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Guest Ed: Strategies That Work

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 15, 2013

Simple Ways to Build and Promote Your Band

When Kelly Middle School opened up in Springdale, Arkansas 18 years ago, 20 percent of the largely middle-class, Caucasian student population qualified for free or reduced lunch. Currently, the school is 87 percent free and reduced lunch, and serves mostly minority first-generation immigrant students. As educators, our challenge is keeping a historically strong band program healthy through this dramatic shift in demographics.

Embrace the Challenge

Like many other schools with high poverty levels, it is often difficult for families of Kelly Middle School students to imagine funding an instrument when basic needs are a challenge. In addition to financial barriers, our population often lacks familiarity with the band experience. Gaining community trust is critical before parents will enroll and fund students in band. All the performances, promotional materials used throughout the year, and community chatter really make the difference when it comes to gaining the support of parents and exciting students about joining band.

Everything the beginning directors do is important. Their actions affect not only the beginning band program, but also all of the subsequent programs. The sustainability of a program is affected by teaching interactions and how the program is presented and documented for the public. Everything from the first meeting with a potential band student up to the time students move on to the next level is encompassed in the overall band experience. Maintaining a viable program in a high poverty setting is possible, and certainly rewarding, but it takes a team of dedicated teachers supporting the vision and each other to make it happen.

Simple Ways to Build and Promote Your Band

Recognizing the success of your program will rely on the strength of your team. Kelly Middle School has three band directors: I teach there full-time, and Michael Echols and Chris Moore are split between Kelly MS and George Junior High School.

Whatever the make-up of your team, it is important to encourage and value the contributions of everyone on the staff and, above all else, promote personal growth and recognition. Successful teams brainstorm freely, share ownership, and try new ways to increase student learning. In high poverty settings, the students are typically more school dependent and need teachers even more than the norm. In this setting, it is even more critical that teachers examine teaching techniques, results, paperwork processing, and how they get instruments into the hands of students in order to achieve success.

Taking time to select appropriate literature should be a priority. That music must engage and excite students, and add authenticity to the student performance experience. This is not the place to cut corners. Parents and students sacrifice to be part of the band, especially in high poverty settings. Make your program worth their while; every aspect of your program must have perceived value by your students, parents, and colleagues in order to maintain healthy numbers in the ensembles.

 Take a Broader Look

Try new ideas, be open-minded, and look for solutions in unexpected places. You may be surprised how ideas borrowed from other fields can work for your band. For example, I have a marketing and public relations background and often use strategies from those fields to promote our students. Ideas can also be borrowed from other sectors including magazines, books, and online content.

Don’t be afraid to use your students as resources. Getting their input will excite them and create new ways of connecting. What students tell you may be both surprising and enlightening. Be sure to capitalize on the fluid nature of social media and emerging technologies to provide new and novel platforms to engage your band community.

 Review, Reflect, and Revise Constantly

Make it a point to have an after-actions meeting immediately following an event or activity. Take the time to write down and file ideas, solutions, comments, and contacts for reference. The best time to brainstorm modifications, additions, or what your next step should be is when the event is still fresh on your mind – the sooner the better. No matter how much I think I will remember details, I am always surprised at how much I’ve forgotten when the same activity comes around again. Take five minutes to write down your ideas in order to continue improving.

Improvise Materials

We have had great success creating individual photographs of each student with his or her instrument, titled with the student’s name and instrument. As the year progresses, more uses for the photos will emerge. For example, our trombone class photo was used on the home page of Charmsoffice.com. The result of students seeing themselves featured on a website was exciting: it made them feel like stars, and it was free and easy!

Those photos can also be used to create a preconcert slide show, which can be shown before a performance while parents gather or take their seats. I use Animoto.com to create our slideshows and videos; the program was easy to use and inexpensive. Materials were uploaded, upbeat music gave the finished presentation a polished feel, and the show was easily downloaded to a computer. This was such a big hit that our parents requested the slide show again after the concert so they could stay and see their student on the big screen one more time. Printed copies of student photos were also sold as a fundraiser in the lobby. First concerts are always a memory maker; making each student a “star performer” simply added to the experience.

Another great way to use the photos is to create a mock magazine cover: We used an interactive and automated template from the online program YourCover.com. It was easy, and the cover of our pretend magazine, “Making Music,” looked professional when complete. The captions promoted the benefits of being in the band, and the covers were printed in both Spanish and English. The mock magazine covers were sold as a fundraiser and generated positive feedback from students, parents, and administrators.

The magazine covers can then be recycled into recruiting posters. Our students enjoyed having their picture on larger-than-life-size posters around the school for the next generation of band students and the community. We used vistaprint.com to upload our pictures and magazine covers into professionally designed poster templates, creating a high-end, finished look. Posters were laminated and are generic enough to use for several more years.

 Use Videos

Get your school’s video technology program to film the band’s first performance and post it on your school district’s website. Our students were still going to the site at the end of the year to view and reflect on their progress. Another option is to create short inspirational videos. Ours are about three minutes in length and blend brief interview clips of last year’s band students sharing their thoughts on their solo and ensemble experience mixed in with current student photos. The videos were designed to encourage goal setting and participation in solo and ensemble and included positive messaging such as, “Try something new,” and, “We can do this.” By supplementing our day-to-day teaching with the motivational videos, our participation results in solo and ensemble included over 90 percent of the Kelly Middle School band.

Students enjoyed reviewing the videos at the end of the year, and the materials will be used to encourage the next class.

This year, I created a video of famous people who played in band, and I interspersed that with photos of current band students. I got a list of stars that played in their school band, hunted for their photos on the internet, pasted images into PowerPoint slides, and uploaded those to create the video. The idea was to build excitement about joining the band. The short video was shown on our school news shortly before instrument screening to generate interest. We found that to be a great motivator for students to participate in the music program.

 Celebrate Achievement

Each year we feature our students performing on the morning news, in the cafeteria, the lobby, and anyplace around the school they can play as part of our weeklong solo and ensemble celebration. Students wear their medals to school and we document the celebration with a video. The opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills and musicianship to peers is highly valued by our school culture.

Service Opportunities

Our district has an active family literacy program. The program helps parents and children achieve their potential through literacy by supporting the academic achievement of the ELL children served and connecting Hispanic families to the American schooling system. The Kelly Band students were thrilled to perform at the family literacy graduation ceremony for parents. Students valued the opportunity to celebrate their parents’ achievement and add special meaning to the graduation by performing patriotic music. Service learning with a band twist!

Use PSAs

There are some good products already created for use by organizations such as NAMM, SupportMusic.com, Scott Lang Productions, and more. Our team uses them to supplement what we create in-house as part of the overall plan to get the word out and encourage recruitment. And we are always on the hunt for new materials.

Face Time

At Kelly Middle School, every student in the 6th grade is screened one at a time and recommended for an instrument. Screening every student takes significant effort and time, but it’s a worthwhile investment. It is the only recruiting activity that gives the students a personal glimpse into band, and it also creates a one-on-one interaction with band directors. Taking the time to screen each student gives us the chance to offer band as a real possibility to our students and is vital for recruiting a healthy number of band kids. Currently, 218 students out of a class of 320 are enrolled for the 2013-2014 beginning band program. These practices have helped us continue the strong Springdale, Arkansas band tradition.

Janice M. Bengtson is in her second year teaching band in Springdale, Arkansas and was named the 2013 “Teacher of the Year” for J.O. Kelly Middle School.

Previous experiences include teaching band at Trickum Middle School, Gwinnett County Public Schools, Ga.; Marketing and Public Relations at Georgia Tech; and 20 years as a clarinetist with the U.S. Air Force Band Program.

She has performed on Air Force Band and commercial recordings under the Telarc and Klavier labels. Ms. Bengtson was recently nominated and selected for membership into the American School Band Directors Association.

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