Each year, I hear chorus teachers lament that students are not signing up to join chorus during the school day. Many students experience chorus in elementary school, and are ready to try something new in middle school. Students are excited by new classes available to them, such as S.T.E.M, dance, computers, art, band, drama, and other attractive options. The question remains: How can we make chorus shiny and new once again?
Recruitment has become a main focus for me the past few years. As a middle school choral teacher who works in a school with many talent options, I find that students are interested in trying something new in grade six. A few months into the school year, students come and find me to ask a simple question, “I changed my mind, can I join chorus?” They have heard from their friends that chorus is fun, and they want to join. Since we encourage students to stay in the same program, the answer to this question typically does not go in the student’s favor.
In order to prevent this issue, I have been working to meet students before they get to our school and choose a talent. I have started going to our feeder elementary schools and teaching an engaging music lesson. I also make sure
to attend our summer orientation so I can “sell” myself and our program. I do my best to be fun, nice, encouraging, and convincing. I truly believe that recruitment is all about being a salesperson. We have to do our best to make our program and ourselves enticing.
In order to do this, I do my best to speak to each student personally. This can be something as simple as “I really like your hair, do you enjoy singing?” Adolescent students love compliments. They can disarm students and make them open to the discussion about joining chorus. Once students become interested in the teacher, somehow what they teach is not as important as the teacher’s personality. I often hear my students say “I don’t love singing, but I really like Ms. Shikowitz”. I truly do not care why my students chose to take chorus. Maybe it is because I told them they have cool shoes. However, once they are in my classroom, I can show them why music is so important and fun.
Another recruitment technique I use is to create a sense of family and tradition in the choral program. I meet and become friendly with younger siblings at our school concerts and parent teacher conferences. I begin building a relationship with these children while they are in elementary school. This way, they are familiar with me and feel a connection with the choral program. At each concert, I ask them “How much longer until you come to chorus and get to be on stage?” I want the little ones to look up to their siblings as they sing, and dream about the day that they are in their own performance.
At our concerts, we have an alumni song. The final song is one where graduates can come up and perform with us. This keeps a sense of tradition and family among the choral students. Older students love to come back and reminisce about their time in middle school, and their little brothers and sisters want to join the family feel. The alumni song was purposefully implemented. When new sixth graders come to our school, they are already familiar with two songs, and cannot wait to show off to the other students that they know the pieces.
I apply the same concept to vocalizes and warm up songs. I teach short songs by rote as part of our Friday warm ups. I encourage the students to go home and teach the songs to their siblings. When this happens, not only are the siblings bonding over music making, the little ones are being recruited by their brother and/or sister. New students love when they already know a warm up or song taught by rote. They already feel part of the chorus community, and will be more likely to sign up for chorus.
Parents cannot be overlooked as a source of recruitment. When children are happy, their parents are happy. In my lessons, I always make sure to ask my students what they can share with their parents about the music we made in class. When chorus class is spoken about excitedly around the dinner table, or in the car ride home, our students let their parents know that our class is fun and worthwhile. In our social media driven society, parents speak to each other via parent groups about which classes are worthwhile. Creating a “buzz” about you and your program is essential to recruitment.
Another way to create a choral family is to implement an intergenerational choir. I started an intergenerational choir four years ago, and it is by far my favorite part of my job. It meets every other week from 5:00-6:00 PM, and includes parents, teachers, students, alumni, other family members, and whoever else would like to join. We even had students from neighboring schools come and sing with us. Some parents come on their own, without their child. They enjoy music making on their own, and it is their relaxation time. Many families love the opportunity to spend time with their child in an educational setting, rather than in front of a screen. This group is essential to my classroom culture, and is something that bonds people together.
Lastly, keep these questions in mind when recruiting: How were you recruited into the music classroom, and why did you decide to stick with it? What is it that you remember about your favorite teacher? How can we embody those qualities in our own teaching?
Sara Shikowitz is the choral director at Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School 157 in Rego Park, Queens. Her program serves over 300 students that are involved in numerous choral activities, including Show Choir, Intergenerational Choir, sixth grade chorus, seventh and eighth grade chorus and Select Chorus who earned a "gold with distinction rating" at NYSSMA for the past three years. She teaches music education courses at Queens College, where she received her Master's degree.