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Robbie Hanchey is breathing new life into the Valley Schools music department

Located between the small towns of Eden (pop. 400) and Hazelton (pop. 750), Idaho’s Valley Elementary, Middle, and High Schools occupy a single K-12 campus that serves approximately 600 students who hail both from the surrounding towns and the many farms in the area. When the previous music director left in the mid-2000s, the position went vacant for several years, decimating the school’s music offerings. Other than a paraprofessional who was brought in to provide some music instruction at the elementary level, there was no band or choir available to the students until 2011, when Robbie Hanchey, fresh out of Idaho State University and eager to make a difference, was hired on to revive the defunct music department. And after three years of hard work, creative recruiting strategies, and relentless networking, Hanchey’s music department is thriving.

SBO recently caught up with the young director to learn more about the steps he has taken to bring music back to Southern Idaho’s Valley Schools.

 

School Band & Orchestra: How would you describe your experience building the Valley Schools music program so far?

Robbie Hanchey: It has been an amazing experience with the kids. They love music out here and our program continues to grow every year. We are looking at possibly pushing 100 band students in our secondary band program this fall, which might not sound like a lot if you talk to some of those monster school districts, but it is a lot for us. To have 100 kids when there are only about 250 to pull from – we have almost half of the middle school and high school students in band. So that’s exciting for me. Also, as the K-12 teacher, the longer I am here, the more of the students in the middle school and high school I will have already had in elementary music, so in a sense I get to recruit into my own program.

 

SBO: When do you transition students from general music to band?

RH: Music instruction starts in kindergarten and the secondary music for band starts in the sixth grade.

 

SBO: Is your situation typical of schools in your area?

RH: There are a lot of small school districts like ours in Idaho, and some of them have had to cut their music programs, like Valley did. I like to think that we’re now a bright example of how you can find a way to provide music for these kids. I’ve just finished up my third year here, and I can’t even imagine these kids not having music because they love it so much. I see all my sixth through 12th graders and I wonder what these kids would do if they didn’t have this, because right now it’s all they do.

 

SBO: Let’s talk about the process of building up your program. What were some of the big hurdles you faced?

Valley sixth graders Christmas caroling the elementary students in December of 2013.
RH: Because I teach in three schools – elementary, middle school, and the high school – scheduling can be a huge conflict. My advanced band is seventh through 12th graders. Because of scheduling, we’re not able to have a separate high school band and a seventh and eighth-grade band. I do have a sixth-grade band that meets first thing in the morning and then the other band meets in the afternoon. But even, then, I have my middle schoolers for about 12 minutes and then the last hour for middle school starts and then I get the rest of the band that shows up about 10 minutes into it – so it’s kind of crazy.

In order to fit band into the schedule, some of my kids have to take some of their required courses online. Because we only have so many teachers, required classes are only offered at certain times. If those fall at the same time as my class, then the kids are out of luck unless they take classes online – which some do, because they just love music so much.

 

SBO: It’s great that some required courses are offered online so that students have the flexibility to stay in band.

RH: Yes, it means they can stay in band and then they take that required math or history class or whatever it is online. Getting the schedules lined up takes a lot of talking to the counselors, especially for the middle school and high school students who try to do online courses, as well as working with the elementary principal.

The most important thing is communication with the principals and the leadership team. And you have to be very good at building rapport with the teachers and with the community. You can’t be holed up in your music room all the time. You need to show up at faculty meetings. I have three different schools, so I have to figure out how I’m going to show up at the different faculty meetings and still meet with kids before school or after school so I can also do extra work with them.

You also have to show up at things like basketball games, if you’re not already there. We’re just building from the ground up, so we’re not quite playing as a pep band all the time yet, but this next year, we will be. You need to show your face in the community, and you need to attend events where people can see you and get to know you. Especially in a rural school district like this one – they love music, the community is really are getting behind us, and they like what they’re seeing – but as I tell the kids, the most people we’ll have come out to a concert is when we play at football games or basketball games.

And for a lot of those people who live in communities like ours, that is their idea of what our music program is: to provide the really cool, flashy songs and the rock ‘n’ roll stuff at games. We have good attendance at our concerts, but there are always more people at basketball and football games, so that’s something we have to use in our favor.

 

SBO: What was your strategy for recruiting and building excitement among the student body?

RH: This next year will be the first year that the entire middle school (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades) will all have had me as an elementary teacher. I’m not sure what was happening before, but a lot of the kids had kind of a negative viewpoint that music was boring, or it wasn’t fun.

And so a lot of it starts off in the elementary program, really building the excitement up. You have to show these kids that music is fun, it’s diverse, and it’s for everyone.

You need to find things that are relevant to your students. You have to tie into what these kids are listening to so you can get them excited. I also try to find online resources I can use. There is a great website called bepartoftheband.org that has recruiting videos of people playing on band instruments and talking about them, with a catchy, upbeat theme song that encourages people to be part of the band.

This year, we did something that I thought was really effective called “Music Encounter.” We picked a night in the spring before the fifth graders signed up for the middle school classes for the very first time, and we set up tables with instruments on them, put up these cool posters, we had fun music playing in the background, and played a slideshow of pictures of everything that’s happened that year. We invited all the fifth graders and their parents to come out, we split them into groups, and did a sort of round robin, where they rotated from table to table and got to try out all of the different instruments. I had a bunch of T-shirts and other little things made up for the students, too. I have a friend who is a graphic designer – and that’s another thing too, as a rural school district: it’s great if you can make connections and have people who can help you out with all kinds of things.

At the end of the night, we gave out prizes (t-shirts, some iTunes gift cards, and candy bars), so the kids and their parents had to stick around. And these kids – you would have thought they had won the lottery. They were just so excited to win a candy bar at the end of the night after they made it all the way through.

After giving away the small prizes, we watched a band video designed to inform both the parents and the potential students about what we plan to do in the music room. Sometimes you have to convince the parents, too, because even if the kids are sold on it, mom and dad might not be too sure. They might want little Johnny or little Susie to continue on with the basketball tradition or the football tradition. And the big thing is you have to let them know, “Hey, they can do both.”

I had the entire body of student officers from the middle school in the band, the entire eighth grade girls basketball team was in my band, and I also had volleyball players, track players, and football players in my band. I have two- and three-sport athletes in my band and it’s great.

 

SBO: Getting that sort of participation must be a great way to get the younger students excited, too.

RH: Yeah, absolutely. At that Music Encounter, we filled up the room and my band kids loved it. They had a super fun time, and they were pumped to recruit, too. When you are selling the program to your older kids, it’s great to watch them go and try to sell their excitement to the other kids.

Whether you’re at a small school like mine or you have a huge school, your students are your best salespeople. At our Music Encounter, I had one trombone player – a seventh grader, a really great, high-energy kid, who has taken off on the trombone and now plays in the Youth Orchestra that’s about a 30-minute drive away – you would have thought this guy was a car salesman. He was trying to sell all these kids on playing the trombone. I didn’t coach him or anything; he just had all these gimmicks. I was sitting there just watching and laughing as he got all these kids excited to play the trombone. And he is just a seventh grader, but he was connecting with them in a way that I never could because he is closer to their peer age group.

 

SBO: At this still-early point in the development of your program, what are your concerts like? Are you playing at most of the sporting events?

RH: We made it to one football game last year and a couple of basketball games in the winter. However, I see all the little kids, the future of our band program – they are out there and they are watching our kids and getting excited. They think it’s cool and the community loves hearing the school fight song. It’s been about seven years since there was a live version of the fight song played at basketball and football games, and so to be able to perform that for them meant a lot to the community.

The program is growing, and the community is excited about it. Our concert attendance is growing. We try to be creative in our concert planning, especially at the secondary level. Our Halloween concert is our biggest concert besides the end of the year pop concert. We have a costume contest, we turn off all the lights and make it real dark and hand out glow sticks to all the little kids and that really packs it out.

And we give out good prizes. Like I said earlier, it’s good to know people who can do stuff. My wife is super talented at making gift baskets. I don’t know where she got it from, but she loves doing it. She makes these awesome looking gift baskets, shrinks wrap them, I bring them to school the week before the concert so all the elementary kids can eyeball them. What they don’t know is that I’m trying to get them to come out and listen. That way they can imagine themselves up there one day playing music from Psycho or whatever Halloween music we program, maybe Harry Potter.

So that’s the way I have to go about it and it’s been great so far. We don’t have choir yet, and that’s mostly because of scheduling. I don’t even have time to do choir. I’m a guitar player and I teach guitar privately. In school, I could teach guitar and I have about 15 guitars in my classroom, but I don’t have enough time to schedule a guitar class.

 

SBO: So what’s the next step going forward? What are you hoping to implement as the next building block for your program?

RH: The next best thing, especially at the secondary level, is we want to see it grow. I want a band for just the seventh and eighth grade students, one that’s in the middle between the beginning and advanced bands that we have now.

That would help with retention because it’s like that magical step. From the mid-level band, the next year the eighth graders would think, “I’m going to finally be in the high school band.” Our goal is, like I said, to keep growing. I would love to try to add in a jazz band, too, maybe at zero hour, and we’re also going to start taking the kids to more camps.

Another big goal is to take the kids to Disneyland and have them play for one of the Music Days that they have down there. That would be really big for these kids because they don’t get to see that kind of stuff. If I don’t pull down the projector screen and show them the New York Philharmonic or something, these kids will never go see an orchestra, they will never see a symphony. We do have some wonderful symphonies that are not too far from us – the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake, a symphony up in Boise, Idaho – that I’d like to take them to.

I want to expose these kids to more things than they can possibly imagine. I want them to think outside of this rural life out here amongst the thick brush and the boonies. I want them to think big. I want them to see that there is this whole world out there and that music can take them places. I want to see these kids fall in love with the music.

 

SBO: Finishing school and then jumping straight into a program where you’re starting from scratch, where did you turn to for support? What were the main resources that you tapped, besides your own youthful energy and exuberance?

RH: It takes a lot of, like you said, youthful energy. That’s probably the number one thing. To do this kind of job, you have to be enthusiastic and you have to have energy. The kids thrive off of my energy, and when I go home, I’m on cloud nine – it’s like Marvin Gaye is singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in the background.

Also, I was lucky that a friend of mine who graduated at the same time I did got a band position 20 minutes down the road. The first couple of years, if I had a question about something I would call him and ask him what would do, because he came into a program that was already going strong. And he would he call me and ask me questions about what I was doing. Finding other people who are in your shoes, beginning teachers – as well as mentor teachers that I can talk with – is so helpful.

And a lot of it is about being resourceful, like, for example, utilizing online resources. It’s awesome how you can type in something on Google, like, “I’m having a problem with clarinet information,” and you’ll get ten results pages full of stuff that might help –classroom management issues, rehearsal techniques, and so on.

 

SBO: Anything that you’d recommend to someone else out there who might be trying to do what you have been doing for the past three years?

RH: Don’t treat it as your college wind ensemble, and do not act like you are a college band director. You have to find stuff that’s relevant to the kids. If you want to get them involved, you have to find music that’s relevant to them. At times, we will put on Lady Gaga or whoever and we’ll just jam. Or we will go old school and put on something like “Shout it Out Loud” by KISS. You have to show the kids that this is fun. And you have to sell yourself, too. You need to go out and show your face, you need to show up at school and community events, you need to go to football games – even if you don’t have a pep band, you need to go.

And if your principal asks you to do something, go help out. This last year, I was more than happy that my middle school principal is also the athletic director. He was looking for somebody to run the clocks for middle school football games. It may not be the most exciting stuff in the world, but I told him I would do that, and that speaks volumes to them.

 

SBO: A “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of deal?

RH: Yeah, it’s kind of like that. Don’t keep yourself on an island: go and talk to the faculty, joke around, find out about their lives, find out about their kids. It’s about making those personal connections, not only with the kids, but also with the people that you’re working with.

 

 

 



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