How to Keep Your Students Focused with all of the Holiday Excitement

by Michael Skinner

Date Posted: November 29, 2017

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Prior to his days as DANSR president, Michael Skinner was an elementary, middle, and high school Band Director.

In my early days as a middle school band director I dreaded holidays for the obvious reasons – too many distractions, lack of concentration, and SUGAR! It became a challenging discipline issue until one of my mentors reminded me that this problem could actually be an opportunity.

His advice was to plan some of my recruitment concerts at the elementary schools just before each holiday. Wow, what a gift!

Recruitment Holiday Concerts

The following year I found some very simple Christmas music and other music that coincided with all of the holidays on our school schedule. These were very simple pieces my band could accomplish. I introduced them a few weeks before the holiday and informed them that we would be doing a short concert for our elementary schools. The distraction of preparing for the performance kept them focused and the performance helped me advertise to my feeder schools how much fun it can be to participate in middle school band.

Unseen Benefits

There were side benefits that I realized as we went. One was that I actually found a way to integrate sight-reading into my program in a way that seemed logical and necessary for my students. We had to read these short pieces and then perform them in a very short period of time. Granted, they were not difficult, but having the students read new music with the expectation that they would have to master it quickly really improved their ability to sight-read.

The other side benefit was I quickly became a hero to our elementary schools. A special event during the holiday time was a total gift to them. On top of that, my principal and department chair loved me for working on recruitment – a “win-win” as they say.

It may be too late this year for this idea because of the logistics of arranging the concerts and getting them approved through the proper channels. Plus, you’ll have to look around and find music that fits your group. The bottom line is your holiday time will be more focused, your numbers could increase and you could develop a band that sight-reads better than you ever imagined. Here’s to holidays and increased numbers!


We asked a few of our friends with music education experience about how they keep their band programs focused during the holiday season. Here’s what they had to say:


Terri from Vernon Hills IL

The Chicago Civic Orchestra puts on a "Hallowed Haunts" concert as part of their youth series. We take our second year (5th grade) instrumental students for an opportunity to experience the culture and diversity of music while incorporating a bit of Halloween fun. With my beginners (4th grade), I've created a spooky story that they add sound effects to through use of non-traditional playing techniques. It's a fun way to explore the different sounds their instruments can make. I force the students to give me a solid twenty minutes of rehearsal time first; it never hurts to hang something over their heads!



Brian from Oak Park, IL

“We don't do holiday concerts for the obvious reasons but also because we have concerts scheduled for November and February. To keep them focused I schedule seating auditions for the weeks before break.” 



Larry from Chicago, IL 

“A healthy dose of entertaining humor, multimedia (like educational videos on YouTube such as flash mobs), in-class talent shows and a stack of blank detention slips!



Damon from St. Louis, MO

“Having an obvious goal that your are striving toward is always your best friend. Sometimes that goal is a performance. Other times it may be completely new material that you wouldn't otherwise cover, making it much more interesting. Tests (performance or written) are also a motivating factor for students. Surprisingly, it's the change from the usual routine that creates the interest and manages to create a greater focus. It's also a nice break for the director, and a chance to, perhaps, share a love for something you don't usually show your students. If you manage to stay interested, your students have a better chance of doing so as well.”


Stanley from Mattapoisett, MA

“Halloween can be a fun time but if I made it a time for learning with a little fun thrown in, all the students seemed to respond.
I think for the younger concert bands (4th, 5th, 6th), Halloween was the time to pull out the scary arrangements.  Back in the day it was The Adams Family or The Munsters…"

Sometimes keeping them focused on the prize was a good idea and worked. I would pass out the Holiday music and the spring competition pieces at the beginning of the year and the children knew they were on a tight schedule to perform. Getting a gold medal and playing venues such as Symphony Hall or Tanglewood was a big deal. The Holiday concert was always an important event in the town. Tree lightings, elderly concerts, church concerts and the big school concert kept the little ones focused on October 31. I kept them well aware of the fact that they represented their school around the community and had them play a lot of community events.
I remembered though that they were only little ones, so on costume day I would let them come to rehearsal with their costumes and masks. I would give them 10 or 15 minutes of the rehearsal at the beginning to look at each others outfits and to be a little silly. But after that I would remind them of there obligations and they would be okay with that. Sometimes they would come in with their masks on and had switched instruments which was an awful sound but awfully funny too. However when it was time to rehearse the jokes stopped with all band members in agreement.
Junior High and High School jazz bands did not work like that except for the first few minutes of costumes. It was pretty much right to work because of the same eyes on the prize mentality, which I had built in for quite a few years; and they were graded and I was not afraid to give out bad grades or send home notices that reflected disturbing behavior.

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