Have you ever thought “It’s too early to recruit? Course cards don’t even come out for another month.”? Or thought, “I need more kids in choir, but I have already tried everything I know.” Or, you have a thriving choral program, but are always looking for more ways to attract those great kids to your program. If you answered “yes” to anything listed above, then maybe you will glean something from this article.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to build thriving choral programs in three different schools (one middle school and two high schools). Each program was in a socially, racially, and economically different situation. Each school had climates in which singing in choir was not “cool”, and each school had its challenges. The prevailing theme through all of these situations was learning to make lemonade with my lemons, and not letting my circumstance determine my success. I believe you create your own destiny. I believe that every situation is what you make of it, and when you hit a wall, turn another way. When choir directors adopt the fighter mentality there is nothing that can stop them or their program. Listed below are some suggestions that have worked for me over the past 25 years:
Fun: Choir has to be fun. Students have to want to come to class every day and work hard. I believe students are more apt to work hard if they know they are going to have a good time doing it. This does not mean that choir isn’t serious most of the time, it just means that you intentionally plan “fun” in your lessons. This could be as simple as a joke of the day or a silly fact of the day. It could be as elaborate as playing an icebreaker or game. Having fun does not mean that the quality suffers. I believe the more the group laughs together the better ensemble they will be. The better the ensemble is, the more people want to be a part of it and stay in it. Recruitment and retention!
No Judgement/Safe Zone: The students involved in your choral program need to feel safe. Students these days face so much more than any of us ever did. More so than ever we have to be the safe place that embraces inclusivity. Choral directors need to love all of the children, even the unlovable! Sarcasm needs to stay out of the classroom, and students need to feel like they can take a risk and not be judged. When students feel safe and free of judgement, they will get the word out that the choir room is a “safe” place. This will bring in the students who are searching for that judgement/safe place in the school.
Strong Musicianship: Everyone wants to be a part of something good. Nobody ever signs up to a be a part of the “bad” choir. So, no matter what, your choir(s) need to sound good. The motto I have adopted is “Keep it Simple Stupid.” This does not mean that you dumb down curriculum, it just means that you only put out there what is going to attract people to your program. For example, if your beginning men’s choir can only sing well in two parts at the beginning of the year (or unison), then that is what you do. A stellar performance, regardless of genre, will be your best recruiter. Nobody ever came to a concert and said “Boy, that was really terrible singing, but it is ok because the piece was hard.”!
Know Your Allies: Parents talk, kids talk, and teachers talk, so play nice, and realize that you must always be positive about your program. Parents want their kids to have a great experience and be with a teacher who is going to be a good role model for their children. They also want someone who is organized and who communicates. Kids want to be around a teacher who is going to lift them up, and teachers want to work with someone who is a team player and is a pleasure to be around. When you win over the parents, kids, and/or teachers your program will grow.
Be Present and Visible: Volunteer to chaperone school dances and other school activities. Try to get yourself visible at as many non-choir events as possible. Go to athletic events, band concerts, and walk through the halls. The more students see you, and get to know you, the better. Stand at your door and greet your students every day. Not only will you build lasting relationships with them, but they will talk about it with their friends. Those conversations will inadvertently bring more people into your choral program. Do you make a point to make each and every student feel important and special in your class? Sometimes all it takes is intentionally saying “Hello.”
Be Present on Social Media: Social media has now become a part of our job. Every choral organization should have a presence on social media (i.e. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Make this a place where you post pictures of students having fun in your room or pictures of great things happening in your room. You are welcome to use it for announcements and such, but the majority of your social media use should be for public relations. A hint for us more seasoned professionals: don’t ask students to post things on their Instagram. They are very picky about the aesthetics of their Instagram and they will not do it (usually). You can ask them to take a group selfie and post it on their “story,” which is only visible for a short period of time. Intentional time is spent during my week adding “friends” on social media, commenting on social media, and posting things on social media (see below under “Strong Student Leadership” on how we do most of our postings). Please make sure you know your school or district’s policies concerning social media. Social media will attract people to your choral program.
Strong Student Leadership: Many of our programs may have student leaders, but do we utilize them to help promote our programs and the community within our programs? Building a strong community within each of your classes will attract students to your choral program. We have a social chair (or two) in every choir. Think back to those college days and how your choir might have done social things together (ex. Go to the football game, hockey game, go bowling, charity work, etc.). Our social chairs plan events for their choirs. We are not involved in the planning, but they do use class time to let the students know. We tell our social chairs that where one is gathered it is a success. Our social chairs plan things like going to the volleyball game together, meeting a local restaurant for dinner, having a pumpkin carving contest, Friendsgiving, philanthropy, etc. Our social chairs also have the ability to post on our Instagram. They not only post pictures of things we are doing, but they also are in charge of creating stories when we have something special going on. This has been extremely successful for our recruiting.
Befriend the Counselors (or whoever does your scheduling): You need to know who the master of the schedule is and who has the power to put students in your classroom. These people should become your best friends. You need to empathize with them about the challenges of their job and you need to praise them for every little thing they do for your program. This should not be disingenuous. We need to remember to be grateful for all of little things.
Choir Draft: This is not my idea! It was flying around Facebook last year. We did this last year, it was a huge success, and it was fun! The first thing you do is come up with a form that has a place for the “recruit” name and a place for five “recruiters.” Students come up with names of students who should be in choir but are not. We told our students to recruit great kids. We love kids who know how to sing, but more importantly we need good kids. We also asked our students to think of kids who did not already have a place at the school. Each of the recruits were written on the pieces of paper and then kids went around the room and found people they knew and wrote their name down as a “drafter”. The drafter’s job was to talk to the recruit about being in choir. We assigned points to each of the recruits: 4 points for an incoming freshman, 3 points for an upcoming sophomore, etc. The points doubled if the recruit was a boy. Once we found out who signed up for choir, we tallied the points (yes, this did take a little bit of time). We announced the draft champion at our spring concert and put their names on a plaque that will be forever immortalized in the choir room. The students in choir had a great time keeping up with their points, and the students being recruited kept coming into the choir room to see who recruited them. It was a win/win!
Attract the “It” Kids: Fortunately, or unfortunately, “it” kids are important to the success of your program. These are the students who are involved in other school activities and are well respected among their peers: for instance, students on student government, students who are athletes, students on the yearbook staff, students in another art. The “it” kids will pull in other kids just because of who they are.
Personal Preparation: Smile and know your stuff! Be passionate about what you do and work to create personal relationships with your students. Know their names, know something about them, etc. Research has shown that male students will not always work hard for you unless they respect you and like you. The things they respect are a teacher that is fair, consistent, prepared, and organized.
We as choral directors need to always be looking for new ways to make our program better. I believe that great kids and a strong community help to make a strong program that is viable, and one that others want to be a part of. The great quote from the movie Field of Dreams is so fitting for choral directors: “Build it and they will come!”.
Dr. Megan Wicks-Rudolph is in her 25th year of teaching. Currently she is the director of choral activities at Vestavia Hills High School and is the ACDA Southern Division R&R for vocal jazz, and immediate past president of Alabama ACDA.