5 S.M.A.R.T. Ideas to Help RETAIN (This Year’s) Beginners

by Marcia Neel

This article is written as a follow-up to the article that Charlie Menghini and I provided last month regarding the success of the First Performance National Day of Celebration as a tool for retaining the beginners in our instrumental music programs. In fact, that approach showcases our novice performers’ works no matter what introductory music-making experience students choose to study–band, orchestra, guitar, mariachi, choir, etc.

The S.M.A.R.T. approach focuses on instruction and experience around SUCCESS, MODELING, ACTIVITIES, REFLECTION, and TRUST as these five elements seem to bring our newbies back for more. Allow me to explain.


Our beginners really want to be successful, their parents want them to be successful and of course, we want our students to be successful so what must be done to ensure that we put students in the position to experience SUCCESS.

a. They must perform early and often which is why the FPNDOC (see “insert volume, date, number, etc. of Neel/Menghini article) is such a wonderful tool to get the students off and running in a positive direction as they advance from beginning students to “member of the band.” Remember–it’s not about providing a PERFECT performance in these early weeks and months. It’s about providing the opportunity for our students to discover the joy of music-making as a group. Treat each performance as if you were conducting the Chicago Symphony. There is nothing else like it and parents will soon see how much their children are benefitting from these experiences.

b. And speaking of parents, help them to discover the joy of music-making while engaging them in the learning process as well! Challenge your beginning students to teach their instrument to one of their parents then have the parents perform several selections (exercises) from the method book in the Spring Concert! The parents will enjoy the experience and your beginners will learn so much more about their instrument because they are having to teach it to someone else.

c. Did you know up to 60% of our beginning students drop out after their first year? One of the most overlooked aspects of teaching beginners is teaching parents how to help their beginning students succeed. NFHS, the National Federation of High Schools, partnered with author Anthony Mazzocchi to provide a New Music Parent Course at https://bit.ly/NFHSNewMusicParent.

This course is designed to provide an overview of the best practices that parents can learn to help their respective students learn the fundamentals when they begin playing an instrument. It’s a super resource so be sure to share it appropriately.


Research from the Barna Group tells us that after family members, young teens emulate those they know best. They seek to maintain friendships with older peers who they often choose to imitate. We know that middle school music students admire their older music peers and that high school music students develop their leadership skills by mentoring younger students so there is a built-in opportunity for modeling.

a. High school students can demonstrate to the younger students and their parents what their future holds if they stay in the program. High school students can help teach private lessons after school, coach sectionals, and serve as leaders by assisting the program activities and events at the middle school.

b. Some districts have initiated a free summer camp program for beginning students to prepare them for the coming school year and this is a perfect opportunity to engage high school students to serve as counselors, performing artists, and instructors.

c. Older students could show that they care about the younger musicians continuing on in music by sending congratulatory notes to students of like instruments after their performances. A simple email or even a card in the mail that says, “Congratulations on your performance in your (first concert, Spring Concert, etc.)! You’ll enjoy next year’s performances even more so keep up the good work. Best, Haydn High School Trumpet Section.”

d. A vision board will help our beginners visualize their future so come up with examples of older students enjoying their music-making and place your vision board in a central location in the rehearsal room. Using photos of your older middle school students as well as high school and college students works well as it shows the various stages of musical growth.

e. Beginning students have no idea what their chosen instrument can do in the hands of a master musician. Share opportunities where students and parents can observe this in your area. Many local libraries and universities offer free concerts by touring ensembles. Ask your parents to take their children to several of these and have the students sit right down in front so that they can clearly see their instrument in action. After the performance, parents should take their students backstage to visit with the skilled musician who played their child’s instrument. Professional musicians love meeting with beginners. After all, they were there at one time themselves.


Students of all ages thrive from rewarding experiences which is what keeps them coming back for more so plan both musical and non-musical events that will allow your beginners to feel good about themselves.

a. It’s a big deal when athletes sign to attend the college of their choice so why not use this concept and have your beginning students participate in a Signing Day event and video the process to share on social media if your district will allow it. Host the event at your school and make a big deal out of this by inviting all of the students who have been recruited into your program along with their parents and an administrator from your school. Set up a table and have students come forward to a table to sign their “intent” and receive a ball cap, t-shirt, or another item with an appropriate logo. Here’s an example of how this might be accomplished virtually as well.

b. There is nothing like seeing your name in lights so ask each beginner to create a poster that will be used to recruit the next year’s beginning students. Have students give their reason for being in band, orchestra, mariachi, guitar, choir, etc., and use their school photo to make the poster. Make two (2) copies of each poster–one for the student to keep and one to put up around the school where next year’s beginners are enrolled.

c. A service project teaches young people that they can make a difference in the lives of others while also boosting their own sense of well-being. Organizing a food, clothing, or book drive for younger children allows us to realize how fortunate our own lives are. Performing for a nursing home, hospital, or senior center teaches students that the gift of music is something that is appreciated by everyone! Another project might be for the students to write thank you notes to the teachers they have had in the past during Teacher Appreciate Week. What a wonderful gesture this would be and just imagine what an impact it would certainly make on the receiving teacher!


Without knowing it cognitively, beginning students in all endeavors are continually assessing what they are getting out of this or that activity so it is important that we provide opportunities for them to reflect upon the benefits of participating in music. Until they become more accomplished, the beginnings of any skill-based activity — sports, music, etc. — are the most challenging. Once students acquire the basic skills required to get past the beginning stages, they then discover the joy that activity brings into their lives. This is why it is important to have our beginners perform as often as possible even if playing from their method books. It gives them that sense of accomplishment that we all seek even as adults. Here are some suggestions that will help beginners realize how much music-making impacts their daily lives and enriches them personally.

a.  After each performance, build a word cloud by asking each student to choose one word that best describes how they feel. Use any insta-poll program or simply have them write their word on a piece of paper tally the words as they come in. They will soon see how music-making also impacts their peers as well and this helps build and enhance the band, etc. climate.

b. Ask your students to complete five sentence stems that start with, “Music makes the difference because. . .” This allows them to reflect upon the experiences they have been having as a participant in the ensemble. Directors are often surprised to read these heartfelt writings of their beginners. In some cases, it will lead us to understand more about our students as individuals.


Trust, or the lack of it, is the result of relationships. In general, adolescents struggle with finding their place as they try to fit in socially with their peers while at the same time learning to express themselves individually. Providing young people with a secure setting where they are cared for and supported while they are learning how to be a part of an organization that achieves more as a group than as a group of individuals, is

a. Students trust their directors because directors put their students in a situation that will bring them success. It’s important to remember that the level of music being performed with our beginners must be chosen to enhance the experience that the students and their parents are getting out of it. Over-programming is a retention killer because students are constantly struggling to play something that is beyond their ability.

b. Challenge your beginning students to write 5-note melodies that you might choose from to score and perform in a premiere at some point during the year. Activities like these build appreciation for the ensemble and trust in the ensemble. This will always be THEIR piece of music that was composed collectively.

c. Provide recognition and reinforcement because it bolsters confidence. Acknowledge every student at some point with some sort of award and give them a certificate or have their name read over the loudspeaker. You’d be amazed how much this means to our beginners who are trying to find their place in the social maze of adolescence.

d. Put up photos of your students all over the rehearsal room. These could be from performances, fundraisers, social events, community service projects, and partnership events with the high school program. This shows the students that we value each and every one of them.

Kids are just amazing! We have the ability, the duty really, to “flip the switch” that can set the course of their lives on the path to a more fulfilled life. So please also remember this final thought… your ENTHUSIASM is what matters! We have to be enthusiastic about all that we do so that our efforts come together to keep our students involved.

We want this year’s beginners to be life-long music-makers or at the very least, life-long music-enjoyers! We want them to begin their adult lives with these experiences, to know how to build relationships and collaborate to build great things. We can ensure they get those skills in our music programs but the responsibility ultimately rests with us so now is the time. Our students need what we have to offer more than ever before. Know that you are valued and that your work changes lives. Onward and upward!

About the Author

Marcia serves as president of Music Education Consultants, Inc., a consortium of music education professionals which works with a variety of educational organizations, arts associations, and school districts to foster the growth and breadth of standards-based, articulated music education programs. In 2016, Neel was named Senior Director of Education for Yamaha Corporation of America and subsequently, a Yamaha Master Educator. She also serves as Education Advisor to the Music Achievement Council, a 501(c)(6) organization whose sole purpose is to assist directors in recruiting and retaining students in instrumental music programs through effective professional development programs. Marcia also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Percussive Arts Society.

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