Why Band Students are Quitting … and What You Can Do About It

Mike Lawson • MusicEd: Mentor Minute • December 3, 2020

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I recently ran an informal conversation in the Music Educators Creating Online Learning Facebook Group to ask teachers why they think students are quitting band and the responses were pretty challenging. There were a few responses that kept coming up again and again. Let’s cover a few of the dominant ones and explore some ways we can combat them.

Schedule Conflicts and Academic Requirements

Many schools that have gone completely remote haven’t been able to figure out how to pace student work, and many highly academic classes are giving far more work now than students are used to. Kids are feeling overwhelmed and when they feel they have to cut something, plus there is a lot of pressure from their other teachers, counsellors, and parents to focus only on the classes they need for graduation, or their “core” classes. How can these adults forget that the students can’t thrive on the one-side of academia? What we do in music is more important now than ever.

You probably can’t change the pressure students are feeling from other teachers or counsellors. You probably can’t change the graduation requirements. You can try to change the perception of your community so that they value music more, but that may take a while and we need solutions now.

One of the best things you can do right now is be understanding because your student who quits for this reason would likely prefer to stay in band than to leave. Ask what you can do to support them, and let them know that they will be missed and they are welcome back at any time. This is your opportunity to save the relationship, and in turn remind yourself that this isn’t about our egos as band directors, it’s about these students.

Demands of the Class

Some students are saying that what we’re requiring of them is too much. Not only may we be requiring too many assignments, we may be requiring too much of a mental and emotional challenge as well. Many students join band because they love to play an instrument, but how many feel comfortable playing alone, especially when they know they are being “tested.” Creating a video of themselves playing may be just too big of a mental and emotional reach for students. How comfortable are you recording yourself solo? How much more anxiety may our students be having?

If you’re giving too many assignments for your students, you’re likely creating too much work for yourself as well. Now is the time to implement one of the best tools we have as teachers: participation grades. Set up a few times per week, or whatever time your admin has you scheduled for, and just talk to your students and give them a grade for showing up. Remember that there are probably two reasons they are there: because of their relationship with you and their relationship with band. Play up on that and keep things fun and easy for them and yourself. They can still learn a ton of musical skills, and will get the even more important lesson of playing for fun and making it part of their life. If you have to do assessments, make them robust – cover a lot of skills in a playing sample, and give them lots of options for how they can submit their assessment.

Challenges at Home

This is another one that you won’t have any control over. Many kids are home with other siblings, some that they may have to be caring for. Their parents may sleep during the day and require the house to be quiet during school hours. They may not have accessibility to a computer or the internet at the times your class meets. They may have to work a job during the day, you just don’t know.

If they drop because of troubles at home, that’s another good time to open all your empathy for them. Remind them that you’re there if they need support, and they’ll be welcome back anytime. Invite them to send you songs, to share their musical experiences with you. Give them lots of participation options, that don’t require them to be on video or to make noise. They can participate in a lot of other ways, so invite them to.

Missing the Social Aspects

We humans are social beings, and many of your students likely joined band to be with their friends. Take that away and you’ve taken away their reason to stay. Give them back the social aspects. Class time doesn’t have to be always super structured and focused on a series of objectives you have in your lesson plan. Many of us have discovered the wonders of the mute button, but have we discovered the joy of getting students to just talk, to share? How much of the class time can you dedicate to just letting them be social? When I run online rehearsals I always start early. I invite everyone to turn on their microphone and just visit with each other. I have a list of questions prepared to get them talking. Give them their ability to connect with their friends back, then create shared memories together.

Lost the Joy of Making Music

This may be the easiest one to combat of all. If they miss making music, get them making music! If you can’t do it as a full band, do it in small groups. If you can’t do it in small groups, do it solo. Give them lots of options. Let them choose their own songs, their own ways to create. Keep it easy and fun and centered around their interests. If they’re more into Harry Styles than Gustav Holst, let them choose, and then craft their musical experiences to match.

It’s no secret that students are leaving the band now more than ever. It can be difficult when you’re feeling like your hands are tied and you can’t teach or connect with them the way that you always have. But you can do the most important thing of all: make it fun.

Elisa Janson Jones is the senior manager of online learning for Conn-Selmer, the writer and producer of the Music Ed Mentor Podcast, founder of Music Educators Creating Online Learning Facebook group, a columnist for School Band & Orchestra Magazine, author of multiple books for music educators, and conductor of her community band.

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