Elementary Program Changes Successful

In the spring of 2009, I approached my administration about the possibility of making a significant change in our elementary band program. I wanted to eliminate 4th grade from our program and just focus on the 5th and 6th grade. This freed up a little time in my schedule, and now I am able to see my elementary students twice a week at 30 minutes each (instead of only once). I get to see them in a small group with like instruments, and also in a full ensemble setting. I asked for this change in the hopes that it would improve the elementary program, and I have been very pleased with the results!

Without officially crunching the numbers, I can safely say that student attendance for elementary band has improved by at least 50%. I used to have students that would consistently miss lessons, and thus fall way behind their peers. This simply does not happen any more. Now, out of approximately 60 students that I have in 5th and 6th grade only 2 students have chronic attendance problems. I don’t even have to send other students to remind others of their band time – everyone shows up on time and ready to play!

Another significant improvement this year is a reduction in the number of students that I have had drop out of the program mid-year. I suspect that the attendance improvement probably has something to do with this as well. Out of all 60 students in elementary band this year, I have only had one student drop out! This is a significant change from last year as well!

Finally, the level of the music that the students can play this year is also vastly improved. In the past 5 years, most all of our concert selections consisted of two to three 8-measure exercises from our method book. Now, we are able to perform entire band arrangements and the kids love the music! I think this is strongly tied to the improved attendance and participation…the kids like to play the music (it is enjoyable for them) so they want to be there more than ever.

So in summary, I am proud to say that this change in our elementary program has been everything that I hoped it would be. This is also probably one the largest 5th and 6th grade groups that I’ve had in the last few years. Hopefully, the attendance and participation with stay high and it will translate into a larger number of students participating in our middle and high school programs.

Keep Them Coming Back for More!

And by “them”, I mean my elementary students. I had a great conversation last night with my graduate saxophone teacher, Dr. James Umble. I had mentioned that I was struggling with teaching elementary band. I lamented about how the students don’t show up for their small group lessons, they don’t practice, etc. Then I mentioned a conversation I had with my assitant band director. His son plays trombone in my elementary program. He is also taking private electric bass lessons. This student practices the bass a heck of a lot more than his trombone. Why? Because playing the bass is fun for him. Playing the trombone is not. Why? Because he gets to play what he wants on the bass. He gets to play music that appeals to him.

At this point, let me just say, I am old-school. I was raised on the old Rubank method books, and that is how I tend to teach, especially at the elementary level. For someone that claims to be a techie geek, I am extremely outdated in my approach to teaching elementary band. I am so into Garage Band and SmartMusic, etc…why am I not using these in my elementary band classes?? I don’t know. I think it is because I’m somewhat afraid to go out on a limb and stray from the class method book. But, I think I have to.

This goes back to the conversation I was having with Dr. Umble. How can I still teach the important basics of playing an instrument that are included in the method book, and yet make it interesting for the students? Let’s face it…how many kids are pumped about going to band to play “Hot Cross Buns?” Not many in my school!

So here is what I think I have to do. I have to find a way to use the method book in addition to some kind of supplemental material that is going to be “cool”, “awesome”, or even “rad!” What am I going to do to make the students want to look forward to coming to band every week? What am I going to do so that students are counting down the days until the next rehearsal? It has to be interesting and egaging for them, or they will leave it behind. And, that is what is happening at my school.

Some ideas I’ve kicked around include looking at my method book and identifying the key concepts that are introduced and reinforced, and then creating my own exercises that are handouts to supplement what is in the book. These handouts would be songs or etudes that are popular songs, or other things that the students would be interested in playing. This may even motivate them to practice!

Dr. Umble even suggested that I use Garage Band to loop something for the students to play with. Why didn’t I think of this?! We could play the exercises out of the book, and I could create loops for the students to play along with! Also, why don’t we have the students create podcasts? We could have them doing improvisation with Garage Band, record it, and then post it as a podcast!

So these are the things I’m thinking about doing with my elementary program, in addition to using SmartMusic to some degree.

What do you do with your elementary programs to keep the kids coming back for more?? What motivates them to come to your rehearsals? What motivates your students to practice?

Still Here

So when I realized that my last post was OVER a month ago, I decided I had better write something. To tell the truth, a lot has been going on, I just haven’t had the time/motivation to write about it. So, I’ll see if I can go over what’s new:

1. Taking masters level lessons with my undergrad saxophone instuctor. I have been slowly working on getting my Master’s in Music Ed., but after taking a number of classes, I have been extremely unmotivated to even finish it. I think this is due mainly to the fact that I am doing my Masters at the same school I did my Undergrad at – Therefore, I feel like the classes that I’m taking are exactly the same stuff I did in Undergrad, just with more reading and writing of papers, which I can’t stand! So when I found out that I could take a lesson as an elective and it would still count towards the MusEd Masters, I decided to go for it. My teacher is Jim Umble, easily one of the 10 best in the world. Anyway, I have been loving studying with him again, and now am even considering changing my Masters to a Performance degree. Stay tuned for an update on that! I had been longing to really study music “seriously” again. What I mean is that I have longed to work on the saxophone again at a level that really challenged me. I have been playing consistently even since I finished my undergrad 7 years ago, but have not really “practiced” much since then. It has been great to get “back on the horse.”

2. Renewed energy for teaching in my current position. I’ll be the first to admit that I have been less than enthusiastic about my job, or at least where I am, for most of this school year. However, after a few happenings lately, I have been more energetic and encouraged. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the other teachers in the building who are really dedicated and who a really great teachers, and they have really invigorated me! I have also found that since beginning the work on my instrument again, my mindset about teaching has changed slightly for the better. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but I feel like I am expecting more from my students, and I am getting better results.

3. Considering major changes to our music programs’ curriculum and scheduling. I am hoping to drop our 4th grade band program in an effort to give more time and attention to the 5th & 6th grade students. I feel this will lead to greater interest and better retention in the program. I teach in three elementary buildings in addition to the middle-high school, and right now, I only see the elementary students once a week for 30 minutes. It is just not enough time to have a solid program…it has not worked in the 5 years I have been here. I also hope to get my senior high concert band scheduled at a different time than our choir, so that I can have the whole band in one period and 5 days a week. (I don’t have either right now. – This makes it difficult to work on more advanced concepts like blend and balance.)

So, that is the quick update…I hope to be more productive on the blog in the near future. In the meantime, you can always follow me on Twitter.  That is where I have been doing the majority of my “blogging” lately.

Numbers…Ugh!

Today was a good day until I started doing some number-crunching.  Actually, this all really started near the first day of school.  As I was looking over my rosters, I realized that I only had 40 students in band in grades 7-12.  This was disappointing – I’ve already talked about this here.  But today, as my colleague in the orchestra department and I were discussing our elementary schedules, it occured to me that I may not have as many elementary students as I once did.  I had remembered that a few years ago that I had done some number-crunching to prepare for a meeting I was going to have.  I remember that I was proud of the increase in the number of students that were in the band program.  So, I dug out that old paperwork.  What I found was, to say the least, depressing.

My first year at my current school was 2004-2005, and that year, I had approximately 40 students in elementary band, grades 4-6.  In the 2005-2006 school year, I had about 68 students.  And, in 2006-2007, I had 137 students.  Sounds great, right?  Well, last year, I started with about 80 students, and really probably ended the year with about 65-70.  And, based on what I’ve seen for this coming year, I think I’ll be lucky if I have 60 all together.  What is going on here?  I don’t think that I have been doing anything differently.  I know that I haven’t lost that many kids up to the middle school, because I consistently have small groups of 10-12 kids in 7th grade every year.  So, why is this happening?  And why does this problem not seem to affect the orchestra program? This year, the elementary orchestra will include over 100 students.  What’s different?  We recruit the same time and do instrument sign ups the same way, so why does she have so many kids, and I do not?  I have to admit that now I am beginning to point the finger at myself.  My confidence level is low!

Here’s the scary part: What are most administrators, teachers, and parents concerned about?  Not the quality of music or even the quality of instruction in the band.  They are only concerned with numbers.  And, what am I losing for some inexplicable reason?  Numbers.  I found a list of the 137 students that I had in 2006-2007, and I decided that I would see how many of those students were still playing their instrument.  Out of 137 students, only 14 are still playing in the band program! Help!  I am looking for answers.  I am completely dumbfounded.  I think I am a good teacher.  Are my expectations too high?  Do I make the band students work too hard?  Do they not like it?  Am I not enough fun?  Does it have to do with the fact that I can only see these students once a week because of the scheduling? I’ll admit that I want to re-vamp my recruiting process heavily.  But, these numbers have fallen without any change in the recruiting program at all.

I have no idea what to do, but something has to be done quick!  I think that I should meet with my elementary principals and see if they have any insight as to what may be going on here.  Any suggestions are very much appreciated.  I am really at a loss right now!