Close this search box.

Giving Music Students a Look at the Future

Matthew Temple | December 2010

   “The longer I teach, the more I understand that my focus should be on those students who are unsure of whether to continue with band.”

    Because New Trier Township High School has 4,120 students who come from five middle schools in five adjacent towns, the loss of middle school band students when they move up to high school is an ongoing challenge. We have 240 students enrolled in band but would like to develop even greater retention from middle school to high school. In recent years the band staff at New Trier has met once a year with the middle school directors to discuss a range of topics, especially the curriculum, assessments, and enrollment. These logistical problems are compounded by New Trier’s size. The freshman campus and the separate 10-12 campus are almost three miles apart, and together there are four bands, four jazz bands, and four orchestras. These conversations led to creating a New Trier Township Festival Band. This group is open to all eighth-grade band students as a way to get acquainted with each other and their high school counterparts.
    In a previous district, I organized an honor group for the best instrumentalists from the feeder schools. It always sounded fantastic, but in retrospect I am not sure I did enough to appeal to those students on the fringe of dedication. The longer I teach, the more I understand that my focus should be on those students who are unsure of whether to continue with band. Some students are so committed to music that they will continue in the music program regardless of what a director does, so the festival’s primary purpose is to attract the undecided students.
    The festival band performance was scheduled during the second fall concert at New Trier, which features the Freshman Concert Band and the  Symphonic Wind En­semble, the top band. Students hear the youngest and oldest bands at New Trier, so they know what to expect over the next four years. We also chose the fall concert because it occurs before eighth-graders register for classes. A spring concert with eighth graders would be too late to affect retention, and a spring concert for seventh graders comes too early to influence their decision.
    The schedule for the festival band consisted of a rehearsal at each middle school, one combined rehearsal, and then the concert. The festival band opened the concert with William Himes’ The Quest, a grade 2 piece with catchy rhythms that are easily learned. Then the two New Trier bands played, followed by a mass band finale combining the Symphonic Wind Ensemble with the festival group. For that we chose a grade 1 arrangement of “America, The Beautiful.” Mass band performances require something sentimental (“Irish Tune from County Derry” or a patriotic piece) to move the audience and bring everyone together through music.
    This year the registration forms were distributed a month and a half before the event with a due date of one month before the festival, but next year the forms will be due two months before the festival. That gives us enough time to assign parts and distribute the music at five schools. Middle school directors collected registration forms and fees, distributed music, scheduled rehearsals, and reminded students of dates and times for events.
    Jazz director Nic Meyer and I scheduled one visit to each middle school and each middle school director dedicated some rehearsal time to the festival band music. However, the students were expected to learn most of the music on their own.
    Several New Trier band students assisted with the combined rehearsal and the concert. We had one woodwind, brass, and two percussion assistants to check-in students, distribute t-shirts, and point students to rehearsal rooms. The percussion assistants helped students to choose instruments and mallets and demonstrated dampening techniques.
    The combined rehearsal took place the day before the concert so that the students would remember what we had practiced. The two hours of the rehearsal were divided into half-hour sections to help students stay focused.

    The first two segments focused on preparing The Quest with the festival band. The first half-hour consisted of large woodwind, brass, and percussion sectionals led by a New Trier band director and the student assistants. The festival band rehearsed as a group for the second half hour. We placed name signs on the stands and gave the student New Trier pencils so that they could mark their music. Next the students were served pizza during a half-hour break so they could rest and get to know each other.
    At the end we rehearsed the finale with the mass band. In some of that time we practiced moving the chairs and stands for the transition from the New Trier bands so the students would know how to come on stage. Once the group was set up, the New Trier band played the opening phrase of “America, The Beautiful” alone so the eighth graders could hear their mature sound and try to match it.
    To help coordinate concert night, I devised a spreadsheet with each band’s schedule side by side. I reviewed it with the student assistants and band staff to review the plan in advance. All of our preparation paid off; on the night of the concert, we actually finished slightly ahead of schedule. I know that students and their families appreciate the feeling that their time is valued.
    We plan to make the festival an annual tradition to assist with the transition from eighth grade to high school band by significantly increasing the eighth graders’ understanding of what high school band is like. In my experience, that is the last crucial bridge to a student’s continued involvement in music. By meeting their future band mates from five different schools, students gained some understanding that all of them have the same choices and doubts. I suspect the festival band will become the most important event that we have for retaining undecided students.
    To improve the program next year, we plan to have a slide show running in the auditorium as the parents enter. The presentation will contain frequently asked questions, advocacy quotes, and statistics regarding past music students at New Trier, which might sway some parents who don’t want their children to take band.
We wanted this concert to stand out for students as their first great musical experience at New Trier. The eighth graders were genuinely excited to be there, so when they continue on in high school band, those students will in turn want to help the younger students. Hopefully this will convince some hesitant students to join high school band.