Building a High School Instrumental Program from Scratch

Ronald E. Kearns

Whether you are a new teacher, veteran teacher in a new school or someone trying to build and maintain a school instrumental music program, there are two challenges you will face. Those two challenges are recruiting students and retaining students from semester to semester or year to year. Both of these challenges will impact on the long time success of your program.


Recruiting New Students

Know the targets:

  • The first group was the group of students who had prior music in middle school and were now coming into my school but had not signed up for band or orchestra.
  • The second group was made up of students in the school who had taken music in my new school prior to my arrival but had opted to “wait and see” how the new guy worked out.


Do your research – points you can use to increase your enrollment


  • Check the incoming class’s personal records to see who had prior instrumental experience.
  • Once identified, contact students and urge them to join the program.
  • Your relationship with the guidance staff is crucial. Work with the counselors to identify these students
  • Enlist the counselors’ assistance in getting these students scheduled.
  • Urge your principal to approve scheduling honors classes in such a way so music students don’t have to decide between music and an honors class.
  • If you can swing it, sit down with the assistant principal in charge of scheduling to make sure your students can stay in band.


This may seem like a lot of work but the long-term success of your program depends on you getting these students and them buying into you. If you don’t possess good interpersonal skills, work on them. At this point, there is no separation of the program and you, both are unknown commodities.

Remember, coming into high school is a challenge for the kids and their parents and both want to know that someone cares about their adjustment. Band and orchestra offer a ready-made group that these kids have something in common with so their adjustment to high school is calmed somewhat.


A Sign of the Times

One of my most successful tools of recruiting was with hand-made signs. The ones you can buy are good but when you and a group of students take out time to make them two things happen.

  1. You bond with your students through a team building activity
  2. The students who see the signs are more apt to read them.


Winning Over Upperclassmen 

  • Communicate to them that you respect their traditions and that you only wish to build on the good traditions and start some new ones.
  • Establish your standards and stick to them.
  • Your first goal should be to strive toward performance excellence and everything you do should work towards that goal.
  • Value your upperclassmen’s input. There’s a reason your upperclassmen stayed in the program–they enjoy band or orchestra.
  • Capitalize on their interest and you will be successful.


Get back those who left the program

  • Don’t let students who leave your program, leave without a conversation.
  • Have a discussion about why they left
  • Suggest alternative music opportunities in the school or band
  • Suggest a trial return session where you and the student to try it once more for a time period to see if it will work. This is where your relationship with the counseling staff is so critical.
  • The bottom line is don’t give up on them as quickly as they try and quit on you. You’ll be surprised how your personal interest can change someone’s mind.


Communicate with Parents and Community

  • The most important part of successful recruiting is communication.
  • Highlight your achievements and vision for the program in a e-newsletter or on your band’s website.
  • Make sure your feeder schools have access to the newsletter.
  • Since the high school is still the centerpiece of most communities it’s important that you project your program as an important part of the community.
  • Community pride for your program begins with you.


 Ron Kearns is a retired Montgomery County teacher, Vandoren Performing Artist and a Selmer Performing Artist, playing exclusively Selmer of Paris instruments. 

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