The Best Things in Life Have Strings Attached: How to grow recruitment and ensure retention in your strings program

Mike Lawson • Commentary • June 19, 2017

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It reminded me of the movie Spartacus.

200 4th graders were sitting on the gym floor. The band director had just stoked the fires of their enthusiasm with promises of marching in parades, Disneyworld, and performing for fans on the football field.

On the only day when elementary school kids could choose an instrument, the deal seals for most of them, and they could finally join the band!

I was an afterthought. By way of introducing me, in a manner that certainly wouldn’t be confused with a fountain of support, the principal intoned, “And now our new strings teacher will take only a minute more of your time to show you instruments that a couple of you might want to think about.” As he pointed to his watch to remind me that the train had to run on time, I saw promise leave ahead of schedule.

I stood there, in a town where the band program had come into existence around the same year as the covered wagon. Its 200 loyal members were a great source of pride in the community. Certainly, I was respectful of the good work of my colleague, the band director. But I had a daunting challenge: create a strings program in a school system where having a viable number of students was the key to surviving or fold my tent and explore the rewards of retail sales. I was desperate for a few brave souls to have their “I am Spartacus” moment and choose strings.

And twelve did.

Over the years, 12 pioneers became 450 strings students in grades 4-12 in a small, blue-collar town north of Boston. As I discovered that morning, the key to recruitment and retention was simple: establish a sense of purpose by showing them the path.

Why Are We Practicing, Anyway?

In any endeavor, the nucleus of why we do what we do is a response to the brain’s question, “How is this going to benefit me?” For the band kids, the answer was: being part of a family, being a source of pride for the community, and having the transformational experience of participating in a dynamic ensemble. My challenge in starting a strings program required analyzing the elements of success of the band program and translating those elements into the strings world. My answer to the brain’s challenge was to develop an unending path that paved with a sense of purpose.

Two Keys

As ensemble directors, we give our students the keys to unlock the doors to a new journey that lasts a lifetime. And those keys open the doors to two worlds: the world within, filled with emotions and personal experiences, and the world we inhabit, filled with the profound perspectives that new opportunities bestow. In the end, with the language of music as a bridge, any musician will simultaneously know themselves and understand their world.

The Path

To recruit and to retain members, a road needs to be defined, and all signs must point to the answers for the brain’s constant question, “What’s the use of doing this?” When presenting the roadmap that includes benchmarks and milestones, the brain is motivated by a clear understanding of what lies ahead and the benefits that will ensue. In the gym on that fateful morning, my presentation was summed up in a simple call-and-response manner.

If… Then

If you join my program, then you will find yourself on a lifelong adventure. I will teach you how to play an instrument, and that instrument will be a key that will give you courage. Your instrument will open the doors to a group of new friends who will join you in travels around the world. When you join me on this path, your family can come too. Your parents and the people of your community will be proud of you. Your friends in school will be respectful of you. And I will be so proud of you that when you’re in high school, I’ll have limos take you to the state house with a police escort to meet the governor before I bring you around the world.

So, there it was. My first recruitment pitch on my first day on the job. A path filled with promises that came true for every student who stayed with my program. I had only one rule: we’ll work together to reach the benchmarks and then we’ll turn them into milestones on the journey. And as much of a personal journey as this would be, it was also a communal effort. Harmony as allegory.

Over the years, I took 1,400 students on nine European concert tours. From the first lesson in 4th grade, the benchmarks were goals to the next step on the path that ultimately took my members around the world.

It all started with the first step: If you learn “Jingle Bells” and our theme song, “The Water Is Wide,” then you can be in the December concert. If you’re in the concert, then you can become an official member of Strings Attached in the “Arch of Bows Induction Ceremony” on Valentine’s Day.

I stole from colleagues in the sports world. New members received a bumper sticker for their parents’ car that read: “The Best Things in Life Have Strings Attached.” They could also buy Strings Attached paraphernalia. Fifth graders learned music for their middle school trip to Lake George, New York where the 6th and 7th graders performed two challenging pieces, from memory, for two tough New York judges aboard the biggest boat on the lake. If they got a combined score of 85 or better, they’d be eligible for the European tour in high school. Plus, they returned home as heroes with a police/fire department escort when they entered the town.

In 8th grade, I taught them music for their high school international tour. By always looking ahead, always building a bridge to the cascade of benchmarks in the future, my students were the team that never lost.

They were feted at the state house before every European concert tour and given personalized citations from the Massachusetts Legislature (provided by their local representative. Smart guy! 450 kids represented 900 voters. We reciprocated by crowning him the King of Strings at our year-end concert). Introductory letters from Massachusetts senators and members of Congress were presented in Europe to such luminaries as the mayor of Paris, lord mayor of Dublin, American ambassador to France, lord mayor of Lucca, etc. And my “ambassadors” returned home with letters from their esteemed hosts.

Strings Attached performed benefit concerts on every tour, using their “keys” to give back to their generous overseas hosts. In Cork, they raised 1,200 euros for Cork Homeless; in Vienna, 1,400 euros for International Clown Doctors for kids with cancer; and a concert in St. Stephens Cathedral yielded 1,200 euros for the renovation of the church. A sense of purpose has its rewards.

Show them the path, and they’ll find their feet. Lead them on the road, and they’ll stay with you because expanding horizons is an acquired skill that their brains need. And whether you’re exploring the limitless horizons of the heart and mind or the world as a whole, your travelers will always return home transformed.

For all of Dilmore’s tips on how to build a beginning strings program that will not only retain and engage students but will take your students and your program to new places, download Encore Tours’ free ebook A Year in the Life of Beginner Strings at

Ward Dilmore is a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy and SUNY/Potsdam. He’s taught grades K-college. He is also an Emmy-nominated composer with seven albums on iTunes and Amazon. He has retired from teaching and now travels the U.S. on behalf of Encore Tours to assist and support ensemble leaders in building their music programs.


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