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Take Recruiting on the Road

Michael Stone | December 2011


   Many years ago the instrumental music teachers of the Bakersfield City School District joined together to present a short recruiting assembly at each elementary school in the district. The purpose was simple: show how the various band and orchestra instruments sound and encourage students to join the music program. Over the years this evolved into a traveling road show that has become one of the most popular assemblies at the district’s elementary schools. It is a whirlwind tour that visits 31 elementary schools over nine school days, all during the first two weeks of school. The program delays the start of the elementary instrumental music instructional program by two weeks, but the delay is worth it. When enrollment begins at the beginning of the third week of school, large numbers of students come to sign up.
   At each school, classroom teachers in grades four to six look forward to bringing their classes to the annual assembly; some have told me this is their favorite assembly of the year. Students see how much fun the music teachers have performing together and want to try it too. Programs are held in the multipurpose rooms, so the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders can attend the assembly together. Third graders, who study general music for a minimum of 12 weeks each year, attend if space permits.

Getting Approval
   Before starting an elementary school recruiting program, directors should solicit support from district and elementary school administrators. The district music supervisor or a volunteer from the music faculty should develop a written proposal for the superintendent outlining the aims of the assemblies. The proposal should clearly state all of the financial and logistical support needed for the recruiting program and include a budget that covers the costs of purchasing costumes, props, and other materials. Discuss with the superintendent that the elementary schools may need to reschedule recesses or lunches around the program, so that the music teachers can get from one school to the next on schedule. Plan for substitute teachers for music classes at the middle- and high-school levels so those teachers can participate in the assemblies. In my experience these details can be worked out without much cost or inconvenience.

Theme and Show Components
   Planning begins in February or March of the previous school year when a group of teachers meet to determine the components of the 30-minute program. The program has evolved over the years and currently includes numerous short components, each between two and four minutes long. These segments of the program include music performed when students enter, a welcome by the music supervisor, a sing-along, a flutophone feature, a section for each musical instrument family, directions on how to join the music program, a guess-the-theme segment, a fun production number, and closing comments by the music supervisor.
   A theme ties together all components of the show. It might be a popular movie, television show, musical, jazz, or cartoons. After the theme is selected the committee pulls together several potential musical selections for each part of the program. We usually visit several school music libraries to collect possible music. It is best to have three or four choices for each category. We have found that the show is better if the program is not set until the second day of rehearsal. Day one is usually just a read-through of the potential musical selections. By the end of the second rehearsal, the faculty usually reaches a consensus on the music. Sometimes, we vote to decide.
   This year, our theme was All Things Disney. The production number, a very short musical number about how to choose which instrument to play, is usually determined from the overall program theme. The teachers decided that the production number would relate to The Little Mermaid movie. Teachers would dress up in costumes to resemble characters from the movie. One teacher dressed as Ariel and sang a song with lyrics, written by one of the teachers. It told the story of how all the sea creatures from the movie chose to play an instrument in the under-sea orchestra.

Rehearsal Details
   The first rehearsal occurs a few days before school starts. Allow enough rehearsal time to resolve problems and add new ideas. One teacher might suggest how to add props to a certain component; another may have an idea for costumes to go with a certain instrument family. Twelve hours is usually enough time to prepare and rehearse the program. 
   After all program decisions are made teachers divide responsibility for rehearsing each part. Be sure to time the segments to ensure that the total assembly program length is 30 minutes, including transition times. At the last couple of run-throughs, the faculty should practice quick transitions between program components. This will keep the program on time, and the audience engaged. Teachers will have limited time to travel between schools, so each assembly should start on time.

The Day Before
   The day before the first program is presented, assign responsibilities for the day-to-day operation of the program. We assign each teacher a collapsible pull-cart for transporting items needed for the assemblies. Two music teachers drive a district-owned station wagon to transport a portable sound system. (We request that custodians provide a sound system and two microphones at each school. However, because we have found that it sometimes does not work properly; our back-up is available.)
   The day before an assembly, teachers travel to their assigned schools to make sure that everything will be ready for the next day. A string bass is placed on the stage so that the teacher who plays it does not have to worry about hauling it between schools. A set of orchestra bells from a bell-pad kit is placed on the corner of the stage for similar reasons. The piano keyboard is dusted, and the school’s sound system is checked.
I set the schedule of assemblies, with care to work around school start times, recesses, and lunches as much as possible. The schedule is then sent to each school site electronically, as are any updates. 

The Show
   We begin playing a few minutes before the actual start of the program. For the past several years, the faculty has played big band music as students enter. One of our faculty members, a percussionist, retired a few years ago, leaving us without a good drumset player. Fortunately, a local professional musician, stepped forward to volunteer as our set drum player.
   After students have entered, I take a few minutes to welcome them and talk about why the district has a music program. Each summer, I look for new research about the benefits of playing a musical instrument. I send this information to a graphic artist who incorporates the ideas into artwork for two 7’x3′ roll-up signs that are positioned on each side of the stage. This year, the first sign said “Music Education Equals Success in School and Life.” At the bottom of the sign there were statistics demonstrating the growth in student participation seen in the district over the past several school years. The second sign listed statistics showing that playing an instrument improves the way the brain processes spoken language. The sign also listed the fact that nearly all the past winners of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition for Science, Mathematics, and Technology, play one or more musical instruments.
   After opening remarks, the show begins with a sing-along. Some of the music teachers hold up posters with the words for students to follow while others accompany the singing on their instruments. Good sing-along repertoire includes folk songs, cartoon music, or patriotic music. Some years we teach a short song to students.
Because students begin instrumental music in fourth grade, the third grade flutophone program provides students with an opportunity to learn the basics of music reading, singing, and playing together before joining band or orchestra. During the assembly music teachers perform a short selection on flutophone. If there is room for third graders at the assembly, these students will get to hear the flutophone for the first time.

Showcasing Instruments
   After the flutophone segment, we feature each instrument family. Beginners in our elementary instrumental music program are limited to violin, cello, string bass, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and percussion. By starting large numbers of students on these basic instruments, we have a large pool of students who can switch to viola, oboe, bassoon, horn, euphonium, and tuba in middle school. 
   The presentation order varies depending on what we want to emphasize. One year we had a shortage of clarinet players entering middle school, so the entire faculty played clarinet for the woodwind feature. (Some might think that flute and saxophone should not be featured at all because so many students will want to play these instruments, but we found that instrumentation usually works out if students choose an instrument as they enter the program.) We do emphasize clarinet, trombone, cello, and bass both during the program, and later at the parent/teacher conferences where students sign up for music. Music teachers use instrumentation charts at these conferences to emphasize the benefits of playing lower-pitched musical instruments when parents are unsure of what instrument to pick. 
   Teachers sometimes wear costumes or masks and use props during the instrument family features. One year, the brass players played music from the movie Zorro and wore capes and black masks. Another year woodwind players wore masks to resemble characters from Star Wars, while they played the main theme from the movie. Students enjoy seeing teachers look silly. We sometimes include students in the percussion feature. Students are recruited from the audience to play rhythm instruments, while music teachers accompany them on other instruments. Sometimes we pick teachers from the audience to participate.
   After each instrument family has been featured, the music teacher assigned to that school comes forward to let students know the procedure used to sign up for instrumental music classes. Classroom teachers distribute a letter for students to take to their parents that asks them to schedule a 15-minute appointment to meet the music teacher and select an instrument to play. At the conference, parents receive information on renting an instrument, purchasing a music book, and getting other accessories. Prior to each school’s assembly, the music teacher puts fliers in each classroom teacher’s mailbox, with a note asking that the letters go home with students that afternoon.

Memorable Ending
   One of the final components is “Guess The Theme.” We play three short excerpts from movies students might have seen, and I ask students to raise their hands if they think they know the answer. Students get quite excited about this portion of the show. The final production number  reviews how students can participate in the music program, choose an instrument, and sign up. The teachers wear costumes, sing, have spoken lines, and often use props to get the point across. A few years ago, the teachers dressed as characters from Toy Story and showed how the character Woody chose which instrument he would play. 
   Some of the teachers accompany the production number on their instruments, while others act or sing. The production number is often the most memorable part of the entire program. Later in the year, students often ask their music teacher if they can play some of the music that they heard during the assembly. 
   The assembly closes with a few remarks. I always ask students to raise their hands if they want to participate in instrumental music. Invariably, most hands go up. Not all students sign up for music, but a large percentage will. Since 2004, we have seen an increase of more than 30% in the number of students playing musical instruments at the district’s schools. The Music in Our Schools Week Program is a big part of that increased participation. The enthusiasm that comes from the recruiting assembly is infectious.