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The Goldmine in Your Back Yard: Freshman Success

The Goldmine in Your Back Yard: Freshman Success

The scariest moment for any director is the day the class requests for the following year arrive. It’s a make-or-break moment, when you see how many new performers will be matriculating up to replace the seasoned veterans that are on their way out. It is the hope of any director that the latter number is considerably larger than the former, but that also means a larger class to bring up to the level of your veteran performers.

The following list includes some ideas you can use to help these students reach the level needed to continue and improve the success of the program. They are as much psychological and organizational ideas as they are instructional.

1) Meet them before they get to your program:
This could involve visiting their middle school/intermediate campuses on a regular basis to assist their director with whatever they need. If your schedule doesn’t permit that, then organize social activities that involve the intermediate students and the upper level students working and performing together. A combined performance at a football game is a great ice-breaker, and lets the younger students see what the older get to do on and off the field. Also, a combined concert session is a great way to catch any students who haven’t signed up by the spring semester. The older and younger students sit integrated in the same ensemble set-up, the older students playing along with the younger on a prepared piece. Then the younger students look on as the older play a piece from their contest (or concert) program. You also could explore peer-led and peer-mediated sight-reading in this setting, as well as several meet-your-neighbor games. The sharing and friendship building is infectious.

2) Give them a base to work from:
The last time we traditionally see our students is either late May or early June, and then it’s all- too-often late July or early August before we work with them again. For all students, but especially your incoming students, this time is deadly to their success and productivity in the fall.

If your clientele will support it, I would suggest holding several “introductory” rehearsals during the final weeks of school – geared exclusively towards your freshmen and student leaders. Advertise these starting in January, so that the students have no reason not to know about the rehearsals. Publish fliers; send out e-mails; call each student individually if you have the time. You want a good picture of who your incoming performers are going to be, and this is where you can score huge.

Here you can “introduce” the concepts you want to use to run your rehearsals (teach them how to look, listen, learn, and perform) as well as begin the process of teaching marching technique. This will be the most challenging obstacle for most incoming performers, so it’s best to spend as much time as you can on it. Kinesthetic concepts, like marching, are hard-fought, dearly-won, and totally worth the time. Then, hold a multi-day “fundamentals camp” immediately after school lets out. If you have the staff available, it’s best to run this camp as three separate tracks that intersect at carefully-planned points: winds, battery/front ensemble, guard/dance. You can cover the bulk of the marching and music fundamentals you want to utilize in the fall, as well as begin introducing the idea of moving and playing through these same exercises. In addition, you can cover any incidental music (drill team, National Anthem, school song, fight song) while your students music-learning skills are still high. It will save valuable time during August and September.

3) Include them in the group:
The goal is to weave these students into the social fabric of the program as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Assigning an older student to be their “buddy” is a great way to foster this kind of family atmosphere. If this isn’t a reality for you, assign each section leader to their new members. The incoming students need to feel completely connected, plugged in, and accepted in the program. Even the students who appear at first to be marginal contributors to the band’s success could one day become a drum major – students have an uncanny ability to surprise us.

4) Give them a voice:
Create a student-leader council and include two of the most well-connected and sociable new members on it. Get their input on the issues and decisions facing the band, and then let them evangelize to their friends about what’s right with the program. Even if there are students who dislike these particular students, they will be much more prone to continue their involvement if they see that their opinion matters. The strength of any program rests in how it trains its young to take the reins down the road. Using the above concepts as guides, I know that you will be able to retain, train, and grow with all your incoming students.