High school bands are shrinking and band directors are baffled.
Decatur High School Band Director Robbie Stout said his band dropped from 91 members in 2000 to 64 this year.
“We’re trying to find the answer,“ he said. “It’s very concerning.”
Stout figures he loses students between middle school and high school, but he isn’t sure why. He is researching the problem by analyzing his membership for each year over the decade he has directed DHS’s band and talking to former students to get their take on the situation.
“Economics are a big part of it,” Stout said. “Instruments can be expensive, some are around $1,000, and a lot of kids can’t afford them.”
Unlike sports programs, which typically charge only a fee for participation, band students are often responsible for all of the band’s expenses, including pricey uniforms and trips, and fundraisers can go only so far.
Band can also present scheduling conflicts for students. Stout said families with single parents are becoming more common, and more students have after-school jobs.
“There’s this small majority of students at every school that do everything,” Stout said. “If 40 percent of students are the only ones doing anything extracurricular, then you’ve got a limited clientele.”
The missing link between middle school and high school could be a resurgence of an old problem. A 1994 study by professors at the University of Miami’s School of Music interviewed 50 band directors and found the same economic and scheduling issues Stout did. But the most common reason for dropouts was a student’s “lack of commitment to work.”
Middle school programs are little more than one period a day and a few concerts a year, whereas high school marching band programs include daily after-school practices, Friday-night football games and weekend competitions during football season.
“It can wear a kid out,” Stout said.
Brewer High School Band Director Doug Farris is trying to keep middle-schoolers’ interest by forming the bands at Brewer’s four feeder schools into one band called the “Patriot Cadets.”
“It’s to give them a sense of being in a big group,” he said.
Brewer’s band had 120 students in 2004. Today it has 100.
The Brewer band also takes trips to vacation destinations like New Orleans or Chicago. There is usually a big band event in those cities — Brewer has marched down Main Street at Walt Disney World — but band members also have plenty of fun as a way to generate buzz and entice incoming freshmen.
Farris said schools have more extracurricular options than 10 years ago, which creates competition for band, specifically citing Brewer’s new robotics program. More academic demands on students can also mean less time for activities outside of the classroom.
“Kids just have too much to do,” he said. “cellphones weren’t as prevalent 10 years ago, and there were fewer clubs and organizations to be involved in.”
Decatur Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols directed Austin High School’s band for 10 years. He said many bands’ populations have diminished, but it’s not fair to say the problem is universal.
“A lot of bands have grown, like West Morgan,” he said. “If a school has 10 percent of its students in band, that’s average.”
Austin High has one of the largest bands in north Alabama. At its peak it had 250 members. Now it has around 175.
Nichols said there are some challenges, particularly increasingly difficult graduation requirements. He said one way to increase enrollment is to change activity schedules to avoid competition between programs, particularly music programs. One idea the school system is considering is to allow band and choral students to participate in both programs.
“Dance could be an option later, too,” he said.
Nichols said band — like most extracurricular activities — teaches kids to work as a team.
“There’s a competitive nature in every kid,” he said. “They want to know what they’re doing matters.”
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