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Improving Your Retention Rates from Beginning Band into High School

by Rich Breske

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It’s a common problem, maybe more common than we all realize. Students who began their band experience with excitement and expectation drop out before moving into high school. Some studies indicate that 55% of students who join band quit during, or just after, the first year.

We’ve come to expect it; citing reasons such as scheduling and lack of interest. Some try to embrace it, “those students weren’t committed anyway”. But in reality, we all feel the loss when a child quits the band because we know that child has lost something intrinsic that might never be regained. Those of us who know how a music education really benefits a student mourn every student that is denied (or denies themselves) the opportunities a music education can bring.

Research on the topic of student retention continues to point to the number one cause of student drop-out. “Loss of interest” tops each list of causes by a wide margin, with lack of parental support following. Indeed, if we categorize the various reasons listed for dropping out, “loss of interest” and “lack of parental support” do provide convenient “buckets” in which other reasons can be deposited.

Loss of Interest

Too time-consuming
Conflicts w sports
Conflicts w other school activities
Fear of failure

Lack of Parental Support

Too time-consuming
Conflicts w sports
Conflicts w other school activities

Loss of interest is a rather nebulous reason – one that is not easily overcome. Can a student “re-gain” interest? A shrug of the shoulders is a difficult response to negotiate, but it might mask any number of more specific reasons. If some other activity is preferred, then we’ve failed to ignite that child’s interest. If no other activity is preferred, then there could be deeper fears or pressures present. Yet, it could be music education that provides a way to overcome these pressures by giving that student the opportunity to create and perform.

Parents and others in authority have an important role to play in guiding students to making choices, as well. A parent is more likely to support the child in areas of participation that the parent understands. For example, a parent who is a former band student is more likely to support band membership than a one who did not participate in band. As well, a parent who was involved in sports will more likely support that choice. Those parent and students that have knowledge and experience in an area of study will be far more supportive than a parent who knows nothing of the topic. The same can be said for administrators, non-music teachers, board members, etc.

If it is agreed that no child should be “left behind” in regards to instrumental music education, then we should be looking at ways to educate students, parents and the community-at-large about the exciting opportunities awaiting students as they continue their band careers. It’s important, as well, to “gain Interest” before student “loses” it.

Adding to the mix, in the vast majority of cases, high school band begins with the marching band. Consider that the student has never done anything like marching band before. Also, that the marching band environment appears so different from what they currently do in JHS band. “Loss of interest” and “lack of parental support” become even more looming. Just when an adolescent needs to “fit in,” we ask them to do something different. It’s not surprising that only about half actually do! When a parent cannot explain it either, it creates an even less favorable scenario.

There are answers to improving retention rates in band, of course. There are four key tools that you can use to bring about a more successful band program transition from junior high to high school. By utilizing the unique nature of your school’s marching band traditions, you can incorporate these tools into your high school “recruiting” program.

Tools you can use to help improve the retention rate
  • Education – the more the students know about the exciting aspects of marching band, the more they will look forward to it. Fear of the unknown is removed and replaced with anticipation of the adventure ahead. The more students and their parents (administrators, other teachers, etc.) understand what their child is interested in doing, the better they can support and encourage it.
  • Communication – the more the students and parents understand what marching band is, the better their decision will be. Whoever controls that conversation both positively and negatively will ultimately carry the most weight in that decision process. In all cases, the music faculty should seek to control and enhance that conversation.
  • Integration – bringing the music program into the classroom through cross-curricular applications provides for additional support from non-music teachers and administrators. Creating a positive, pro-music environment throughout the school builds community and support for the band program.
  • Socialization – knowing that they will be part of a cohesive supportive group in high school is very important to students. Knowing what to expect and reinforcing that expectation will lead to more students wanting membership in the group.

One tool that utilizes all of these tools is the publication, Marching Music: How to be Outgoing, Outstanding & Out Playing in the Field. This book provides a bird’s-eye view of marching band that can both overcome fear of the unknown and give the reader a better sense as to what marching band is all about.

This book makes the marching band experience REAL for middle school and junior high students. It will let them understand what goes on behind the scenes, how much fun it can be, and what kind of options are available in high school marching band and beyond. It can also be helpful to adult reader – parents, administrators and other marching “bystanders” – who need to know how to support the band and band students. Primarily, though, Marching Music is designed to be both an interesting and informative publication that every middle school and junior high school student should read.

An accompanying website,, provides additional content, including videos and online resources, practice helps, games and worksheets and other items designed to further motivate readers to learn more about marching music in high school and beyond. The book is also available through the Hal Leonard Corporation and In Tune Publications.

Marching Music is available as a single text, or as a multiple copy bulk purchase. A Teacher’s Guide will be available as a companion resource designed as a Language Arts classroom supplement. The Teacher’s Guide provides activities that relate to Common Core Language Arts Standards for Grades 6 – 8. It also provides vocabulary for each chapter, as well as supplemental resources and activities for online and classroom use.

Marching Music: How To Be Outgoing, Outstanding & Out Playing in the Field, can provide a unique resource for everyone with an interest in school arts education:
  • Junior High and Middle School band directors can continue to motivate and encourage band students through positive and realistic messages contained throughout the book. By implementing cross-curricular activities with Language Arts teachers, music educators can provide a tool for informational non-fiction reading that achieves Common Core standards.
  • High School band directors will be able to utilize the book to increase retention rates into the high school marching band program, as well as provide new band parents, administrators and supporters an improved “primer” that explains all that marching band can be.
  • Language Arts Teachers can provide a cross-curricular reading and activity lesson for informational non-fiction reading assignments.
  • Music Dealers can come along side their school partners to increase retention rates into high school band programs, and also help to inform the non-band public on the exciting world of marching band.
  • Non-profit groups related to the marching arts can provide these books both as a primer for non-band supporters, and also utilize the book as a fund raising mechanism.

What is the vision for your band program? Are you satisfied with the status quo? Or would you like to write the next chapter of the story. It could go something like this:

It’s a common problem, maybe more common than we all realize. Students who began their band experience with excitement and expectation can’t wait to start high school band. As students eagerly await their turn to marching in the next year’s halftime shows and competitions, new facilities and equipment are arriving daily to handle the surge of eager new band members.

Does that quicken your heart a bit? Let’s keep the vision in mind and incorporate every tool we can to bring all students the music education they deserve!

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