerbated by what’s called “curriculum crowding” – state-imposed academic mandates that tend to squeeze electives like music and art out of students’ schedules. In response to his survey, 38.2 percent of students said they could not take a music class because they had to take a required course.

Hermann recognizes that his band is not alone in the state of Utah; he has heard from many other directors in the state that their numbers have also declined.

“I think something that would help is for all music directors who have parent/booster organizations to start a letter-writing campaign to let the state legislators and the state school board know about the problem and of their support of the arts,” he points out.

In the eighth grade, students who had dropped band cited “past problems with the Roy High School band program, director(s), etc.” as their reason for not continuing in the program. Other reasons for dropping out of the music program included having to choose between music and another class they wanted to take (13.4 percent); not wanting to practice (10 percent); finding the class “too boring” (10 percent); not liking the director’s choice of music (5 percent); not wanting to take their instrument home (2 percent); and “It made me feel nerdy” (1 percent).

Results of SBO‘s Recruitment and Retention Survey, which includes both high school and middle school music programs, show that the average annual student drop-out rate is about 10 percent. Four percent of respondents have annual drop-out rates as high as 50 percent, while 17 percent of directors see between 1 and 4 percent of their students leave the program each year.

According to survey results, the number-one reason students quit band and orchestra is time constraints/scheduling conflicts, including unwieldy block scheduling, preference for sports and other activities, a disruptive “pull-out” lesson system, inconvenient early-morning rehearsals, and more and more required courses taking the place of music.

“Students are being required and encouraged to take more and more classes thought to be ‘necessary’ for college entrance, and thus fewer think they have room in their schedule for music classes,” explains Rick L. Catherman, director of bands at Chelsea High School in Chelsea, Mich. “I think it is important to remain in communication with school counselors and student advisors. The people who assist students in making course selections and in completing school schedules can encourage students to take music classes and offer reasons to do so, or can neglect the arts completely. It is our responsibility as music educators to communicate with those members of the school faculty so that they understand what music classes offer all students – not just those who are planning to pursue music beyond high school at the college level, or who are considering music as a career choice.”

Fifty-nine percent of the directors surveyed list students’ lack of interest or ability as one of the reasons for opting out of their band or orchestra ensembles. This lack of interest is also described as students’ laziness, unwillingness to practice, and refusal to continue when they are not selected for the top ensemble.

Financial reasons also play a significant role in student drop-out rates, according to 17 percent of directors surveyed. Nine percent cite social factors and a perceived negative image as reasons students have given for quitting.

Whatever the reasons, directors should not dwell on the students who have dropped the program, advises Kevin Beaber of Crowley County Schools in Ordway, Colo.

“One thing I still struggle with is worrying too much about the students who drop out instead of appreciating and giving attention to those who choose to remain, learn and grow,” he explains. “Don’t lose sight of what you’re there to do – teach. There are quite a few students who desire your help and knowledge; worry about them.”

And having some students drop out is not necessarily a bad thing, adds Albert Chang of Wilmington Christian School in Hockessin, Del.

“My interest is in developing a quality program. As a result, quantity retention becomes less of an issue. This helps me to weed out those students who are not really interested in music. In the last three years, I have managed to retain 95 percent of those students who are truly interested in music. The two or three who drop out have been the ones playing because someone else insisted that they be in the group. This is detrimental to the band and only hurts everyone in the end,” he notes.

Success in Recruiting and Retaining

Those directors who have found success with recruiting and retaining their students employ various methods – all of which involve creating a positive experience for their young musicians. “Making the program fun” and “Making the program meaningful” for students are the top responses from the directors surveyed. Focusing on students’ achievements and rewarding their efforts also rank high among directors’ recruitment and retention ideas.

“If students aren’t excited to be there, change something or else you are going to lose them. Every day must be meaningful to them in your class,” says Joey Fortino of Gilroy High School in Gilroy, Calif.

According to many directors, getting to know students and their parents on an individual basis is extremely helpful in attracting new recruits and keeping them in music.

“I maintain close contact with the parents – in the form of calls, letters and notes. I have found that by keeping parents involved, the student is more likely to stay involved,” explains Ray Russell at Clarke Elementary School in Osceola, Iowa.

D.L. Johnson, director of bands at North Monterey County High School in Castroville, Calif., agrees.

“I truly believe you have to go out and get those kids,” he says. “They need to hear that you want them. Also, you need to explain to them that high school band is much different and, in some cases, more exciting than middle school band.”

Also, providing a high quality program with plenty of ensemble opportunities works for many directors. And, of course, out-of-state travel is always beneficial in building up a program.

To hold students’ interest in the program for the long haul, some directors create more social activities for band and orchestra members.

Joseph A. Fagnant, at Houlton High School in Houlton, Maine, has increased interest in his program by incorporating more senior activities into the school year, such as a senior night, in which the graduating students have a pizza party on the night of the last basketball pep band performance, dress up in their choice of attire and perform their own musical selections. During the final concert, the seniors perform a “Senior Showcase” – a production based on pop music, complete with costumes, dialogue, singing and dancing.

“This gives the younger students something to look forward to,” Fagnant explains.

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