Tips and Tricks for Building Music Programs in Rural Areas
How to Maintain a Rigorous Music Program
By NAfME Member Christopher L. Clark, PhD
Chris Clark presented on “Tips and Tricks for Building Music Programs in Rural Areas” during the NAfME 2021 PreK–12 Learning Collaborative in February 2021.
The Southern Berkshire Regional School District (SBRSD) is a “Best Community for Music Education” designated small, rural district in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Five towns bus their students to one central campus in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Total student enrollment is <700 students in the district. However, at the secondary level, 45-50% of the student body is enrolled in the music program depending on the year. Many students are accepted to regional and state honor ensembles, and most continue performing in some capacity after graduation. Due to our structure, we can offer a wide variety of music offerings to our students. This post will explain how the music program is set up, then offer some tips and tricks to building and maintaining music departments in rural areas.
The key to our program is the three specialist teachers. Thus, the elementary general music teacher teaches only elementary general music, grades PreK–5. The band director teaches only band (and two electives) grades 5–12. The choir director teaches only choir (and three rotating electives) grades 3–12. Rather than having a high school “music” teacher that excels in one area and gets by in others, we have three faculty who excel in their areas but teach them across a wide age range.
The musical options available for students is significant as well. Every student takes general music grades PreK–5. All 3rd and 4th grade students also take chorus. Starting in 5th grade, students can choose to take band, chorus, or both. This choice continues through high school (many students take both band and chorus). In high school, students can also choose to do jazz band, treble pop a cappella group, bass pop a cappella group, madrigal ensemble, or electives such as History of Rock and Roll, Voice Class, Piano Class, Guitar Class, or Music Theater Class. Remember that this is all taught by three teachers. We do not have an orchestra program, as we do not feel that we can be successful in presenting it currently but do hope to add it sometime in the future.
Below are a few strategies that the music teachers at SBRSD use to maintain a rigorous program.
The Department Is a Team
The band and choral program share students, so it is imperative that both directors be on the same page in terms of flexibility and goals. The shared students go to chorus on odd days and band on even days. Teachers work out sharing the students if an ensemble needs an extra rehearsal before a performance. We fundraise, travel, and have banquets together. Without directors who have similar goals and respect for each other, teams cannot work.
Access Is Imperative
All students who desire should be able to take part in every aspect of a music program. A student’s financial situation should not determine their participation. In our area we have an organization that raises money for educational entities called The Berkshire Taconic Foundation. We apply for grants every year as we need it, from money to help students attend the bi-annual music trip, to new sound equipment. We also have some wealthy donors in the area (it is the Berkshires, after all), who might donate based on need. A fundamental philosophy to our program is that a lack of money should not stop a student from full participation.
Building Community Support
A community that supports the arts is imperative for small districts. The community should feel proud of the work that the music program is doing, and thus the program should give as many outreach concerts as feasible. We do a Jazz Band and Madrigal tour to local community and senior centers and perform at every gig we are asked. We use social media to celebrate the successes of the program and students. If the program is a part of the community, then the community will support it.
Our students are involved with EVERYTHING: sports, clubs, working, internships, outside of school music groups. Every adult who is involved in their lives must understand, be flexible, and work out issues beforehand. The more and sooner communication of events can occur, the better off everyone is. If a student has missed warm-ups to run in from baseball practice to the concert, that is fine. Be the person who can go with the flow, and eventually you will help direct the flow.
Small Things That Make a Big Difference
- Apply to the NAMM “Best Communities for Music Education” designation.
- Success begets success—if students feel successful, more will want to participate.
- Student enjoyment/participation is the best advocacy.
- When choosing instruments, students will be more excited if they can make a sound on the instrument.
- Making good music should always be secondary to making good people.
Approximately 1 in 5 Americans live in rural areas. Those students deserve the same quality of education as those in suburban and urban areas. Apply some of these tips and tricks to your rural music programs, and you will be building something that the community will be proud of.
About the author:
NAfME member Dr. Christopher L. Clark, PhD, is the Director of Choirs at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He received his PhD from The University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music, and a double Masters in Music Education and Choral Conducting from Bowling Green State University. Clark’s research interests include the intersection of choral music educators and their religiosity, group choral improvisation, and social justice. A 2013 Yale “Distinguished Music Educator,” Clark performs with Boston-based social justice choir, Voices 21C, and is a frequent guest clinician and presenter.
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August 12, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)