If You Build It…

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For many music programs, both vocal and instrumental, the primary indication of their effectiveness and impact is the quantity of participating students. Without a doubt, large numbers indicate a popular, thriving program, but the challenges associated with both establishing large numbers and maintaining them are manifold. For an inside look at the latest trends in vocal music program recruitment and the challenges facing the retention of existing choral students, Choral Director has reached out to four experienced and accomplished educators, who indicate that growing a choral program might not be quite as straightforward as some pithy movie quote makes it seem.

In your experience, what is the most effective approach to recruiting new students into your choral program?

Mark Rohwer: If the kids are excited about being in class, and if both the process and the product are of high quality, then the program sort of recruits itself. You still need to be very involved with the schools from which your students come, and get to know the younger students before before they reach your class. And the teachers have to be seen as “fun.” But a great musical experience is a better recruiting tool than a pizza party every time.

Roy Dahlinger: I feel that getting out and performing for other schools in the district elementary and middle schools is crucial. Your program must have exposure to prospective members so they can see firsthand what students actually accomplish in your program. Taking short tours of two or three days and attending adjudicated festivals is also a good recruitment tool. Kids love to travel and share their talents.

Cynthia DesRosier: Personal contact is key. Sometimes I approach a child who is in one of my general music classes, catching them in the hall or asking them to stay and talk for a minute. I then say, ” I noticed that you have a very nice voice. You match pitch, and have good tone quality. You would do really well in chorus. Have you ever thought about joining?” Whether they answer yes or no, I encourage them to consider joining and give them some options as to how they might come in and give it a trial run. I usually encourage these students to stay through one concert. The onstage performance experience is what usually seals the deal for them, making the rehearsals seem worthwhile. I also often make use of my “veterans” by asking them to approach students who we feel would be good additions to the choral team.

Marshall Butler, Jr.: The most effective approach to recruiting new students into our program has been through word of mouth. Students have friends with similar interests and they tend to tell their friends about the program.

What is the message that you use to “sell” your program to prospective students? Is the message different for students already in your choral program?

Cynthia DesRosier: Chorus is a winning team, and we work together to produce a quality product. Not only do you learn how to sing and use your voice better, but you have opportunities to solo and perform in special venues. For some boys, knowing that their singing gets a lot of positive attention from the girls can be a motivator. I do a traditional concert in January using a wide variety of folk, multicultural, and classical pieces, but spring is always a “pops” concert where I incorporate students suggestions as well as choose appropriate repertoire from Broadway and popular culture. I find that my general choirs are more willing to work on non-pop literature and vocal techniques when they know that they get to apply their skills to some songs that are more “popular” sometimes. Some students join for the first time in the spring for the “Fun” concert, then realize that they love singing all kinds of music, so continue their membership throughout the rest of their school career. (And no, they can’t join for the spring concert, drop in the fall, and re-join for the next spring concert!)

Marshall Butler, Jr.: It has been my experience that students have a sense of belonging and family in our program. Like adults, students enjoy knowing that someone cares about them. I have adopted a slogan from a retired coworker that I use in the signature of my e-mail: “Students don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care!”

Roy Dahlinger: We emphasize the importance of being part of a successful program, sharing the power of music and how it can enhance students’ lives in so many positive ways. I also spend time with my new members and emphasize their importance in the program and that I expect them to gradually take over leadership roles within the group.

Mark Rohwer: I give everyone the same message: choir is awesome, and we’re awesome at it. We know it isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. But if a student is special and works hard enough, then that student will have a terrific experience. There are also trips, cool events, and so on. But the day-to-day experience is so awesome that you wouldn’t want to miss it.

What are the biggest challenges to retaining current vocal music students in your program, and how do you combat these challenges?

Marshall Butler, Jr.: A challenge for my choral groups is working out the scheduling with students who are trying to take College Prep courses, AP classes, and other courses that may only be offered during a single time slot each semester. However, we have a wonderful administration that supports us and builds the master schedule around our Arts programs.

Mark Rohwer: Scheduling is our biggest concern, and we combat that by (1) being very proactive about the students’ schedules, (2) working hard with the counseling staff, and (3) when necessary, finding compromises that keep students for at least part of the time. We scrap for every kid, and we’re pretty tenacious about it.

Roy Dahlinger: Required classes and conflicting course schedules seem to be the biggest factor. I am continually formulating sample four-year Fine Arts schedules for my students so they can see firsthand how to make it possible to stay with the program. It is important that I have a firm grasp on the school’s graduation requirements, scholarship requirements, and specific course requirements so that I can be helpful to students struggling with their schedule.

Cynthia DesRosier: Scheduling within the school itself and outside activities often force students to choose between time for homework, extra help, athletics, music, family and “down” time. I continually stress to my singers that if they manage their time, they can be involved in all of those things and still do well. I am always willing to call parents, coaches, and other teachers to work out solutions. When the other adults in the singer’s life see that I am willing to compromise and bend in order to help the child, they usually are more open and willing to do the same so that the child remains in choir.

Over the course of your career as an educator, how have your methods for recruiting and retaining students changed? What have you done to become more effective?

Roy Dahlinger: I don’t know if my methods have changed so much, but they certainly have become more thorough and inclusive. With all of the new requirements piled into the public education field, it is imperative that we as choral directors stay informed and active to make sure our programs are vital to the students, school, and the community.

Mark Rohwer: I used to do more specific “recruiting concerts.” Now I just do cool concerts, and make sure that we have elementary and/or middle school groups over as often as we can. I think the incoming kids want a place to call “home,” and we work to make choir that place.

Cynthia DesRosier: I think I have become more personal, and I have also come to the conclusion that quality breeds quantity. When students in the school see that chorus is not just a “sing-along” time, that high expectations and standards are part of the package, and that students can lose the privilege of being a member if they do not uphold those standards, then it becomes more special. I have both general and auditioned choirs, and many students set a goal of becoming a member of those auditioned groups before they move on to high school.

When I first began teaching, I would take it as a personal insult when a child informed me that they wanted to “quit chorus,” and would try to force them to stay. I don’t anymore. If a child approaches me and says that they no longer want to be involved, I always ask why, and then respond based on their answer. Sometimes they are simply overwhelmed with the new expectations and subject matter of the grade level they have just entered. Sometimes it is a group of friends who have made a negative comment, or a family situation that is stressing them out. Other times, they just don’t want to put in the effort.

If I feel that a child has potential to be a positive leader attitude-wise or is willing to learn or that they possess raw vocal qualities that will be of benefit to the group, I will go out of my way to encourage and help them to stay, but I have stopped trying to force children to remain in chorus. If they really don’t want to be there, their negativity can be infectious, and I don’t want it to spread. Sometimes, they just need a year off, and request to join during a subsequent year after they have grown up a bit. If they do, and I feel that they are ready to be a positive asset to the group, I will accept them “on probation” in one of my general choirs, but they have to be a member in good standing to audition for one of the select groups.

I feel that when the children see me taking more care and being more selective, in terms of both attitude as well as talent, about who can be in chorus, they become more committed to the team.

Marshall Butler, Jr.: My methods really haven’t changed again, “students don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care!”

Additional thoughts on recruitment and retention?

Roy Dahlinger: It’s certainly not as easy as the famous line from Field of Dreams “…If you build it, they will come.” You must establish a foundation of quality so that others will be drawn to you and your program. Retention will become easier when student realize they are producing something of quality that others admire and respect.

Mark Rohwer: You can’t ever let up. You always have to be looking at next year’s numbers, and how you’re going to fill your program. There isn’t a recruiting “season”; it happens all year long.

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