Building an Instrumental Program in Rural and Urban Schools

I Have the Job. Now What?

Building an Instrumental Program in Rural and Urban Schools

By NAfME Member Shane Colquhoun


After years of method classes, private lessons, and practicum classes you have finally made it to your first job. Or maybe you have made the decision to transfer schools and are now in a new teaching environment. Regardless of the circumstance, as an instrumental music director in secondary schools, what aspects of the job are more important than recruitment and retention? One could say making great music, and I would politely say “No students. No music”. Recruitment and retention present a challenge for even the most seasoned instrumental instructor.

This is especially true for teachers in urban and rural schools, where students may come from families that are below the poverty line, the school has access to minimal resources, and music education is not high a high priority. Through years of practice, I have adopted five areas that I believe are critical to building and maintaining a thriving music program. These ideas have allowed me to maintain an average of 25 % of the school’s population in my performance ensembles, and more importantly have helped me spread the art of music.

Before I ever conduct, I focus on building relationships. I was once told that “students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”. I talk to students about goals and about life, and every student knows that my door is always open. As I completed my end of the year reflections, one of the things that I shared with my principal that I was most proud of is that I have either a nickname or an individualized handshake for all 65 members of my band. On the surface it may seem trivial, but it’s amazing to see kids come to the band room every morning before classes start just to do their handshake.

The next few strategies deal with student-centered instruction. My idea of student-centered instruction is meeting the students where they are, while bringing them closer to where you want them to be. From that idea it is important for me to close the gap between how students experience music at home, and what students are being offered at school. The answer to this is to find a way to implement non-traditional and culturally-relevant music ensembles. As a teacher I often ask myself how students are engaging in music outside of my class and how I can incorporate their music?

The next strategy involves integrating technology. The obvious way to utilize technology is by creating an environment for students to compose their own music using computer software. In my classes we utilize Garage Band, Finale, Pro -tools and Propellearhead Reasons. However, we also use technology to encourage student performances. Currently, we use Google Hangouts On Air to record in-class playing tests, and we also use it to broadcast live performances on YouTube and Facebook.

This year, to capitalize on many of my student’s interest to learn piano, and to integrate technology, I instituted what we called “The Pop Music Ensemble”. The Ensemble consisted of electric keyboards, an Emu-Esi 400 synthesizer, an Electronic Drum set, an Electric Guitar, and a bass guitar. Although this ensemble was limited to 9 students, it completely revitalized interest in the program.


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The next step in building an instrumental program is to increase Student Ownership. Student leadership and student compositions are a huge part of our program. On a weekly basis we have 2-3 sectionals where rehearsals are student-led, and on a daily basis I allow a few selected students to warm up the ensemble. This structure was very hard at first, because I was accustomed to being in front. However, as I began to observe the pride students took in leading, as well as how this process motivated other students, it became routine.

Another way to encourage student ownership, is to frequently include students in the song selection process, and also encourage students to arrange and compose their own selections. In my band room one of the golden rules is “if you start it, I will finish it”. Meaning, if a student takes time to arrange or compose a song, I will help with the creative vision and arrange their work for the entire band. I also frequently arrange pop tunes using a song recommendation folder, and to choose concert literature we have listening parties where I will play 10-15 songs I’m considering for festival and students pick their favorite.


A visual to conceptualize this process of building an instrumental program looks like this:


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My goal every day in implementing the structure that we have in our program is to encourage students to be lifelong learners and musicians.

The most important question that I ask myself on a daily basis is, “How can I engage my students in learning music?” Curriculum and standards are still addressed, but I target them through student interest. Outstanding performances are a byproduct of the process; however, performance is not the end goal–learning is. My goal every day in implementing the structure that we have in our program is to encourage students to be lifelong learners and musicians.


About the author:

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Shane Colquhoun is an educator, producer, and arranger, and he currently serves as the Director of Bands at Loachapoka High School. He received his Bachelors of Arts from Bethune-Cookman University in Music Technology, his Master’s in Music Education from Auburn University, and has recently returned back to Auburn to pursue his Ph.D. in Music Education. His research interests include culturally relevant music ensembles, urban/suburban music education, and popular music pedagogy. He can be reached at


Shane Colquhoun will be presenting on his topic “I Have the Job – Now What? : Building an Instrument Music Program in Rural and Urban Schools” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today! 

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Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: . And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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