A couple of years ago I heard students with special needs perform at a music conference – in some cases very profoundly special needs. The focus and determination these kids showed was huge. Deaf students who loved playing music and loved having access to it through some very hard working and talented teachers. These students were fabulous and inspiring. The sign language choir had me sobbing!

So what are my students excuses?! I went back to school and had entitled students having to be begged to play in ensembles. It really grated!

I think we should start putting up a few more hurdles! It is true that you don’t appreciate something unless you have to work hard to get it. Are we making it too easy for our students to access music? Would they appreciate it more if we told them to come back once they had done some practice? Should student need to audition to get into our elite ensembles instead of making them compulsory and chasing kids when they don’t turn up?  Should it be made known that the senior music class only has a certain number of places? You will notice a lot of question marks and they are genuine questions.

I once had a trombone student get down on his knees and beg me to teach him privately.  This guy was keen. I told him I would take him, but if he hadn’t practiced, I would send him to wait at the end of the driveway in the cold. I never had to, and he went on to pass his grade 8 with distinction. He knew that I was doing him a favour (not the other way around) and so he appreciated his lessons.

I really think that we spend too much time trying to get students, and Principals and parents for that matter, to consider music important instead of just assuming we have a fabulous product that they will want. We have to have this assumption in everything we say and do. Our mindsets, actions and department philosophy has to shout this out before it will change in others. We have what our students want and need – access to music. NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND!

Starting points:

  • Students who haven’t attended regular rehearsals do not play in the gig. No matter how good they are.
  • Have one year where your senior ensembles are smaller, and you tell a few musicians that they are not good enough yet.
  • Never beg students. You can encourage but draw a line. If they say no, say ‘your loss’ and walk away
  • Tell students that there is a waiting list (you might need to work on this bit) to take their place.
  • Make sure all rehearsals are planned, fun, challenging and worthwhile. (This is assumed)

In community music the easiest seats to fill are the flute players. As a consequence, our flute section is the most reliable in the orchestra. They show up every week. One of them just had twins, she only took a couple of months off before she was back in fear of losing her seat!

So maybe the key to growing our departments is making our classes and ensembles harder to get into – not easier. Make our standards higher – not lower, spending a bit more time saying ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’. Have it be known that music is for kids who work hard and understand that it is something special which students want to have access to it and will work hard to get.

The special needs kids performing for me already understand this.