This content was adapted from a presentation by Marcia Neel, Senior Director of Education at Yamaha Music USA, at the 2023 Director’s Academy at the Summer Symposium. Learn more about Director’s Academy here. 


Have students perform early and often. “The first concert should be 6 weeks into the school year,” said Marcia, “and this can be done on NAMM’s First Performance National Day of Celebration.” The First Performance National Day of Celebration is to be hosted independently on the third Thursday in November, and is a day designated to celebrating beginning musicians through concert.

Having a concert this early in the first year allows the students to achieve short range goals, make music, and experience the applause of an audience as well as give early opportunities for parent and administrative involvement. Additionally, involving high school students in the concert in forward-facing roles such as ushers allows parents to visualize their younger students as being respectable and polite members of the music program five years down the road.


Placing high school students in hands-on roles in elementary and middle school programs is a win-win scenario. Many high-achieving students will be searching for volunteer hours and younger students will be given a role model closer to their age to look up to. In Marcia’s own words, “Young teens seek to maintain personal connections, friendships, and interactions with older peers. Middle school students look up to their high school peers.”

This involvement could include having older students volunteer at a summer camp or teach private lessons. Educators can also have younger students attend live music events involving high school members such as Bands of America competitions, high school theater productions, and concerts.


Part of retention in early programs involves maintaining an engaging atmosphere. Engaging atmospheres can include activities like a service project, writing thank you notes for other teachers, or visiting a nursing home. Activities like this aren’t only engaging and transformative but develop a sense of community and partnership among students.

Educators can also host a parent reception for parents of beginning musicians. A major part of retention is the parents, and by making them feel special, their confidence in their child’s music program is boosted. This reception can involve the high school and middle school principals, administrators, and other trustworthy figures that speak passionately about the music program.


“What am I really getting out of all of this?”

Have students think about why they participate in a music program. Students need to realize how music-making impacts their lives and enriches them and it’s easy for students to realize this when they’re told to think about it. There are a few ways to do this, including a written reflection, giving them time to reflect individually, and having students set personal goals.

The actual reflection might highlight social elements like making new friends or simply experiencing the joys of music making. No matter what the students get out of their experience as a musician, giving them time to reflect on how much they enjoy the program will improve satisfaction and program retention.

Download a reflection letter template here.


Finally, trust between educator and student is important when improving retention. Educators maintain integrity and confidence in students when they keep their word and follow through on promises made.

Trust is certainly more of a passive element in an educator’s experience, but it’s also the most important. There are a few ways to advance the trust between an educator and their students. This begins with communicating a vision and values, ensuring that everyone understands how the educator is following through on this vision. Why are we learning music and what does this learning look like throughout the year?

Another way to establish trust is demonstrating trust and respect in students. This might look like implementation of student leadership and regularly asking for student feedback and/or opinions.