It is so frustrating to have students drop out of your after-school choral program mid-year. Reasons for dropping out range from students wanting to join other clubs, to parents taking away chorus as a punishment for poor grades. After loosing a chunk of my chorus to the soccer club during my first year at a new school, I knew I had to change some things. EDIT: Anna Hanks has a great comment below about how she retained students by not having to compete with sports. I totally agree. Kids, especially in elementary school, should be able to explore multiple interests!
1. Use concerts to recruit for next year.
My most dedicated group are always the 4th graders because they are so excited to be in chorus after watching the concerts when they were in 3rd grade. I chose at least one fun or memorable song for the winter concert and did a short musical in the spring with fun costumes, props, and choreography. One song I made memorable during a winter concert was “Santa Lucia.” I incorporated some Swedish traditions by turning off the lights in the auditorium and having the oldest girl enter with an electric candlelight wreath her head to an instrumental version of the song. The other singers followed her in line as the got into place. It really set the tone for the concert and the audience was silent! By the time the 4th graders were able to join chorus, they took it much more seriously than the group I had during my first year at the school.
2. Give lots of solos and put kids in charge.
Even if it’s just a reading an introduction to a song, pulling the curtains, or holding a sign or prop, I tried to give each kid one special job or moment during the year. They take it seriously, and are so much better at remembering their tasks than I am. Even though something may feel like a chore to us, to a child, it makes them feel important. It’s also fun to see student leaders emerge in the group.
3. Set aside time for games and play.
Dramatic exercises that focus on movement, concentration, ensemble connection, and improvisation are great. If it’s a beautiful day, or near the end of the year, I take students to the playground for 10-15 minutes while waiting for others to trickle-in after school.
I found lots of great dramatic exercises to use from theater books for kids and sometimes a classroom teacher would pop-in and play with us! A fantastic book full of imaginative activities is On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids by Lisa Bany-Winters. Here are two exercises I used.
- Mirror: kids mirror the actions of their partner. The point is for onlookers to be unable to figure out who the leader is. Students have to move VERY slowly until they are connected enough mentally with their partners to move faster. I add music to set the mood. This is an activity where no speaking is allowed.
- Mystery Object: in this game students have a prop, such as a chalkboard eraser, and they have to use their improv skills to pretend that the object is something else, like a remote control. The other students have to guess what the “mystery object” is. After a few guesses, the mystery object is passed to a new student. This game was very popular with my chorus.
4. Provide snacks (or allow them to bring snacks from home).
I always provided snacks, and the kids looked forward to them. It was another way to show that I cared. To save money, I bought them in bulk and split up the snacks in coffee filters because they were cheaper than paper plates. See my short blog post here. Snacks I’ve provided include pretzels, popcorn, chips, cookies, and Cheez-Its. I usually mixed it up, for example, 7 honey pretzel twists and 2 cookies. In late spring, I’d even cut up a watermelon or give freeze pops to the kids while they played on the playground for a few minutes. We also had pizza on concert days. I knew some students would not have a ride to the evening concert, so even though it made my day very long, I always offered to play a movie and provide pizza for students that couldn’t go home before the concert. Remember to save your receipts for tax deductions!
5. Allow them to be creative: create movements/choreography, props, costumes, instrumental parts, attire.
Sometimes the best concert ideas would come from the students. I’ve had students go home and study The Temptations on their own, and create amazing choreography to some of the Motown songs we’ve sung for our Black History Month assemblies! The moves were so much better than what I would have come up with. The school secretaries almost died when a group of boys performed a dance to Music K-8’s “My Pizza”, just for them, with the moves from the following YouTube video.
6. Maximize performance opportunities.
We had video announcements at our last school so it was fun to have chorus sing short songs for holidays. What was also great about that is that you can write out the lyrics and no one will see them if you hold them off-camera. 😉 Another idea is a school tour. Take chorus students around to the primary classrooms and office staff to brighten their day! We also went to Six Flags every Spring to sing with other students in the county. If students could not pay for their tickets, I would pay for them, or tell them to bring what they could. This was one of my BEST recruiting tools and students talked about it all year. I’ve also had a grant funded which helped defray costs for families.
I hope this post gave you a couple of useful ideas. Even though I take chorus very seriously, there were times when I really did have to lighten it up. Especially since it was after school and I did not want the kids to burn-out. Yes, this does require you to spend money (perhaps you could use school or PTA funds) but your chorus kids will become extremely loyal to you for going the extra mile.
These are all great ideas! It's so important to create a sense of community within a musical ensemble. How many of us music teachers began to identify ourselves as “music people” because we became a part of a musical ensemble community in high school? It becomes a part of our identities! And those little things you do to “keep things light” like adding choreography and doing smaller-scale seasonal performances are all about experiencing the joy of music-making! Thanks for putting this post together, these are great ideas 🙂
Great suggestions! One thing that helped me with retention was when i started ending chorus with our final concert the week before spring break. I found not trying to compete with Spring Sports saved my after school groups. Kids didn't have to choose between the two anymore. I found when i didn't lose them in the spring they came back in the fall, if that makes sense.
Thanks Elizabeth! I never thought of it from the perspective of building community, but that exactly what's happening in musical ensembles from elementary and beyond!
Anna, you are SO right! I need to add a 7th bonus tip and refer people to this comment! Soccer met at the same time as chorus at my school, starting with my second year, I let them go to soccer one day and chorus the next day. The P.E. teacher was super flexible and would allow me to sometimes keep them for the first half of our meeting and send them to soccer for the second half. I also end the year with our final spring concert. Doesn't it make the end of the year feels like a breeze when you have no more concerts to stress out about? 🙂