by Robert W. Smith

The term “connection” can be defined as a linking association between people, things and events. Although the realization eluded me for the first half of my life, I now look at that definition and realize that our world of band and band performance can be summarized in that single word.

Our work as directors of musical ensembles is often focused on the moment: that concert, football game, festival performance, or other important performance that will be a benchmark event in our year’s activities. We pride ourselves in our preparation for the “moment.” We plan that field show in great detail, program that concert with musical intensity, and execute the logistics of those performances with seemingly flawless results. However, that success is short lived, as we must repeat the experience for a new group of students next year and every year thereafter as we continue our role as music educators.

To sustain that yearly success, it is crucial that we stop, at regular intervals, and look outside of the “moment.” Like a vintner planning and surveying their crops, have we planted the right seeds to ensure a quality harvest that will come each and every year for the foreseeable future? In musical terms, have we begun to assess our 2011 band today? Do we have the necessary instrumentation in our feeder program? Do we have the necessary numbers in our pyramid of schools? Do we have the necessary financial resources in place to adequately support the 2011 band of the future?

When all forecasting is done, we recognize that our future success depends primarily upon the recruiting of student musicians into our band programs. Simply stated, no students…no band.

This poses a large philosophical question. What is the source of our recruiting pool? There are those that answer this question with the specific band rooms that feed our programs. The high school director may look specifically at the middle school band room and focuses directly on those students. However, in the spirit of stepping back from the “moment,” there are those who state the richness of our recruiting pool lies in the elementary school classrooms.

If we look to the elementary school as our proverbial “fountainhead,” we may see that students at that age of wonder and exploration are looking for activities that stimulate the mind and activate the senses. (Pause to think…we can do that!) We also may recognize that as they grow older, they have the basic human need for social connections and activities that provide a sense of belonging and purpose. (Pause yet again…Hmmm…Yes, we do that too!) Like fishermen on the sea, do we throw out a finite number of lines and hope that we hook something or do we cast large nets knowing that we will catch the masses? I personally believe in the latter. I believe that casting large nets in the larger pool of the elementary school is the first step in ensuring our future success.

The question now lies in our approach. How do we make our band program attractive and exciting to that young musician and allow them to project themselves into our combined future? The answer, in my opinion, is found in the connection. How do we connect our band, our unique timbral sound, our musical repertoire, and our activities to those student’s daily lives? I believe that this answer is the true key to our recruiting and retention success.

As band directors, we teach today in very fertile musical times. As it was so many years ago in American society, the sound of the band has gone “mainstream.” We can’t turn on the television without our unique timbral colors soaring over the airwaves. From recent pop music hits using full marching band percussion sections to the sounds of sports media, the influences of our band culture are everywhere. In addition, our prospective students now have personal libraries that contain countless hours of large ensemble (band and orchestra) music. (Pause yet again…personal libraries of large ensemble music?) Yes, their personal libraries that include the wonderful movie and television scores that have captured the imaginations of millions.

How do we make the connection with our prospective students between our band program and the sounds and activities they have grown to love? Although many successful programs have accomplished this in different ways, I offer the following thoughts and ideas for your consideration. Each of these activities has worked for me over the years in various forms. It is my hope that these suggested recruiting activities and subsequent connections would at least provide some inspiration for you as you plan for your program’s very important future.

Elementary Recruiting Activities

Children’s Concert Series

I have experienced success in the planning and programming of children’s concerts over the years. It is important to note that these were some of the largest audiences of my yearly activities! Children’s Concerts were performed in the concert hall as opposed to the elementary school cafeteria at a time when the concert event could be the focus of family activity. When the content of the concert is geared specifically to the young child, both Mom and Dad will accompany the child to the concert along with extended family as well.

I generally programmed these concerts around a specific theme. Selected examples include:

  1. Carnival of the Animals – In addition to Saint-Saens composition, I’ve had success with Peter and the Wolf as well as a host of other compositions based upon animal themes. Before and after the concert, musicians met the children in an “Instrument Petting Zoo,” a place for the young child to explore various instruments. As you would suspect, the percussion section of our zoo was quite popular!
  2. Passport To The World – As children entered the concert hall, they were issued a passport (concert program). They had to clear customs and get their stamp. As the concert was about to begin, the ushers (dressed as airline flight attendants) come down the aisles and made their departure announcement complete with “plane choreography.” From there, our concert was off as we explored music inspired by different forms of transportation and cultures. As the final American march finished signifying our return home, the students exited the auditorium through “customs” to receive their final stamps signifying the countries they visited through music.

Elementary School Concerts

These specific recruiting concerts were performed at the elementary school during the school day. Although some programming may be shared with the Children’s Concert Series mentioned above, these performances were unique unto themselves. I find that making the connection with their general music classroom is the key to success.

That connection can happen in multiple forms including:

  1. Program arrangement(s) of songs that they have performed in the general music classroom. A sophisticated setting of a folk song works equally as well as an arrangement of a children’s song in a current popular musical style.
  2. Program an opportunity for students to “join the band.” I find that a percussion feature in a popular style is a perfect setting for elementary students to “sit in” with their classroom percussion instruments.
  3. Invite the general music teacher to guest conduct the band. When students see their teacher conducting the band, it helps to project themselves into your future!
  4. Allow time to “meet the instruments” in some form. An arrangement that is block-scored is perfect for this usage. Ask the individual sections to play an excerpt as you introduce their instrument. Direct the various choirs to play excerpts as you introduce instrumental families of various types. Complete the cycle with a full band performance of the excerpt or arrangement.
  5. Consider scheduling a “benefit concert” at the elementary school one evening with the proceeds going to the general music program.

Halftime Performances

I’ve had success by inviting the elementary school to join us in our halftime show. This performance was centered on some type of theme and allowed the elementary students to participate by singing or movement in some form. A particular highlight for me during my tenure as the Director of Bands at Troy University was the performance of a Star Wars show. Elementary school children participated throughout the show dressed as various characters from the movies. The entire elementary school joined the band on the field for the final number entitled Augie’s Great Municipal Band. On that particular night, everyone was happy and “connected.” The stands were full including the families of the elementary school students who may not have normally attended a game. The children were thrilled to be part of the band and have a chance to perform. The audience enjoyed the spectacle on the field and many still talk about that performance to this day. It was a win-win for the university, community and band programs!

Middle School Extensions

Similar types of activities can and should be programmed at the middle school level. I believe there are students throughout the middle school grades who would love to join the band. Unfortunately, our “system” generally gives them a single window of opportunity to be in our classroom. That short time period is also at the most sensitive of educational transitions. I believe there is opportunity for further recruitment once that transition is complete. I suggest that we all revisit our curricular scheduling to ensure that a 7th grade student can take a beginning band class thereby expanding the “window of time” for us to identify those that truly want to be a part of our program.

I would also suggest that we work with our choral, orchestra and piano/ guitar colleagues to consider offering other types of experiences at the middle school levels including exploratory courses in music technologies, songwriting, and musical theater among others. The wider we cast our net, the greater the potential for reward! In summary, connections of every type are crucial to our success. The value of music lies in those personal connections and ensures that our students will enjoy a lifetime of music. Along the way, their personal valuation of our art form ensures that they will remain actively involved in our band programs. Best wishes for your continued success!