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When Students Want to Drop Music For Advanced Placement Classes

Jeri Webb | September 2019

These comments were posted on Facebook late April 2019:

    Help. What to say when your most skilled player wants to drop orchestra senior year so they can have an open block to study for AP classes?
    I have major problems with [students dropping music to take AP classes] at my school, and it’s getting worse. I had long talks with each student who wanted to drop my top orchestra for next year, and none of them are changing their minds no matter how much I reason with them. They acknowledge there is a lot of academic pressure that they are unreasonably putting in themselves, but they choose to bow to it.

    Because of students worried about grade point averages and class ranking, retention is a problem that faces most high schools in the United States. Our efforts to convince families to remain in the music program were perceived as self interest and not relatable. It was not until I was able to pull data from our school and students that was I able to correct the trend.
    When students did not sign up for the following year I first asked if they still loved making music and loved being part of our program. It was rare that the answer wasn’t a firm yes. Invariably students and parents were concerned about falling behind and not being able to market themselves for a high-quality university. I knew my four-year students were getting into great schools, I just needed to document the information.

Let the Data Tell the Story

    To turn the trend in your school, start by getting data from your counseling department, which will have lists of schools your former seniors are attending. Comb through this data for situations that tell a powerful story.
    For example, in 2012, 20 seniors from my school applied to Yale. Only two students were accepted, one of whom was one of my bassoonists. Conversely, the class valedictorian was not accepted. Although a student who stays in music for four years might lose ground in class rankings, colleges understand this and appreciate students who devote themselves to a music program. It shows a willingness to contribute to the community, and colleges need these types of students to be a part of their culture as well.

Below are the grade point averages and test scores for the 20 seniors from one class who applied to Yale. The accepted student in gold was in band. The valedictorian (in red) was rejected This list was given to me by our counseling department.

Survey Alumni
    In addition to collecting data from past school years, poll your current seniors about which colleges they have been accepted to. Each year I had seniors (35-50 students) complete a Google form about their college acceptances. This list is typically long and impressive.
    I had two students from one family in which the father stated he was having his children drop music so they could take more AP courses. During his first child’s junior year he took a trip to visit colleges. He shared his conversations. I asked him to write this for me to share with other families.

    “Schools are looking for balanced students – [noting] how successful they are academically while pursuing other time-consuming passions. They look for consistency and depth in a few areas instead of showing a multitude of activities a student tried for a few years as if to fill up a resume.
    “Counselors also told us that top colleges understand how rigorous and demanding it was to participate in a competitive marching band program and that it showed that the student has the discipline and ability to be organized and focused.
    “Ultimately, we are really glad our son stayed with the band program, not only because it gave him an edge in his college applications, but more importantly because high school only happens once, and along with his circle of friends who were like a family for the entire four years, they enjoyed together the hard work, long nights of practice and competitions, the camaraderie, and all those trip and tournament memories that will last a lifetime.”

    Each term, his children would be enrolled in my classes.

This list is from one senior class of students who stayed in band or orchestra all four years. The number indicates how many students were accepted to each school. Many students at Westview applied to more than five schools.

Talk to Reluctant Students and Parents
    All of this information was contained in the letters I sent to students who were dropping or not joining band in high school. I also created large posters and brought them to each recruiting event.
    Each year it seemed like there was a student who loved music and asked me to meet with parents who were swayed away from music by tutoring groups or peers. At this meeting I would ask the parents “what school do you want your child to attend?” Our district used Navi­ance, a program that allows you to pull up colleges of choice and view via a scattergram how a student ranks in comparison to all other students of that school in being accepted. Students can log in and compare how they stack up against all students from our school. It was rare that a student was unlikely to be accepted. Other similar tools include Career Cruising, Xello, Parchment, and Niche College Admissions Calculator.

Naviance plots test scores along an x axis and grade point average along a y axis. The large blue circle is where the student checking falls. Green indicates acceptance, purple shows students who were waitlisted, and red is denial of admission.

Survey Current Students
    I had few music majors. Most of my students went on to be engineers or doctors, but there were years when more than half of my students participated in their college ensembles. In 2008 we put together a collage of students making music in college. This simple graphic made a huge impact and started a trend of students continuing to play after high school.