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More to Start Fewer to Quit - Issue 22

more to start fewer to quit recruiting and retention ideas & tips for music educators

This month's MSFQ tips come from Don Stinson, band director at Joliet Central High School in Joliet, IL, and the author of High Needs, Monumental Successes: Teaching Music to Low-Income and Underserved Students.


A Year-Round Adventure

Recruitment isn’t just a season — it's an all-year extravaganza! It's important to keep the door always open, especially for students who join at unconventional times. Imagine a scenario where a student moves in mid-year; it's not like we’re going to turn them away with a “Sorry, you missed the signup sheet by about five months!”

To integrate new musicians, I have current band members become mentors. I’m the only director for my program and this is an easy way for me to have multiple teaching assistants. We also don’t just focus on the kids that move in; we work hard to welcome all students to music by holding regular recruitment catch-ups. Every eight weeks, students can bring a friend, and we host catch-up sessions to cover the basics. Some of my most dedicated players were the ones who started late. If you are fortunate enough to have some local private teachers who are cleared by your school, you can even use their services to help some of the kids catch up, either in individual or group settings.


More Than Just Keeping Count

I keep a “Feel Good File.” This contains every note, email, card, etc. that I’ve ever received. People close to me took the time to let me know that they appreciated the work I was doing. Could I do the same to help grow my program of 30 students?

Two days before our concert, I brought our printed programs home and hand-wrote a note to every student in the band. “Annie: great work in class. I appreciate you putting in the extra time!” “Robert: I noticed yesterday that you helped a younger bassoonist. This is great character.” “Maria: great job on juggling music and athletics, and doing both well!”

I handed these notes out right before our performance. After the concert, the kids were abuzz; they clearly enjoyed the recognition.

Between the first and second concerts, we gained a few kids. One of them asked me directly, “Do I get a note even though I’m new?” Of course they did. More concerts, more notes handed out, and a tradition was created. One sophomore nearly quit but stayed after a heartfelt note on their program. It's amazing how a few scribbles on paper can turn the tide.

Selfishly, though, the notes were getting more cumbersome to write. I decided that due to the program increasing to 140 students, I would step away from writing program notes. The day before the concert, we ended rehearsal and packed up. Two freshmen came up to me. “We heard you personalize programs! We can’t wait to see what you wrote for us!” I paused.“Yep! Looking forward to it!” It was a long night, but I reminded myself to take care of those who show up. Build your program from the inside out.


Not Just About the Applause

What if our concerts were even more special? Traditional performances are great, but what about inviting guest artists? These don’t always have to be professional players. If you teach beginners, invite junior high students to perform. These performers show everyone what is possible in a short time. Last concert of the year? You deserve a break — have the students conduct! For beginning groups, consider a few students conducting pieces one at a time, or, if you have a backing track running, have a small group up front conducting. Older students can conduct pieces without tempo changes.

Finally, in the same vein as guest performances are alumni events. One of my sender teachers performs a signature piece at every December concert. Alums are invited to attend a rehearsal immediately before the concert, and then they are called up during the concert to perform. This is always a hit, and it’s no coincidence that their numbers and performance level are high.

Remember to keep your doors open, let your students have leadership opportunities, take care of those in your charge, and don’t be afraid to break traditions. These strategies can help our programs reach more students, increase their performance levels, and create a much-needed community in our schools.

Wishing you and your students a wonderful winter break and a happy New Year!

Don Stinson

Band Director, Joliet Central High School

Author, High Needs, Monumental Successes: Teaching Music to Low-Income and Underserved Students

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