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THRIVE & Make more Music Makers!

Have you ever seen a mass exodus out of a music program?  I see this each year in elementary strings program.  The transition between 4th to 5th grade seems to be detrimental to the strings program in my county.  The loss of so many students is of great concern.  Some of them may be switching to band but many of them are dropping instrumental participation permanently at such a young age.  Why must they leave so early?  This question has plagued me for years and is my primary area of interest, so let’s look at some possibilities.

A 2014 study revealed that students who feel less skilled on an instrument are more likely to quit and students who feel more skilled are more likely to stay (Ammerman & Wuttke, 2014).  What is so interesting about this is that a students perception of skill may be linked to the standing of the group rather than a personal dilemma.  If a group (orchestra) is seen as lesser than another group (band), many students may take this standing personally and feel that they are not skilled enough in strings to compete with band and may switch to the better respected group.  Music teachers must be aware of the environment they are creating during rehearsals.  Be positive and focus on growth rather than lack of practicing.  Work on the image of the group so that the students feel on par with other groups and this will have an effect on retention!

A study conducted in 2009 reveals that gender and parental support have a strong impact on student decisions regarding continued participation in band (Warnock).  The original attraction to middle school band can often be tied to a students’ social identity and the influence of friends (Warnock, 2005).  The 2009 article on student participation in band uses a theory I have not looked at before: The Attraction Theory.  This theory is extremely to social identity theory in that it “suggests that people have intentions toward associating with individuals who have similar interests or even groups…” (Warnock).  While I agree that this theory certainly plays a role in the decision, social identity still seems to have a stronger case regarding both recruiting and retention as it includes the role of the individual as well as the group and how the individual fits into the group.

This article I am reading tonight is not only looking at retention, but also gender which is fascinating.  I have had a multitude of different experiences regarding participation in strings and gender (but remember, this article is looking at band students… And we all know how different band students are from string players ;).  I will never forget living in the small military town of Jacksonville, North Carolina where some of the boys were afraid to play the violin because it was considered a “girly” instrument… Afraid of what their fathers would think if they brought home such an instrument… To my experiences in Northern Virginia where I have almost 50/50 participation between male and female students and where my male students seem to excel more than my females strangely enough.  I think if this study were to be replicated, it should certainly account for region and urbanicity.  Multiple studies in the United States have actually suggested that boys are specifically drawn to the socially respected musical instruments whereas girls are interested in a variety of instruments (Warnock, 2009).

I do think that the gender inequalitites and perceptions have been slowly changing in our country in the past few years.  I see more and more male students on flute (an instrument that was once viewed as feminine) and more female students on tuba (once considered more masculine).  We must transform these small steps into leaps toward greater continued participation in life-long music making.  While Warnock did include gender as a variable in the 2009 study, it did not show to be statistically significant in students’ participation decisions.  The factors he did find significance included parental support and ambitions toward future participation.

So, here are a few steps we can take toward greater participation in our ensembles:

  1. Greater education for parents – Advocate in all of your correspondence the first year especially!  Let parents know about the multitude of benefits with instrumental participation.  Involve them as much as you can in the first year.  Have a concert where the kids get to teach their parents for a few minutes so they see the value in even just making a sound on the instrument.  Win them over!

  2. Brainwashing… Okay not really…

brainwashing better

But work on the goal setting in the first year of instrumental participation!  Have students make instrumental goals for short-term, mid-term, and long-term.  Hang them on the walls of your classroom so they can see them every rehearsal.  Remind them of their dedication at the beginning (let’s face it… they usually are most dedicated at the beginning.  Try to keep it going!)

  1. Social Identity – Okay, the article didn’t really harp on this, but it is definitely something that I find essential.  Make sure that your group is at least viewed as on par with those around your students.  They should never feel that your group is “beneath” others or you will be sure to see students vacating in masses!  They should view your group as cool and vibrant.  Work on a great brand.  Our brand is a heartbeat with a treble clef and bass clef in the middle and my students LOVE it!  We put it on everything and it is now kind of known as ours… This also contributes to students view on personal skill believe it or not.  Students in better groups seem to think they are better too!

So, recruiting & retention for a bit.  I’ll be back with more… Because I kind of am obsessed with this topic… But for now that’s all.

So go build your program!  Thrive & Make Music!!!

Ammerman, A. & Wuttke, B. (2014). “Marketing Orchestra: Curbing Elementary String Attrition,” American String Teacher’s Association, Fall, 2014.

Warnock, E. C. (2009). Gender and Attraction: Predicting Middle School Performance Ensemble Participation. Contributions to Music Education,36(2), 59–78.

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