Teacher Perceptions regarding Attrition in Beginning Instrumental Music Classes during the First Year of Study

Article excerpt

The purposes of this study were to explore the factors teachers believe influence students' decisions to drop out of instrumental music during the first year of study; to compare the beliefs of band and orchestra teachers, as well as teachers in different demographic regions, regarding these factors; and finally to compare the actual first-year attrition rates in regard to ensemble type, scheduling method, and demographic area. Fifty-one randomly selected instrumental music teachers in Ohio completed a researcher-designed questionnaire. The participants indicated that unwillingness to spend time practicing and poor academic performance were major causes of attrition. Rural teachers were significantly less likely to cite scheduling conflicts as a cause of attrition. No significant differences were found between the responses of band and orchestra teachers. Programs that pulled students out of the regular classroom for lessons had significantly higher attrition rates than those with a dedicated lesson time.

Student participation in school instrumental music programs is a core concern for many music educators (Covington, 1983; Brown, 1996). Issues of recruiting, continuing involvement, and student attrition are of special interest to the instrumental music teacher, because most band and orchestra programs in United States public schools are elective. Furthermore, in order for an instrumental music program to be successful and provide high-quality musical experiences for its members, teachers need a strong base of returning students in order to spiral the development of their skills and knowledge year after year (Brown, 1996). The very survival of an instrumental music program may depend on the teacher's ability to recruit and retain a certain number of students.

The elective nature of most instrumental music programs in the United States means that students may discontinue instruction at almost any time, although patterns do exist. It has been noted, for instance, that changes in building or grade level often result in elevated attrition rates (Hartley, 1996). Even highly successful music programs are plagued to some degree by attrition (Sandene, 1997). Dropout rates in a study by Brakel (1997) ranged from 23% to 75%. A clear understanding of how and why students make participation decisions regarding instrumental music instruction is vital for teachers striving to build and maintain programs at any level. While much of the extant research has focused on students who drop instrumental music instruction after long periods of involvement, there may be considerable numbers of students who drop out during the first year of instruction.

Recruitment and Retention

Many teachers experience little difficulty recruiting beginning instrumentalists, as young students are often enthusiastic to participate in band or orchestra (Covington, 1983). However, after the initial excitement of beginning an instrument, the first year of instruction may become quite challenging for students. Frequently, they are expected to learn to read music notation while simultaneously developing basic physical performance skills by committing to a disciplined practice schedule. This, combined with the end of the initial "honeymoon" period of excitement, can result in frustration and discouragement for the new student (Brown, 1996) and concerns of retention for the teacher. The vulnerability of beginning students was noted by Riddle (1995): "Prospective directors must realize that there will be students who will quit band as quickly as they joined" (p. 7).

The problem of attrition is a complex one, further complicated by the fact that teachers, parents, and students often do not agree on which factors have the greatest influence on participation and dropout decisions (Brown, 1985; Martignetti, 1965; Sandene, 1997; Brown, 1996). In the Gemeinhardt Report 2 (1985), for instance, students usually cited loss of interest and schedule conflicts, both curricular and extracurricular, as the primary reasons for dropping out. …