Recruiting and Retaining Your Choir Culture
We hear and read and listen to tons of people talk about how to recruit and retain kids in choir. We long for what we don’t have, seek year in and year out to innovate ways to get kids excited about singing, and reflect on (typically) why we can’t seem to find enough boys that want to sing. Therein lies the issue: we focus so much on the kids and things we don’t have and not enough time on what we do have. And the issue provides the secret: recruitment isn’t about coming up with new ideas to get kids to join. It’s about retaining and engaging the ones you have. The rest will come.
Scenario 1: This year, you have 100 students in choir. You spend hours on end trying to come up with ideas on how to recruit students who aren’t in choir, building relationships, getting to know kids at lunch, going to basketball games, etc. – and wear yourself out. You gain 15 kids for next year. But in the process, your retention rate is 75% of the kids you have now. Total enrollment for next year: 90…a LOSS of 10 kids.
Scenario 2: You have 100 kids in choir. You spend hours on end building relationships with the kids you have, get to know their outside-of-choir pursuits, are proactive about talking to them about other options and how choir fits in, and plan very specific social events only for choir kids but market and brand them so that other kids are dying to be a part of them. Your retention rate is 95% and you still gain 15 kids, simply because we long for what we don’t have and because KIDS TALK. Total enrollment for next year: 110 students, up 10 from the previous year and 20 more than in scenario 1.
Let’s do a status check. Who currently makes up your choir? What kind of student are they? Timid, extroverted, smart, athletic, a combination? Are your students reflective of the make up of your school? Even better, are they reflective of the people you want in your choir program? Lastly, are they reflective of you?
Retention is recruitment and it is done effectively many ways, most importantly, by focusing on who and what you have. It’s simple: happy kids stay, talk about why they are happy, and others want to be a part of that happiness. When given a choice, no student wants to go to a class they dread or where they don’t feel loved or appreciated. What things do you do beyond just teaching music to build relationships and show kids you care? Things such as hand-written notes, attendance at non-choir events, and even just recognizing a haircut can go a long way to keeping them interested in you and your class. Sometimes, it’s not about choir. It’s about the teacher. Unfortunate, but true. Sometimes, kids “fall in love” with the teacher, then the subject. For others, it’s all about the music making. It’s a whole lot easier to get kids to like a person than a subject like choir because we are not a “get rich quick” kind of subject. It takes grit, perseverance, and more to make good music. In other subjects, it’s much easier to get instant gratification. So start first by getting kids feeling good about you as a teacher-leader. The rest will come. One of the ways to assess where your kids are about choir and your effect on them is by giving a survey, but be careful—you might find out more than you want to know. This will help you highlight people who are on the fence, as well as for you to see how you come off to students…that is, if you ask the right questions. I like to survey my students at the end of the first semester before they hear about other electives – that gives me a good idea of who is on board and whose interest might be waning. With that being said, really think about whether or not you want to push kids into singing who may want to try something else. If you coax a kid into singing, he/she might be a behavior issue next year and wish they’d chosen a different class. That’s not a good situation for you or the other kids that have lots of buy in.
The icing on the cake are purposeful pursuits in visibility, marketing, and branding. As mentioned earlier, marketing your choir program is super important. Is your class appealing to other students? Do kids not in choir know what you do besides stand on risers and sing a few songs? Do you encourage your current students to talk to other students about the class? How is your choir perceived by the school or community? These are definitely things to think about as you’re seeking to expand your program.
With branding, does your choir program have a logo, slogan, or catch phrase? Traditions mean business, y’all, and they mean more kids. Something as simple as saying a phrase at the end of the day like “make it count,” or singing the same song on Fridays goes miles in developing culture. Seek to establish ways to make your class known through social media accounts, web pages, presence within hallways, and more.
Finally, with visibility – get your kids out and performing. This is hard to do when budgets are tight, but some of your performances could be free, i.e. pep rallies, luncheons, before/after school events such as athletic events. When your school sees choir performing (it must be a high-quality product), other kids are inspired by the performance and accompanied successes. For you as the choral director, are you visible on campus? Volunteer at school events, lunch duties, and be seen in the office. Thank your administration and counselors before you need something. These small acts of kindness can go a long way in helping your program thrive!
Sometimes you have to lose a little to gain a lot. I HATE losing kids from the choir program, but sometimes, the whole “leave no man (or woman) behind” doesn’t quite work. Yes, ALL KIDS CAN SING, but not all kids are ready for a team-oriented, cooperative learning experience like choir. And that’s okay. Of course, do all you can to reach the kid who is not engaged or a behavior problem, but if they can’t hop on board, it’s okay to find them “a more individualized elective.” Just document to cover yourself and better advocate for the change. Some might disagree with this, but in my experience, I have found that all that work to keep that one kid in the choir program can actually turn off some really good “choir” kids in the process because they get frustrated and could, in turn, drop choir. Just a thought…
We could go through and list 100 events for recruiting, but in the end—what works on my campus doesn’t always work on yours. But what does work is when you love on kids – they will love you back, even if the only way they show you is by coming back.