October 16, 2014

Positive Recruitment

by Josh Rist, Director of Choral Music, Hermiston High School

ristLast fall, I had 78 individuals singing in my program, with several students participating in more than one of the four choir classes at our school. This fall, with five choir classes offered (we split last year's beginning mixed choir into a beginning men's choir and a beginning women's choir), the number of individuals has grown to 177. If I compare the total class size of the choirs last year (including those who have registered for multiple choirs) with this year's total numbers, we have grown from 115 total in four choirs to 226 in five choirs.

I include these data for the sole purpose of providing legitimacy to this article on recruitment. As a teacher beginning his second year of teaching, I know I have so much to learn in this business. Many of the ideas herein have been borrowed from mentors and teachers whom I respect (much of the structure of my program is a reproduction of Aubrey Peterson's successful design at Corvallis High School, where I student taught), and some ideas originated from research, experimentation, and intuition.

It seems apparent that some things we have been doing at Hermiston High School are working, but recruitment is a complex endeavor and it could be argued that just about everything we do as directors, from the music we pick to the way we dress, has some effect. The following philosophies and actions seemed to be the most relevant factors contributing to the growth of our program.

Believe that every person can learn to sing
Your recruiting pool expands immensely when you perceive every child as a potential chorister. It is our job to teach students. Just like a communication teacher helps a child to write, a mathematics teacher helps a child to solve problems, we are to help our students to understand and create music with their voices. This is so different from the attitude of finding the talented few in the school and building your program from students who are already skilled. Do not get me wrong; I love those students and love challenging them to reach their full potential. However, the bigger part of our job is developing students into singers, regardless of what they already bring to the table.

I love it when a person tells me they cannot sing. Well, I hate it because I think it is ridiculous, but I love it because it gives me the opportunity to remind them that there are many things they do now that they could not do earlier in their life. They could not speak or read at one point in their life, but they can now. Singing is a skill that can be learned. We have to combat the misunderstanding that it is something you have or you do not have. This fixed mindset is toxic to the growth of any program or individual.

I admit that there are some individuals that face an extraordinarily steep learning curve when it comes to learning to sing and there are some students with mental and physical disabilities that may prevent them from ever doing the kind of singing we are asking for in a choral ensemble. But these are the minority of cases and the extreme exceptions, and even in my first year of teaching several students surprised me by growing in ways I initially imagined unobtainable based on our first few weeks together.

Give your students something to be proud of
One of the initial challenges I faced last year at Hermiston was overcoming the stigma students felt about themselves and their program. Many students did not want to readily identify themselves as a "choir kid" and some seemed to accept a fate of mediocrity; this was something I addressed immediately. Every day offers a new chance to better oneself, to evolve one's mindsets and skills, and soon the kids were surprising themselves (and me) with what they were capable of. Each rehearsal became a new discovery session, another step, however small it may have been, towards excellence.

Our breakthrough moment was the first time the advanced mixed ensemble performed in the commons (dining area) during lunch before our fall concert. The students had never done anything like this before and were initially very apprehensive, but once their spirited performance was met with cheers and peer approval, something switched in their minds. They believed. Each successful performance throughout the year bolstered this confidence. Participation in choir was not just something to be swept under the rug; it became a badge of honor. Concerts became something students wanted their friends to come to and afterwards I often had curious students trickling through my door, wondering how they too could get in on the action.

Wield the power of positive peer pressure
Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising agent available. I have a few students who have nominated themselves as "choral missionaries," adopting as many people as they can into our choral family. The more members of a particular social circle are involved in a choir, the more motivated the outlying members are to join.

Utilize the magnetic energy of those students who already have the respect and admiration of their peers. These students bring peer credibility to the choral program. If you do not already have a few of those students in your program, go find them and get them on your side. Hermiston High School has a very large, successful athletic program, and many of the athletes carry a sense of pride, purpose, and popularity—exactly the kind of people that could help boost a program's social standing. I had several popular wrestlers in one of my drama classes last year, and I persuaded most of them to sing for me. One of them was voted homecoming king and announced choir as one of his passions along with wrestling. That kind of publicity goes a lot farther than a recruitment poster in the hallway.

I hope that I will not be perceived as condoning the high school popularity caste system. What many high school students elevate as "cool" or "popular" sometimes strikes me as silly or unsubstantial, but I do not let it stop me from using that system for my program's benefit. I have found that many students recruited from a classically "cool" social niche end up staying involved in the music community because they enjoyed the inclusive, dynamic atmosphere we fostered. You and your students can redefine what is cool and desirable in your school by living the good life. The singers, instrumentalists, and thespians of HHS are some of the kindest, most genuine, empathetic, enthusiastic, uninhibited, and talented people I know. I think it is uplifting simply witnessing our students be themselves and I can see that their peers are noticing it too.

Make every first-time singing experience a positive one
If a new student walks into my room for the first time—I do not care if they are lost, bringing me a delivery, or just tagging along with a friend—I am going to ask them to sing for me. They may squawk, they may protest, they may break out in hives, but more often than not they end up standing next to the piano singing "How low can I go?" on a five-note descending scale. If they are nervous, as they almost always are, I do my best to set them at ease by assuring them that there is no pressure—this is not an audition—I just want to hear their voice. I will not think ill of them or endanger their dignity; quite the contrary, I intend to build them up. Often I will sing with them at first or grab a competent friend to help them out so they do not feel alone. I model the phrase for them, count them in, and gesture for them to sing, all the time radiating confidence that whatever sound they make is going to be our first victory together.

Our first objective is to match pitch. If I sing a D and they sing a tritone below that, no problem. I just offer a new pitch that is closer to the one they just sang and we go for that one. I am hearty with my approbation, celebrating their first matched pitch. We then use that as a starting point to sing a short phrase, like Do-Re-Mi-Re-Do. Every success is met with approval, be it a genuine smile, verbal praise, or a hi-five. If they miss, we adjust and try again. The ultimate goal of this 2-3 minute exchange is for them to hear from an authority figure that yes, they can sing, and for them to start to believe that for themselves. Based on who I see joining my choirs, this experience is the most powerful tool I know for recruiting students.

Be proactive about scheduling
Students' academic schedules can be one of the biggest inhibitors to your program's growth. Many students who want to sing do not because it does not work in their schedule. Get on the good side of your school counselors. I have been able to secure several students in my choir simply by visiting the counseling office and advocating for the students' involvement in the program. I also worked with my administrators to schedule my advanced choir classes during periods where there would be the fewest potential conflicts with AP classes and religious seminary classes. I did not want choir to get in the way of my top students' academic ambitions or spiritual pursuits.

Partner with the band world
The band program at your school is one of the ripest communities for recruiting new singers. Even if a band musician has never sung before, their experience as an instrumentalist accelerates the learning process. I have met a couple of students who chose to become an instrumentalist instead of a singer for… understandable reasons… but even in these cases I remind myself that every student can learn to sing. Singing and playing are mutually beneficial and the best musicians I know do both.

If you are fortunate enough to work with a band teacher in your school, team up with your colleague. At HHS, I have the pleasure of working with Paul Dunsmoor, a fellow OSU grad who is beginning his third year of teaching. We prioritize cooperation and collaboration between our programs, and the first way we achieved this was syncing up our schedules so that none of our ensembles compete for students with other ensembles of the same level. For example, my top choir meets during his prep, and his top band meets during mine. It is impossible to avoid all scheduling conflicts (e.g. our zero period ensembles), but by working together with our administrators before the schedule is set in stone, we have been able to make it possible for many students to participate in both if they wish to.

Go to your students' games
Few things demonstrate that you care for someone like showing up to his or her events. It does not matter if you cannot make it for the whole game or if you do not have an athletic bone in your body: just be there and support your students' (and potential students') efforts. Be intentional and avoid isolating yourself. Build relationship with the coaches by congratulating them after a win and emailing them to thank them for the positive influence they have on your kids. Realize that you are both on the same team working together to help students become their best selves. Whether you want to call them athletic artists or artistic athletes, these are often the most well rounded students in the school, and they are the kind of students you want representing their program with pride and persuading their peers to join them.

Dress sharp, smile at people, and greet students by their name as much as possible
Take your first impressions seriously. I have had some students come visit me after one positive exchange in the hall. Attract students by being genuine and attractive, inside and out. Remembering someone's name is an irreplaceable way to show that you care. Make it a priority.

Inspire your freshmen and incoming middle school students early on
It seems that the inflated self-confidence of many eighth-grade students is lost in the transition to high school. They suddenly become little fish in a big pond, and they are ripe for being encouraged towards greatness. Beginning high school is a humbling experience for many, and that humility helps make them teachable. They will buy in to your teaching philosophy and classroom culture much faster then some of their upper classmates. They will invite their friends too.

When eighth-grade students are forecasting, let them know they have an accelerated path into the high school community through choir. Introduce them to your exemplary students, including those freshmen who have quickly become integrated into the community, and inspire them to believe that they can be this and more. If at all possible, collaborate with the middle schools for a joint concert, giving your high school students a chance to provide a model of excellence for their incoming peers by singing for and with them.

Everything relates to everything, and everything we do affects our recruitment efforts.

There are many more factors that could be identified and discussed, and my hope is that this article can be part of the conversation among professional educators on how we can find best practices for recruitment.

A final word: do not undervalue the power of your personal magnetism. Students are attracted to genuine, caring people who love what they do, and our profession is rich with such people. Be bold in your efforts to introduce young people to the joys of the musical life and choral community.

Contact Joshua Rist HERE

Webmaster note: Coincidentally, Seth McMullen, who is HS R&S Chair for the Idaho ACDA, just published an article on a similar subject in the Idaho web/newsletter. It ties in beautifully with Joshua Rist's fine material on recruiting students for the choir program. I recommend Seth's article to you HERE.