How did you come to have the band you currently have? That is a question we sometimes overlook in the process of trying to build a band program, but it shouldn’t be. Other than the band director’s ability to teach children, recruiting is probably the most important aspect of building and maintaining a band program. If the band you currently lead is not the band you hope to have, there may be several causes. Some of these may sound familiar:

  • The band has a negative image in the community or school.
  • Students may not consider it “cool” to be in band.
  • The previous teacher was not a charismatic personality.
  • The quality of the band is not very good at this point.
  • The school administration does not currently value the band program.
  • Parents don’t see the value of having their children in the band program.
  • The school schedule is not conducive to building the band program.

Often, the band director can overcome these perceived problems with an outstanding recruiting effort. In other instances, they become excuses for why the band has not developed. Most of the issues above can be traced back to the band director and/or can be greatly influenced by the band director.

Recruiting is sales, plain and simple. You have to create a product that people want. You have to promote the product to gain a favorable image and market recognition. Finally, you have to outperform, outlast, and outhustle the many competitors targeting your customers (students).

There are so many options competing for a slice of children’s time that a mediocre approach to recruiting will not cut it. There are other arts organizations, cheerleading, equestrian, cross country, video games, more video games, youth groups, gymnastics, not to mention football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and golf. Then there are all of the teams: recreational league, school teams, all-star teams, traveling all-star teams, and an ultimate Junior Olympic underwater traveling all-star basket weaving team I am sure exists somewhere. Get the point yet?

Students have options.

If you think that just asking students to join band is going to cut it … think again. That might work if the community has enjoyed a long tradition of outstanding band programs, but in most cases, you will need more. You need to be visible, enthusiastic, successful, and FUN.

Let’s look at each of these separately.

Are you visible?
By this, I mean, do those children know who you are when they see you? Can they easily connect you to the band? If not, you should make that priority number ONE. Children will gravitate toward situations where they feel comfortable. In many cases, these students will be coming to a brand new school, with all new teachers, many new students, and very little with which they are familiar. If they know you and have a prior relationship with you, it makes them more likely to sign up for your class-your

So make yourself known in the elementary schools. Go visit the music class. Take students to play for them, if possible. Attend their shows. Send them notes when they give performances. Your goal is to overhear this in the hallway, “That’s Mr./Ms. _____ , the band teacher!”

Are you enthusiastic?
Being known is one thing; being cool to kids is a lot harder. In sales, if you don’t believe in your product, neither will prospective customers. It’s the same here. When you see students, you should be excited and energetic. Your energy will tell them whether they will enjoy your class or be bored to death. Encourage questions from them. Listen carefully and treat them as if they are important to you, because they are. Nothing is more important to most people than being noticed … kids included.

Are you successful?
This question can be tougher. Sometimes when you start a new job, you may not have an ensemble you want to (or should) put in front of prospective students. But they need to sense success in what you are presenting. Students want to be a part of successful activities. No one likes feeling badly for participating in something. Find good musicians to play for the students. Bring in professionals or the high school band, or even use technology to download motivating videos. Be creative in presenting your
program in the best light possible.

Are you fun?
This is the big one. Are you fun? Children these days have remarkably short attention spans. You need to bring something to the table if you have any hope of being a recruiting star. Make band interesting, fun, and cool Relate to the kids; they get enough preaching.

Selling the Lifestyle
For me, selling the band program is much more than selling a 45-minute class. I am selling a lifestyle in middle school, presenting students with an identity, a social group, a fun skill, and instant success. It’s a feel-good bonanza. To make this work, it is important to know what the students are looking for. What might that be?

  • A place to fit in; acceptance
  • To be successful
  • A place to have fun
  • To continue to be in class with friends
  • To be in a class that is not boring
  • To take trips, ride roller coasters, and a host of things not considered ”school” activities.

How to Make It Happen
What will your first contact with potential new band students be like? As the saying goes, “You will never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Children can be tough critics, and the first time they meet the band director will tell them a great deal about whether it is something they are interested in pursuing. Take time to make sure your presentation is organized, focused, and interesting to young children. Don’t only sell the idea of playing music; sell yourself.

Many directors (some unsuccessful at recruiting) schedule concert programs for their feeder schools to introduce them to band. Often, this is the only effort made to attract new students. I do not feel this is enough contact for children to buy into the program. The recruiting concert is a crucial part of securing new members, but it is not the only part.

Consider meeting the students prior to the concert to introduce yourself and your program. This can be accomplished in two ways: small groups or one large group. The size of the school may dictate which approach is better for your situation. If it is possible for you to visit the elementary music classes individually, you will have smaller groups to address. It can be much more personal, and there will be time for them to ask you more questions. Speak with your elementary music teachers and your
administration to see if this is possible.

If getting time to visit each class is not possible, you will need to address all of the potential new students at one time. The same results can be achieved either way, but a large group assembly will take more effort on your part. It is harder to keep large groups focused, especially when some of the crowd will not be interested in band at all. It is also more difficult to get the students to connect with you.

During the Presentation
It’s show time! Time to do that selling we were talking about. It is your opportunity to convince them that playing in band is the thing to do and that you are just the person to make it happen. Be upbeat and exciting. Talk about how much fun playing music can be. But don’t stop there. Talk about the advantages of being in the band, from social reasons, field trips, competition, to scheduling. Draw on anything that children may be interested in, not just playing music. Playing a fantastic overture may be fun, but to children, a day riding roller coasters will seal the deal. The bottom line is that you have to get them in the seats before you can truly get them excited about music.

Time to Make Them Earn It
Why is cheerleading so popular? Why do wave after wave of young girls tryout, only to be sent away when they don’t make the cut time and again? There is a lesson to be learned here.

Invite students to be in band; don’t let them just join!

In general, people see groups that are selective in membership as more valuable than just being admitted by signing up. Being chosen carries an air of elitism-a cut above-while signing up seems more pedestrian. Being selected gives students the feeling that they have a special aptitude or ability toward the activity. Isn’t that what you want?

Of course, this is not the only way to motivate students, but this process has been successful. What kind of “requirements” do students have to meet to be invited? That will be up to you and your administration. Be careful that your requirements are in line with district policy. Here are a few that may help you get started if this process interests you.

  • Minimum score on a music aptitude test
  • Elementary school music teacher’s recommendation
  • Acceptable academic record at elementary school (check with administration)
  • Acceptable discipline record at elementary school (safety concerns in large classes)

You may also use a combination of requirements to validate enrollment. Here is the good part: You can make it so that almost everyone meets the requirement. If children don’t score high enough on the test, let them take it again (but note the area of difficulty in assigning instruments). If their academics are a concern, let them in on the condition that their grades improve. Their parents and teachers will appreciate the support. For discipline cases, base your decision upon severity of the issue. If the problem is more a nuisance than a serious threat, put the student on a behavior contract. If the behavior concern is severe, speak to your administration about the possibility of not offering the class to that student due to safety concerns. The elementary teacher can help with this.

The Band Aptitude Test
There is debate as to whether or not a band aptitude test actually tells you the likelihood of a child being successful in band. For our purpose, the band aptitude test is not used for inclusion or exclusion purposes, as we allow students multiple chances to achieve the passing score. But it does shed some light on areas of difficulty for incoming students. It also gives validity to the “invite” mentioned previously.

For most children, interest and work ethic as well as parental support will be better determining factors in relation to student success. There is, however, knowledge to be gained from these tests that can help with student placement and justification for why students were chosen for certain instruments. For example, most schools provide larger instruments, such as tubas, euphoniums, French horns, and bassoons. Results from the aptitude exam may show a weakness in pitch recognition, which may make discerning pitch on instruments such as French horn a difficult task. For bassoon students, the ability to adjust pitch to match a source pitch is quite important. A weakness in this area might suggest that another instrument may be more suitable for that student. There are several tests available to gauge musical aptitude. Do a little research and determine which, if any, of them suit your needs.

Analyzing Data for Student Success

By now, you must realize that I believe in doing a lot more legwork in placing students than a simple sign-up and play approach. Part of that process is to learn as much about the incoming students as possible. There are many factors that may influence a student’s degree of success in band. Many students come with little to no experience, and that is perfectly fine. As a matter of fact, it is the norm. Other students may possess experiences and attributes that create difficulties for them or give them a head start. It is your job to know as much about those experiences as possible so you may offer your students the best possible chance to succeed. Generally, I do not give much weight to perceived difficulties as I do credit for prior experiences. As mentioned before, desire and work ethic can overcome many obstacles. Below is a list of some of the data that helps in student placement.

  • Elementary music teacher recommendation – Who knows them better?
  • Music Aptitude Test – This helps to identify issues with rhythm, pitch recognition, etc.
  • Academic achievement – This is a good indicator of student focus and work ethic. Be aware of student learning difficulties.
  • Prior playing experience, including band instruments, orchestra, piano, etc.
  • Prior choral experience
  • Behavior habits
  • Older siblings in band
  • Parental involvement in music (including parents who were in band as a child)

The initial recruiting period is only the beginning of the process of creating a successful band program. Hopefully, you now have a long list of potential band students. However, they are only potential band students at this point. Their association with the band program needs to be solidified, and each student needs to find his or her identity within the program. Choosing the correct instrument will largely determine the students’ success and happiness during their time in band.

There are two schools of thought on this process. One method is to let the students choose the instrument in which they are most interested. It assumes that happy children will be more motivated. The second option is to pick instruments for the children based upon the needs of the band. This method assumes that students will “learn to love” the instrument chosen for them. I cannot tell you how many times adults have told me, “My band director made me play x” or “My band director put me on y.”

In our program, we use a combination of these two methods. Most students coming into the band program have a very limited knowledge of the instrument choices available to them. If students were to choose their instrument based on this limitation, we would have lopsided bands with massive flute, saxophone, and percussion sections. Barring physical limitations and embouchure issues, most students can be quite successful on a variety of instruments. It is important that they see, hear, and physically handle each instrument in order to make a better decision for themselves and the band program.

Meet with your elementary music teacher and coordinate a pre-band unit to introduce prospective band students to each instrument. Ask them to focus more on the lesser-known instruments so students feel more familiar with them by the day of mouthpiece testing. Take your band, or the high school band, to the elementary schools to perform and demonstrate every instrument with short, fun “features” of each instrument. Have the students perform popular melodies and grooves to make the instrument “cool” to play. When we do this, I can always tell which instruments will be popular just from the presentation and impact of those features.


excerpt from Habits of a Successful Middle School Band Director, Rush, Scott, & Wilkinson, Gia Publications

About the Author

Scott Rush is the Director of Fine and Performing Arts in Dorchester School District Two in South Carolina and is the former Director of Bands at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, SC. He is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and the University of South Carolina. He currently serves as conductor of the Charleston Wind Symphony, a semi-professional ensemble in Charleston, South Carolina. Under his direction, the Wando Symphonic Band performed at the 2007 Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic and were recipients of the 2007 Sudler Flag of Honor administered by the John Philip Sousa Foundation.  Mr. Rush is active as a conductor, clinician and adjudicator throughout the United States and Canada. He is the author and co-author of seven highly touted books including Habits of A Successful Band Director (GIA publications). In 2010, Mr. Rush was elected into the prestigious American Bandmasters Association and in 2011 was awarded the Bandworld “Legion of Honor.”

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