Retention is a topic that is important to all of us, as it can impact the quality of our band programs and our job security. The subject of retention is complex, and there are many factors that impact a student’s decision as to whether to continue with band. Some of these are external factors and outside our control. What we CAN control, however, is the culture within the band. How do we build a program that students can’t imagine leaving?
One of the ways in which we do this is by making sure every student has two essential things: a job (or a sense of purpose) and a friend (or a sense of family). By creating a culture in which every single student has these two things, we ensure that each student feels valued, accepted, and essential. When young people feel this way, they are much less likely to leave our programs.
First, every student needs a role and a sense of purpose within the band. This means that all students in the program are actively contributing to the goals of the band, and they know that they are making significant contributions. As directors, we can help students contribute by finding their unique talents and matching those talents to particular positions or assignments. It may seem overwhelming to have to find jobs for every student in the program, but we can do this through a mix of formal and informal positions.
When we think of formal positions within the band, we probably first think of the traditional leadership positions: band officers, drum majors, section leaders, etc. These types of positions can be beneficial at both the high school and junior high level. However, these positions often represent only a small portion of the band population. In addition, these positions are sometimes held almost exclusively by older students and those in the top ensemble. We can include more students by having leaders at all levels of the program and in all ensembles.
Leadership should not be exclusive and limited to only a few elite students. Even when the number of student leaders is large, if they all have clearly defined roles and are used effectively, they can benefit personally from these opportunities while contributing significantly to the success and effectiveness of the band program.
On the other hand, having leaders in the band who don’t do anything is not healthy for the culture of the program. To prevent this, we must do several things. First, when we decide what jobs or roles we want to have, we need to make sure there are enough duties to warrant a position. We need to carefully think through and decide exactly what the student in that role will do. Then we must plan ahead and take the time to train leaders up front for all the things we want them to do.
It is so easy to get busy, feel like we don’t have time to teach someone how to do the job, and end up just doing it ourselves. Yet if we will build in the time at the beginning to properly train our student leaders, they can do so much and greatly relieve our burden as directors. As the year progresses, we must remember to use our student leaders on a regular basis. They need guidance from us frequently and need to know exactly what we want them to do in each situation. If we don’t remember to use our leaders, their positions will become nothing more than a meaningless title.
And finally, we must follow through and hold our leaders accountable. Sometimes this means publicly recognizing and applauding a leader who is going above and beyond their job description. This can serve as a great example and motivation to other leaders. Sometimes we must hold student leaders accountable by pulling them aside and privately reminding them of the job they are supposed to be doing. If we can follow these steps, from the creation of the leadership position to the follow-through, we can ensure that our student leaders are effective.
Student Leadership in Every Band
One way to involve more students in leadership at every level of the program is to appoint leadership positions, such as section leaders, principal players, and librarians, within every concert band.
- The section leaders are the logistical leaders, chosen for their dependability and motivational qualities. They are responsible for making sure that their section is always in the right place at the right time with all needed materials.
- The principal players are the musical leaders and are expected to serve as musical models, demonstrating any fundamental skill or passage from the repertoire with a high level of competency.
- The librarians copy and pass out music.
With all these positions in each concert band, the number of leaders may be sizable. But so are the benefits! In addition to relieving some of the burdens of the band directors, these positions also allow younger students to serve as leaders. These students would not normally have this opportunity for several more years.
For example, in your lower bands, many of the leaders will be younger students. They are gaining valuable leadership experience from this early age. Furthermore, we can observe these young leaders and see who has the potential to be excellent leaders for the band program as a whole in the coming years.
Nonetheless, as we said before, this leadership structure, like all others, is only effective if we remember to use the leaders on a frequent basis and follow through with holding them accountable for doing their jobs.
Another way to give more students formal positions within the band is to have student-led chamber ensembles. We can appoint leaders of each of these ensembles who are responsible for scheduling rehearsals, running rehearsals, and communicating with the band directors. These leaders will be most successful if they are given clear guidance as to exactly how often and how long they should rehearse and what they should accomplish in each week of rehearsals. Furthermore, these leaders can fill out a quick questionnaire each week to recap their rehearsal and alert the director to any challenges or issues that the ensemble is facing.
For all these leadership positions, it is essential that we take time to do the proper training. We probably provide extensive training for our officers in the fall. But all our leaders need training to truly understand what it means to be a leader, to understand their particular role, and to think through possible scenarios they may face.
In these leadership training sessions, older, more experienced leaders can help guide and mentor the younger leaders from the lower bands. Also, all the leaders from a particular band can meet together to set goals for their group and think about the potential challenges ahead. Chamber ensemble leaders will also need training in how to run a rehearsal and how to troubleshoot common musical problems.
Yet even with all these formal jobs or positions in the band, many students will not have a title. This is where informal positions come in. It is our job to get to know every student, find their unique strengths, and help them use those strengths to serve the band and benefit their peers.
Almost everyone can help someone else with something. Students can serve as “buddies” to new students to help them feel welcome. More focused students can be assigned to help those they sit next to in rehearsal who have trouble staying on track. Organized students can help others organize their band binders. Academically strong students can tutor other band members who are struggling with grades. Older students can serve as musical models to younger students on material that was covered in previous years. We should always be on the lookout for those students on the fringes of our programs who need our help to get plugged in.
By giving every student a job, we can create a culture in which every student knows that they are essential to the success of the band. They know that if they don’t show up, the band is not going to be as good or not going to run as smoothly. Our top students are more naturally going to feel this way, but we can help all our students feel this way by treating every position, whether formal or informal, as important and vital to the program.
Another key ingredient in helping students stay in band is a sense of family. Often when students graduate from a band program what they remember most is that feeling of family, created through the enormous amount of time spent together. They talk about bonding with their section, classmates and leadership teams. We must be intentional about creating this family environment so that the time together will be familial.
As band directors, we believe in the power of teaching students musical skills and non-musical skills. Students can only learn these skills when they feel that they are in a safe and trusted environment. This environment can and should be built purposefully within every band hall.
An Intentional Environment
We must be intentional about the environment we create within our band hall. It can be helpful to write down our specific intentions for each year, such as: “I will stop what I’m doing when I listen to students,” or “I will check in on student buddy pairs once a week,” or “I will not allow myself to carry my phone during rehearsals.” All these goals remind us to be mindful about students and their well-being and can be re-evaluated throughout the year.
One of the ways we can further encourage these family relationships to take place is by hosting and organizing non-musical events in which the students have no musical responsibilities. For example, two or three times a year, Jane hosts “Movies with Maloy,” telling students when and where she is going to the movies, and they (along with their friends and family) are all invited to come along.
She has also opened the band hall throughout the summer for students to come up and have short lessons, help clean out lockers, and to exercise with a workout video. These types of activities are silly and simple and don’t require a lot of extra work from us other than to plan for space and send out some emails.
Social interaction often doesn’t happen organically like we would want, and we must coax students to find friend groups and mentor one another. When students find their smaller group of friends within our band hall, they are more likely to spend time there, hopefully practice, and guide other band students to do the same.
A great way to instill these relationships is to give beginner band students a 7th- or 8th-grade band buddy. These buddies help 6th graders with their instrumental needs (chair tests, maintenance, and meeting others within their section) and their social anxiety about being in a new activity. The ultimate goal is for these pairs of buddies to remain friends as the older student enters high school, easing that transition, as well as into marching band. As teachers, we need to be direct with how often they should meet and what their goals will be.
Band Buddies and the Transition to High School
In addition to musical events, the band buddy program should include non-musical events where students will not be responsible for playing their instruments or showing up in uniform. The more often that the high school program can host events and students from their junior high feeders, the more comfortable those students will become on the high school campus.
It is so important for 8th graders to see where their trajectory is headed in terms of being a freshman in the marching band. For example, taking them to a high school football game and having them shadow the entire process (from getting dressed, to dancing in the stands, to riding the bus) can remove many doubts about marching band. No matter what, the transition to high school is nerve racking so we must do all we can to make that process as smooth and positive as possible. We want 8th graders to see the high school marching band as a puzzle in which they are the missing piece.
Our Role in the Family
When it comes to building this culture of family, there is only so much coaxing of upperclassmen that we can do. We need to make sure that we are out in front every day showing kids that we love and care about them. We must be asking them questions about their lives and giving them a safe space to talk about what is on their minds within our band hall. They need to know that we love and care about them. This must also be done with intention; we can’t just assume that they already know.
We can all agree that one of the reasons that we became music educators is because we felt a rich sense of belonging within our programs. In this tumultuous time of technology infiltration at such a young age, it is more important than ever for students to feel part of something bigger than themselves. We know that it is in their best interest to be in band and cultivate a true passion for music. Therefore, we must be willing to curate a purpose for them and embrace them into our musical families.