You know how important music education is, but unfortunately, not everyone does. Whatever your role may be, it’s hard to advocate for your school music program when it feels like you’re the only one speaking. Now throw in the consequences of a global pandemic, and it’s harder still. Directors may not be able to meet in person with prospective students, and annual instrument petting zoos aren’t possible. Established recruitment strategies are out of the question.
How can you grow your program—or even maintain it—under these conditions?
Challenge students, past and present, to step up. Ask those who know the benefits of your program to share their positive experiences with the world by giving testimonials!
These testimonials will serve as evergreen pieces of content that you can point to for years to come. Share them with incoming students, parents, and other stakeholders—anyone who could be invested in the success of your program. Testimonials can function as social proof, showing that your program produces responsible citizens. Prospective students and their parents will look to them for a peek into their own futures. For current students, testimonials can reinforce the good choices they made when they joined your program and may help you retain them even longer. They’ll remind alumni and other community members of the value of your program and will inspire them to advocate for music education in your district.
Plus, they’re a dynamic activity that can be executed in any learning environment—in-person or remote, individually or as a team—and submitted digitally. It’s also repeatable: each year brings a new incoming class, plus a new class of alumni, and each passing year creates new experiences. Consider doing this project annually as a sort of “exit interview” for your students before they leave for summer break. Then, watch your library of testimonials—and your entire music program—grow.
Testimonials, as well as other advocacy initiatives, can be made even more effective with the incorporation of Social Emotional Learning (SEL)! Dr. Scott N. Edgar has provided information about SEL, as well as, SEL-related advocacy prompts to incorporate into your testimonials project. Check these out later in this article!
Follow these steps to implement testimonials into YOUR advocacy strategy:
Once your testimonials have been shared widely, share them again.
Not right away, of course, but these are valuable pieces of content that deserve to be seen over and over again. Share different testimonials to different platforms at different times. Depending on how many you get from students, you can share one on your social media channels every few days or every few weeks. Take a look at a calendar and make sure you share them widely just before important decisions are made, like school scheduling or school board budget meetings.
SEL represents a widely-accepted construct that administrators and policymakers at all levels value. Music teachers need to have a plan to capitalize on Musical SEL. While SEL is inherently possible in music classrooms, intentional, embedded, and sustained implementation is necessary to:
(a) maximize social and emotional benefits for students, and
(b) effectively advocate to policymakers and administrators for the value of music education utilizing SEL.
To effectively make an argument, all elements of SEL are needed. Realizing the personal/collective value of music education (self-awareness/identity), understanding how this value will be perceived by decision-makers (social-awareness/belonging), and promoting music education through advocacy (responsible decision-making/agency) culminate in a cohesive SEL process and thoughtful argument. Engaging students in this process not only lends relevance to music education’s value, but also models/teaches students these important skills while forwarding the cause for music education.
Compelling arguments for music education utilizing SEL are:
SEL will be front and center for administrators and SEL can provide one solution to help our students cope, heal, and move forward through music. For more information on SEL in music education, see the Music for All Social Emotional Learning website education.musicforall.org/SEL. For more information on advocating for music education utilizing SEL, see this article by Scott Edgar and Bob Morrison in Teaching Music.
Testimonials are powerful tools to recruit new students and to help state the value of your program. Below are some prompts to help students and alumni get started writing or recording testimonials of their own! Happy advocating!
As a music educator, your focus is all about preparing your students for a performance. But imagine using those performances to strengthen ties with all of your stakeholders: students, parents, administrators, the school board, and your community. With a little preparation—a lot of which could be outsourced to parents and other volunteers—your performances could be the super glue that holds your program together.
As Dr. John Gallagher of the New York State School Music Association suggests,
“Perform, perform, perform. It's what we do.
“The process over the product, though—however, the product being the performance, the concert, the special event—the process is what matters.
“Watching students rehearse, watching the young ones first pick up an instrument. Watch them try to understand this new foreign language, which literally it is. Music notes are just like letters, and you put different letters together, you have a word. You put different notes together, you have a measure. You put different measures together, you've got a whole piece of music—which is really a story.
“So what they're doing is learning this foreign language. They have their kinesthetic movements now where they're learning their fingerings, they're learning bowing techniques. The physicality of it. They're learning how to breathe, they're learning what their trachea does. They're learning how good posture promotes good breathing. So I think the best thing that we can do is perform.”
There are people at every level whose decisions affect the success of your program: prospective students, parents, administrators, and school board members. Consider adding local media contacts to that list; they can magnify your message to those who aren’t able to attend in person. Imagine being able to give all of them a positive interaction with your program—at the same time and in the same place!
Your concerts and performances give all of them an opportunity to see the product of your classroom. It’s so much easier to support something you understand. Help them help you. Make sure that your stakeholders understand what you’re teaching and more importantly, WHY you’re teaching it. Check out this inspiration from conductor and composer Jack Stamp.
Your performances are a force for good in your community. Music brings people together, regardless of their differences in other areas. Giving your administrators and school board members access to that opportunity benefits not only your program, but the administrators and school board members, as well as your community. Find small things you can ask them for; it will pave the way for successful bigger asks down the road. Ask these administrators to write a letter of welcome for your program book. Invite them to attend, and perhaps your school board members, to speak from the stage in support of your program. Psychologically, it will cement in their minds, as well as the minds of your audience, the importance of music education in your community. If they’ve just told your audience how important music education is at your concert, it’ll be much more difficult to make the decision to defund music education at the next school board meeting.
With a bit of promotion, you can fill your auditorium with community members who are likely to vote the next time there's a funding referendum for the school district. If they see your ensembles out in the community performing and delighting audiences, they'll feel like their tax dollars are well spent, even if they don't have a child in school. And don’t you think your elected school board members would love to have access to their voters, while supporting students at a heartwarming musical experience right in their own community?
Don’t just invite them to one performance, either; invite them to every performance at each level of your program! It’ll be easy for your stakeholders to see student progression if they attend elementary, middle school, AND high school performances: it’s practically like time-traveling!
Share programming choices and program notes with your audience. Explain what you expect students to learn from each piece. Let them know it’s not JUST about playing pretty music. You’ll earn bonus points for having your students write these blurbs and present them to your audience.
You know that parents will drop off students early for warm-ups. While they wait in the auditorium, give them something to do and something to consider while they wait.
In your program book, add advocacy materials rather than leaving parts of pages blank. Underneath the repertoire list, fill that space with The Three Brain Benefits of Musical Training, for example. We’ve collected a large selection from reputable sources here.
Deliver that same information another way! If your auditorium is equipped with a projector, show slides that demonstrate the power of music education If you feel like the messaging might be a bit too heavy-hitting, intersperse these slides with candid photos of your students. Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa will be so busy watching for their students’ faces, they’ll hardly notice that they’ve learned something.
In addition, surrounded by the families of other music students, they’ll have social proof that they made a good decision when they encouraged their child to enroll in music. That auditorium may be the very room where families decide that perhaps it would be good if that student continued on to middle school and high school music. That decision may be made even easier if you have older students attend and participate in the performance. Make it easy to identify them by having them wear a tee shirt or jacket with the name of their ensemble.
Your performances are going to happen anyway. Don’t let another one slip by without juicing it for all its worth. Find ways you can slip in messages about the importance of music education to the decision-makers in your audience. As author Dan Pink writes, “To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources—not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end.” You’ll agree that selling your audience on music education leaves everyone better off in the end!
Each January, America prepares to receive the State of the Union address. Both houses of Congress attend, and the speech is broadcast widely. There is much pomp and circumstance.
Our Executive Branch may be onto something. They’re being proactive about spreading their message, not reactive. Think about that, and then consider how we might adapt that idea for music education.
Consider a “State of the Music Program” address. Once a year, a representative of your music or fine arts department prepares a written (and oral) report and reserves time to present the report to the school board.
There are so many good reasons to do this. First, you get to tell your story, your way, to decision-makers. That’s huge. Consider the alternative: someone else telling your story inaccurately and in a less-than-positive light.
The process of compiling the report will give you perspective on your achievements. You’ll get a birds-eye view of your program. Armed with that information, you’ll be able to plan for the future more efficiently.
You’ll develop relationships with the decision-makers in your community, and you never know how that may pay off. A school board member, remembering the warm fuzzies she felt when you welcomed her to a performance, may be more inclined to speak up on your behalf when budgeting.
You’ll be educating not only the school board but your own stakeholders and the community on the powerful benefits of music education. Again, you never know what that might do. Anyone who’s listening may become a music education advocate like you, and that could make big ripples for years to come.
Much like the president’s annual address, the report should touch on the past and future of the program, working together, and optimism. In the State of the Union address, “Presidents can advocate for policies already being considered by Congress, introduce innovative ideas, or threaten vetoes.”
While the music program is hardly in a position to threaten vetoes, it could (especially backed by their parent booster group) certainly push for policies that the school board is considering, introduce innovative ideas (new uniforms, different types of performances, or different performance venues), or provide a counter-argument to policies under consideration that would negatively impact the music department.
This can be determined between the invested parties. If it’s just the band program, perhaps the band director should present it. Maybe it’s the head of the music department, or the chair of the entire fine arts department. (We wholeheartedly support, by the way, banding together with the other arts disciplines in your district for advocacy. There is significant strength in numbers!)
For best results, the report should be presented by a parent booster, perhaps a member of your music coalition (you do HAVE one, right?) or music booster group. In front of the school board, a parent carries much more weight than a teacher might. A teacher is an employee of the district and serves at the school board’s will. A parent, however, is both the consumer of the school district’s product (education for their child) and perhaps more importantly, a voter, who has the power to vote school board members out of office.
School boards typically begin their budgeting process a full year before it takes effect at the beginning of a new school year. There are a lot of moving parts, so it can’t hurt to get on the school board’s calendar before the process starts. If you’re looking to affect the 2023-2024 budget, for example, I’d say you may want to present the report Spring 2021. The school year is drawing to a close at that point, so it’s a good time to both reflect on the year and plan ahead.
After you present the report in person, publish it on your website so the world can see the amazing work your program is doing. That might be a written report, a video, a slideshow, or some combination thereof.
And while you’re at it, kick it upstairs. There’s no reason why you couldn’t share the report with local media, and government officials at the local, state, and national levels! If you do, you’ll not only be advocating for your own program, but you’ll be helping music programs everywhere.
Obviously, you’ll probably only get the school board’s full attendance and attention at a school board meeting. While you could simply submit the written report (which may or may not get read), an oral presentation to the full school board is much harder to ignore.
In preparation for the big night, you may want to present some or all of the report at a springtime gathering, like an end-of-the-year concert or the unveiling of next fall’s halftime show. It’ll give the presenter a chance to practice while making sure that all stakeholders (parents, students, and educators) are aware of the music department’s message and impact. It will also help your stakeholders to be well-informed, relentlessly positive advocates for your program.
Where to begin
Every year the NAMM Foundation collects their Best Communities for Music Education Survey. It provides a comprehensive snapshot of a music program. If you pull together all the information you’ll need to submit the survey by their deadline at the end of January, you’ll be in great shape to use that information for your “State of the Music Program” address. (Plus, you’ll be all ready to submit to be named a Best Community for Music Education!) While the data itself will probably be a bit dry, you can share it in the written report, while presenting the most dynamic information orally (as well as in written form). Consider adding graphs to illustrate data points in your favor.
Knock ’Em Dead
You may want to consider creating presentation slides of some of the most impactful points you’ll be making. Be careful not to fill each slide with multiple bullet points and clip art, though! You may want to consider tips from Nancy Duarte’s work.
Give ’Em Living, Breathing Examples
Each year at the State of the Union, the First Lady sits with a few invited guests of the President. Often, those people are used as success stories during the course of the speech. You can do the same thing by selecting a few students, alumni, or even community members who have been positively affected by your program. Bonus points if they can attend in-person at the meeting.
Maybe one of your students is a truly gifted performer, or an alumnus has gone on to attend a prestigious college or achieve fame and fortune. Maybe you even want to feature a short performance.
But don’t forget to highlight the “little” things, too—like the student who only came out of his shell after joining marching band, or the kid who was at risk of dropping out but didn’t want to miss music class. Consider asking current students and alumni to provide testimonials about their experience with your program and how they benefitted from staying involved.
One of the best ways to get someone on your side is to be generous. You give them something, and they’ll feel (often subconsciously!) indebted to you, and they’ll actively look for ways to (more than!) even the score. Hook up your administration and school board with tee shirts or other swag, accompanied by a handwritten note thanking them for their support of your program. Even if you present it to a school board member who has been —ahem— LESS than supportive of your program, being publicly thanked for their support will hopefully make them feel (again, often subconsciously!) like they have to stick with that “music supporter” label.
This sure sounds like a lot of work, but not all of it needs to be done right away. You can build up to it. Any efforts are better than none at all. Perhaps this year, you send or hand-deliver thank-you notes, or thank the administration and school board in person at their next meeting. Next year, you can work on pulling together the data for the Best Communities for Music Education Survey. But remember, any positive exchange with the decision-makers in your community will reap positive benefits, so look for opportunities! Invite them to a performance, or on a trip. Or even just take a moment to drop them an email, thanking them for their service to the district and for their support of music education. You’ll be glad you did.
While your State of the Music Program address probably won’t be attended by members of Congress or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it’s still a huge opportunity for you to recap each year and outline your vision. Maybe you’ll want to have members of your booster group regularly attend each school board meeting…just in case of emergency.) And no matter how it goes, at least you won’t have to endure a carefully crafted “opposition response!”
Originally posted on NAfME.org
Each year, your music program produces a new class of graduates. For four years, those students have dedicated their time, talents, and treasure to their music education. But their diploma doesn’t mean that their time — or their parents’ time — with your program has to end. By investing a bit of thought and effort into your alumni, you’ll reap the benefits of building a large, supportive community around your program. Don’t let these valuable relationships slip through your fingers!
One more responsibility to juggle, one more hat to wear. If you build it right, though, your alumni efforts can be self-sustaining — and mostly hands-off for you! The reason your alumni and their parents are so valuable to your program is because they GET IT. They know exactly what you do and why you do it, and why music education is so important. They’ve been through it.
After four years, they know, like, trust, and thoroughly understand the value of music education, specifically your music program.
After four years, they’ve stored a lot of knowledge about your program that often isn’t tapped efficiently — or at all.
After four years, they are already in the HABIT of contributing to your organization. Take advantage of that! Habits can be a strong ally in this situation.
After four years, they’ve developed a strong emotional connection to your program and the people in it. Don’t be afraid to tug on those heartstrings to get your alumni to help bolster your music program for years to come!
The first step is finding a volunteer or two to spearhead these efforts. Key skills include talking to other alumni (you want someone who can really work a room!), as well as handling administrative and communications tasks. Once you’ve found the right people for the job, here’s where to start.
As soon as possible, start collecting data. That may sound cold and clinical, but it’s the first step to maintaining a warm relationship with your alums. You can‘t have a relationship if you can’t find these people, so start to build systems to collect this information so you can keep in touch with them from here on out.
There are a lot of options available to you, including sophisticated donor management systems, but you can start with a plain old spreadsheet. Here are some of the fields you should include:
You may also want to make note of the following information:
Who’s your employer?
Many employers provide matching funds when an employee donates to a nonprofit. Or if your program solicits sponsorships, having someone with contacts “on the inside” can be invaluable to creating the perfect partnership.
How would you like to be contacted?
This is a great way to find out what channels your alumni prefer to use, so be sure to ask how they would like to be contacted by you, and how often they’d like to hear from you. Any unwanted communications are considered spam by the recipient, and you don’t want your information to fall into that category. Some may want only emails, while others may want to hear from you on Tumblr or check out YouTube videos, and yet another might want to receive a text message anytime your group performs nearby.
When you collect this information, make it easy on your alumni. If it’s difficult, or a pain to do, people won’t do it, even if they fully support what you do. For this year’s graduates, it might just mean exporting their existing data into your new spreadsheet. For others, it might mean having them handwrite their information onto a form at your next performance or event. It might be you calling the last phone number you have for them, and asking them for this information over the phone. Or perhaps it’s a link shared on social media to a web page where they can fill out the information online.
Based on the information you collect and the resources available to you, decide how you’ll continue to communicate with your alumni going forward. Email? Social media? Text message? Snail mail? Phone?
Whichever methods you choose, set up a plan to communicate regularly and consistently. Maybe a quarterly newsletter is sufficient. Or perhaps during marching season when so much is happening, your alumni would like monthly or even weekly updates!
Once you set up your communications plan, find ways to keep your alumni involved. Continue to ask them for their contributions on a regular basis. That might be as simple as asking them to post a photo for you to feature on #ThrowbackThursday, or to spend time training a new parent on the volunteer position that they used to hold.
If they’re local, have them actively advocate for your music program. The word of a tax-paying alum goes a long way in front of the school board. Alumni are close enough to your program to be credible sources, but not so close that people will assume that they will benefit directly from the program. This is what makes them perfect advocates. In fact, you should consider encouraging your alumni to run for school board!
Sometimes parents are so grateful for what music did for their own child that they’d continue to sacrifice financially so that another child can also benefit from your music program. They could sponsor a student individually, contribute toward expenses, or spearhead a scholarship program. Have your alumni contribute toward giving students the same great experience that they had in your program. In return, invite them to attend your performances, or drop in on a rehearsal.
Think of ways that you can utilize the loyalty of your alumni for the benefit of your music program. Consider challenging your crosstown rival.
We all know that there are often friendly section rivalries, so take advantage of those as well. Challenge the brass to take on the woodwinds, or high brass against low brass. See which section can raise the most money in exchange for bragging rights. Or if you know you need a new sousaphone, for example, you may want to target low brass alumni who would be more likely to contribute to that fundraising campaign.
Consider providing a menu of donation opportunities. It’s so much more satisfying to donate when donors know exactly what their dollars will buy. For example, a $10 donation buys an incoming freshman a band camp t-shirt. Fifty bucks buys five cans of spray paint for the props. Seventy-five dollars covers the cost of a tank of gas for the equipment truck. Or $1,000 pays for one school bus for a local competition.
So many involved alumni parents feel heartbroken when their child is leaving the program, and they may feel like they’ll have to give up volunteering for you. Let them know that they can (and should!) continue to contribute and volunteer.
Have former students come back and volunteer. You spent four long years showing them how it’s done, so let them pay it forward. They can be teaching assistants during band camp, or they can fill in volunteer spots at events while current parents watch their students perform.
(IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Please make sure not to allow alumni to crowd out current parents from volunteer opportunities. While it’s tempting to go with the long-time volunteer that’s tried, true and reliable, choosing an alumni parent to volunteer over current parents just teaches an entire generation of current parents that their help isn’t needed. To ensure the strength of your program now and for years to come, you need to engage as many current and alumni parents and volunteers as possible!)