5 No-Fail Beginning Band Retention Activities

5 No-Fail Beginning Band Retention Activities

Nothing is more important to the success of our music programs than retaining the students who are already enrolled – particularly the beginners. We have to teach the beginners as if they have a scheduled performance at Carnegie Hall. In my previous post, I shared the S.M.A.R.T. approach to retention – i.e. the five pillars which should be considered when focusing on retention which should be ongoing throughout the year. Today, I will share specific examples of events that keep our beginners motivated to continue their music-making experiences as well as to inspire others to join in on the fun.

1. Success through the Partnership Halftime Show

Imagine high school marching band students standing in a semicircle on the football field. In one of the end zones, just under the goal post, beginning band students from the feeder middle/elementary school are lined up in uniform. ‘ You can sense the anticipation in the air.

As the name of each beginner is announced to encouraging applause, that student runs onto the field with their instrument, stopping in front of their mentor, a high school band student who plays the same instrument.

In short order, everyone is in position and ready to perform. Special parts have been written for the beginners that utilize just two notes while the high school students accompany them. Check out the young students at the beginning of the video below. They’re dancing on the field and bumping elbows with the big kids. They’re acting crazy and having a great time. Then, when their time comes to play, they shine!

After the performance, you’d expect their families to go wild, and they do! What’s more, the whole place goes wild with standing ovations all around. Imagine having an experience like this in your first year of band. You’d be hooked for life – and that’s exactly the point!

Prior to the beginning of the game, a pre-game pizza party could be hosted by the high school band parents so that the high school and beginning band students could mingle and get to know each other even better. The high school parents could also invite the parents of the beginners to meet and greet them and answer questions about being in the program.

Additional Partnership Halftime Show Components

Obviously, the key to success here is in creating a situation where every beginning student (and their parent) experiences success; that’s part of the brilliance of writing good parts that contain just two or three notes.

Success starts with collaboration. The high school and middle/elementary school band directors must work together to iron out the details of who goes where and how the beginners can easily find their mentor high school student once they take the field. (Of course, it’s really the job of the high school student to ensure that their younger peer ends up in the proper location.)

One other idea would be to end the halftime performance with the announcer acknowledging the beginning band parents: with “I’d like to ask that the parents of these future high school band musicians to stand. Please join me in congratulating them on a wonderful first halftime performance!”

It’s important for parents, as well as students, to see the goal line for the instrumental music program. It starts early and doesn’t end even after high school graduation. Parents should be led to understand that the joy of music-making can continue for a lifetime. Making this fun and exciting for the parents, as well as the kids, can’t hurt. Success and recognition are great motivators.

2. Modeling Through Student-to-Student Communication

In my approach to retention, I emphasize the importance of modeling. The above halftime show is one example of good modeling. Another was shared with me by a high school director in Georgia. His students write cards/notes to the beginning (and sometimes intermediate) students, focusing on their recent accomplishments.

For example, you might have a high school trumpet student write something like, “Congratulations on your performance at last week’s band concert,” or, “I heard you play at festival last week and you did a terrific job!” to a middle school band student who also plays trumpet. This can help inspire the younger students and keep their excitement level high. They get constant reinforcement when participating in sporting activities and this particular activity helps to provide the same for our music students.

Involve as many high school students as you can and try to send out the cards/notes via USPS to make it extra special for the young recipients (who likely don’t get a lot of mail). Work with the appropriate band directors to gain access to the students’ snail mail addresses. Check with your principals to be sure that there are no privacy issues with doing this and if so, simply give the cards to the directors to disseminate to the students. It’s important that there is two-way communication among the directors to make this work.

As the younger students do something extra special (like performing at solo & ensemble festival) the word needs to get passed along so that the student can be recognized. When a student is signing up or trying out for the high school band, make sure a card/note is sent along saying something like, “Looking forward to having you join us in the band program next year.”

You might think that the high school students are too busy to take on this task but experience shows that the high school kids enjoy it.  They come to realize that they are taking on the responsibility of retaining all of those beginning band students and it really works. It’s very exciting for them to know that through this type of nurturing leadership activity, they are leaving a legacy that will last for years to come.

The focus is to open communications between those students who have left the middle/elementary program and those who are just beginning. Maybe the older students could also play a role in a series of Saturday morning coaching sessions or a music camp for beginning players held for a week over the summer to get the beginners started on their instrument even before the school year begins.

The key is to promote regular, direct student-to-student communications. The younger students idolize their older peers and want to be just like them so demonstrating desired behavior through quality modeling activities like these is a great way to get them connected in a meaningful way. You’d be surprised how many of these young students can’t wait to get to high school so that they can become mentors to other beginners.

3. Activity-based Retention: Participating in the First Performance National Day of Celebration

The strategies provided in this post are primarily activity-based which is what contributes to their success, but this particular event is celebrated early each year to get the ball rolling.

The First Performance National Day of Celebration is a day that has been set aside to recognize the achievements of beginning instrumental music students. It is celebrated through the presentation of a demonstration concert that allows these young musicians to showcase their newly-acquired musical skills for the very first time in a successful public setting.

This scripted event provides parents with the opportunity to hear their child’s progress in a fun and entertaining setting that requires little or no extra work for the teacher as all materials are complimentary and available to download at www.musicachievementcouncil.org. The ultimate goal is to reduce beginner dropouts, encourage positive communication with parents, strengthen administrative support for the program, and create a memorable experience for the students. The sound of applause early in a musician’s life can encourage continued growth and eventually lead to a lifetime of music-making. This turn-key program will serve to provide an exciting first step in that musical journey.  

Check out this video to get a sense of what the First Performance National Day of Celebration is all about and to hear the responses from both kids and parents about this innovative program.

Directors love the comment from the gleeful mother who said, “Yeah, they held the first note for four counts and we all applauded.” We have to remember what a big deal this is for the students as well as the parents. That comment really does say it all!

The Music Achievement Council (MAC) – an action-oriented 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization – has as it sole mission, “to enable more students to begin and remain in instrumental music programs through the sharing of real-world, successful strategies developed by instrumental music teachers.” To that end, they’re making this program available to all music educators, free-of-charge.

When the original First Performance was first introduced many years ago by the legendary Sandy Feldstein, the world didn’t have the plethora of band and orchestral method books that now exist. The package MAC is sharing today includes everything but Dr. Feldstein’s music, for which all directors (including choir directors) can substitute their own music. For those interested, Dr. Feldstein’s music is made available for purchase through Hal Leonard.

The complimentary materials available to download directly from the MAC website include the following.

  1. Dear Director Letter which explains the program and provides ideas for implementation.
  2. Dear Principal Letter which explains the program but also serves as an invitation
 to the principal to serve as host for the concert.
  3. Dear Parent Letter which explains the program and serves as an invitation to bring the entire extended family to attend and support their budding musician.
  4. First Performance Script which is a fill-in-the-blank guide to help provide your host (the principal, in many cases) with appropriate data and introductory remarks for the short 15-20 minute program. (The script is intended only as a guide. It is recommended that directors make it their own. Many comic moments can be shared which only add to the fun of the experience.)
  5. Ideas to Enhance the Performance by Involving High School Students provides a number of ideas for involving the high school music students which demonstrates the long view of the district’s music education program. This frames the understanding that once started, music-making lasts throughout high school and, hopefully, beyond. This also reinforces the modeling approach to retention.
  6. Fillable PDF Certificate of Advancement that can be completed and printed out for each beginner signifying that the student has now “advanced” from beginning participant to full-fledged member of the band, orchestra, or choir program. These certificates could be presented “on stage” or at a brief reception in the music room immediately following the performance.

Items 2, 3, and 4 above are provided online in .docx format so that they may be customized with your school logo and contact information.

One band director from Connecticut suggested a great finale for the First Performance. Have the high school band come roaring down the aisles in full uniform playing the high school fight song right before or immediately after the final selection. This will create additional excitement and enthusiasm, particularly in the young students who will identify with the older students and want to do the same thing one day for other beginners.

Again, all the materials above – and other extremely helpful complimentary recruitment and retention resources – are available to download at no charge from the Music Achievement Council website.

4. Reflection— Why Do Kids Stay in the Program? Let’s Ask Them.

Let’s talk about reflection. Let’s talk about encouraging students to think about what music-making means to them. During the course of the year, provide a hand-out to your students with the following sentence stem repeated five times.

“Music makes a difference because…”

Ask your students to complete the sentences with as many answers as they would like and to feel free to respond anonymously. You will discover the most incredible responses, especially with younger students when they are still so honest about their feelings. There are many uses for these responses. They can be read aloud back to the class. They can be included as quotes in your school’s quarterly parent newsletter or on your school’s website. They can even be posted in the classroom to remind the students of the impact of music-making.

But the most important thing is that the students start reflecting about what music means to them in their personal lives and how they feel when they’re in the rehearsal room making music as opposed to when they’re not.

Some of the themes I hear from music students include:

…it’s brought me new friends …I experience joy when making music …it’s fun

… it gives me a sense of unified purpose

While kids may not use the words “unified purpose,” they will make that point. They value being part of a team, they value achieving success alongside others. So that’s a really, really good one. When you receive comments like this, it’s important to share them as other students will readily agree although they may not have had that thought initially.

Here’s a fun example of students sharing their reasons for staying in the band program. The following video is from a high school in Florida. This is not a serious video. The students created it for fun, and I think it’s great. This could be done at the high school level and shared with your the beginning students. They’ll get the point!

Here are the 13 Reasons Why You Should Stay in Band

I just love this video! We didn’t hear the kids say things like, “Well, I learned to play a Neapolitan 6th chord” or comments like that. It was all about non-musical reasons for staying in band which also contribute to the overall enjoyable experience of creating something of beauty through hard work, tenacity and collaboration.

This next video was made by one of the Foothill High School band students from the Clark County School District located in Henderson, NV. This is another example of students telling their own story.

What I love about this video is that it is the students telling their own story; they decided what they wanted to “say” in this video, they wrote what you hear, and a video-savvy parent was kind enough to put it all together.

These band students are just amazing. Their video gives me goosebumps every single time because their message is so heartfelt. You just know that they understand the profound value of an education in music. No matter how it’s provided, it’s important to give students the opportunity to reflect on the significance of the experiences that come as a direct result of collaborative music-making.

5. The Total Picture: Teaching the Parents Too—They Don’t Know What Normal Is

Yes, teaching beginners also means that we have to teach their parents as well.

It’s easy to forget what we need to share with them to ensure that they are involved in the learning process but getting them on board as active learners side-by-side with their children is key. Everyone has their part to play.

Engaging parents can begin with something as easy as teaching them how to support their child’s practicing. Be sure they understand that their child needs to have a regular place at home to practice each day that will remain uninterrupted. It must be well-lighted, have a straight-back chair to promote good posture, and a music stand. Students should always have a pencil with eraser handy. We need to suggest that parents help students adhere to a daily practice schedule, including a specific time of day as well as a recommended length of practice.   

Also, mom and dad should make the time to sit down and listen to their child practice once each week or so then provide encouraging feedback. When my nephew was starting to play trumpet, I’d receive smartphone videos of his playing and would always send back notes like, “Oh, wow! That note sounded so good and you held it out for so long,” to provide positive feedback. This helped him to realize (reflect upon) the fact that he was indeed progressing.  I also encourage families to video student practice sessions and send them to distant family members. This always adds to everyone’s level of enthusiasm and helps the student realize the significance that others also place on his/her musical achievements.

Experience Live Music

Another idea is to provide parents with ideas of how to keep their child motivated. Publish an ongoing list of free performances (like touring string quartets or wind and brass quintets funded by local arts agencies) that may be coming to the local public library. There are more of these performances than parents (and you) might realize and they are often free and of very high quality. Encourage parents to have their beginners sit in the front row then take them to meet the performers after the concert to ask questions. More than likely, the performers started playing their instruments at right about the same age and will be thrilled to share their experiences as young musicians.

I’m not sure that we do enough of this type of high-quality listening and therefore, our students are only hearing the same sounds produced by their contemporaries repeatedly each day and not hearing live music produced at an exceptionally high level.

The Parent Band

A fun way to encourage parents to play an active role in the learning process is to have them learn to play too. At the beginning of the year when the students receive their instruments for the first time, tell them that part of their overall assignment for the entire year is for them to teach one of their parents how to play their instrument. Their charge is thus to teach mom how to play clarinet, or dad how to play the flute, or the sax, or what have you.

Then, at the spring concert, the parents take the stage and perform as a parent band. They will learn what normal has become for their children because they’re doing it themselves. On the flip side, just think about how much your beginning students are learning in the process of teaching one of their parents how to play their own instrument! It’s a win-win situation and the performance of the parent band is always a hoot! They get dressed up – just like the kids. And even get nervous – just like the kids!

Check out the video below. The students have handed over their instruments to their parents and are now literally standing right next to them as the moms and dads perform their selections from the method book. (Pay close attention to the girl in the center whose father is struggling to play her saxophone. Her expressions are just priceless.)

You can tell that her dad didn’t get a lot of practice time and that she was trying to be as supportive as she could. This entertaining activity ensures that parents will walk away with a better understanding of what is involved when their child is learning to play an instrument.  

So now you have an idea of how much fun this can be. You won’t get every parent but perhaps those students whose parents can’t participate could choose an older sibling or an aunt or even another teacher from the school to teach.

Just remember, parents need to be taught too! They need to know what their beginners are going through and become active in the learning process. It is our job however, to share this information with parents and not assume that this is something that they already know.

Your Enthusiasm

Kids are just amazing! We have the ability, the duty really, to “flip the switch” that can set the course of their lives on the path to a more fulfilled life.  So please also remember this final thought…your enthusiasm matters! We have to be enthusiastic about all that we do so that our efforts come together to keep our students involved.

We want them to be music-makers. We want them to begin their adult lives with these experiences, to know how to build relationships and collaborate to build great things; all those twenty-first-century skills we’re always hearing about. We can ensure they get those skills in our music programs but the responsibility ultimately rests with us.

A veteran of 36 years in public school music education, Marcia Neel has directed successful secondary music programs in Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Lead author of the instrumental and vocal method series ¡Simplemente Mariachi!, she has also authored and edited an array of articles and publications and is an in-demand conference presenter. Marcia is president of Music Education Consultants, Inc., a consortium of music education professionals which works with a variety of educational organizations, arts associations, and school districts to foster the growth and breadth of standards-based, music education programs. She also serves as education advisor to the Music Achievement Council, a 501(c)(6) organization whose purpose is to enable more students to begin and continue in instrumental music programs through effective professional development programs for music educators. In 2016, Neel was named senior director of education for the Band and Orchestral Division of Yamaha Corporation of America and recently accepted a position on the Board of Directors of the Percussive Arts Society.

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