STARTING A SCHOOL BAND WITH NEXT TO NO BUDGET
When I became Principal at Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary High School, a small High School of 420 students, I dreamed of having a school that fully supported the arts. It is my philosophy that students become personally, only when they have been exposed to a full spectrum of personal growth, including, but traditional academics, both team and individual support of parents in values formation, a range of subjects in the visual arts and, last but most certainly not least, musical education.
We excelled in all but the latter. We had a couple of musically talented faculty who sang and performed at school events, but no formal music program. Every time we tried to start a choral group after school or during a "0" period it failed. A few students showed up only to drift off after it turned "boring" and/or not what they had in mind. As far as a band was concerned, forget it. The cost of instruments, uniforms, etc for a small school in an economically impacted community made it completely out of the question. At least, that was my first conclusion. There are a number of charities that support high school music programs, and while I would highly encourage principals to take advantage of them sometimes, you just have to go it alone and the following explains how I did that
After my second year as principal I decided to take the leap and, for the first time in the fifty-year history of the school, start a course in Beginning Band. As with so many of my ideas, I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. Our enrollment had climbed to 500 so I had room for another elective. I decided to make it a band class. I put an ad in our large metropolitan newspaper for a teacher with a degree in music to start our band. When you take the plunge and there is no backing out, you get pretty inventive. I figured it would be relatively easy to find someone who would welcome the challenge of starting a band from scratch, however I forgot about the "very little money" part of our situation. It was tough to find anyone who would start a band with little in the way of resources to purchase instruments and no track record of music at the school.
The band director I hired initially was academically well prepared with a Teaching Credential and a Masters Degree in Music and Composition and some high school experience as an Assistant Director, but she quit us before school started to accept a position as Band Director in a larger school with an established band. Although I was disappointed, in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. The trick, I discovered, was to hire someone who had the skills, enthusiasm and a very strong desire, but not necessarily the formal "band" training in college one would expect of a band director. My initial hire's expectations were unrealistic and frankly more expensive than I could ever afford. My current band director is an incredibly talented man who is now living his dream to conduct a high school band, but whose degree is in business, not music. The key is enthusiasm, enthusiasm, and more enthusiasm, and nobody is more enthusiastic than a solid musician with the prospect of his or her own band. The kids fell in love with him and his enthusiasm and today would march through a wall of fire, playing the school "fight song" for him as they went into the flames. That is what you want. Someone who can motivate the students to go home and practice hard. Someone who will learn what they don't know because they love the idea of what they do. I know it can be done because I've done it twice now. If you can pull this off you will have a band director who will continue with you for years and years.
OK, now you have a director, but no instruments. Many of my students cannot afford to purchase musical instruments, but relative affluence, in my view, should not be a requirement to take band. We started asking around and found a music store that had a back room full of older, used instruments. We bought them all, about 30 assorted instruments, for $4,000. An expense to be sure, but at $130 instrument, a bargain. Charging the parents about $10 per month, a school can almost entirely recoup the investment the first year and one-third, and the school then owns the instruments to boot! Our parents have to buy books for some of our classes that cost more than this. By the time a principal has to explain such an expense in the budget, he or she has recovered almost all of the initial expense.
That is great for the first year if you can find an establishment with a roomful of old instruments. But what about the next few years when the school has added an intermediate and advanced band class. We currently have around 75 high school musicians soon to be 100 (out of a total enrollment now around 600). Our answer to this problem came from an idea of our current band teacher. Buying instruments outright was way too rich for our meager budget. But what we did was ask around for a special deal because we bought, or in our case, "rented to own," in bulk. We gave our intermediate and advanced classes, whose students were pretty sold on music by this time, the opportunity to rent their instruments from the school for $17 per month. We "rented to own" them for an average of $23/month with a special deal that we did not have to pay during the summer when our income was low. It costs the school only $6 per student for the first year and one half. After that, the school owns the instruments, and the money that is made by renting to the students can go toward paying for uniforms or other music expenses.
Although this is the Band Director's prerogative at our school, I would suggest a serious investment in drums. Drums are the most popular instrument by far and more students will want to play drums than anything else. It's a real battle for the Band Director. Therefore, the students should be willing to pay for the honor. You can rent them like the other instruments, but they will definitely be more expensive, and the students should be willing to pay the extra amount for the privilege. The main reason I mention it is because drums are the Principal's best friend. When the parents and students hear the band for the first time, they will be blown away. You as a principal will receive a lot of kudos for your decision to start a band. A healthy drum section that plays in synchrony (I cannot emphasize this enough) will drown out a whole lot of off-key brass that first year or so. I would encourage you to let the Band Director know how important a strong, loud, well-synchronized drum corps is to you. They should practice harder and longer than anyone else in the band. Nothing sounds better or is more impressive than to walk to the football stands from the parking lot to the sound of "Marching Toms" pounding away. You will feel chills up your spine.
Of course, some parents buy their instruments on their own for their kids. That's great and it takes a bit of a load off of the school. After a few years, though, the school will have a rich inventory of instruments, so that no student, no matter how economically impacted, is denied the opportunity to play an instrument. When the school owns the instrument it is easy to waive the monthly rental for a student who has real need. However, I always have the parent pay something even if it is only a couple of dollars per month. Parents take a great deal of pride in the fact that they helped their child with his or her new-found ability to play music and the instruments are better cared for if the parents pay something and know that they will be charged significantly more if there is damage to the instrument.
Band Uniforms are another challenge altogether. There is no way we could afford to outfit 50 or more students with uniforms that cost three or four hundred dollars apiece. Here is an area where local sponsorship can really help you, but even so, it is still way too expensive to start out with a bill for $24,000 for fancy band uniforms. I would suggest going simple. Black Docker slacks with a white Polo shirt, embroidered with the band logo is plenty. A simple cap is fine. There are a lot of band competitions that will give your band tremendous competitive experience where the fancy, frou-frou uniforms are not required. The band can be organized as a Jazz band, not a marching band. This will save a bundle of money in uniforms. Of course, as the band grows in ability and reputation, expensive uniforms may be needed. When that happens, years down the line, you'll most likely have more parental monetary support for the band and the addition to your budget will not be such a problem. Being a member of your school band, when it sounds good and other students look up to its members (which they eventually will), will be a highly sought after privilege, one that parents are willing to pay for. Just look at how much parents pay for their sons and daughters to be cheerleaders. God help the Dad who won't fork over the cash so his little girl can be a cheerleader. That's the kind of atmosphere you want to develop for the band.
There is no greater legacy you can leave your school than to start a successful band program. You will have given those students who learn an instrument a gift they will treasure all of their lives as they continue to play their instruments in community orchestras and bands, Church groups and just playing for their own enjoyment. You will reap tremendous rewards as the Principal who started something special at which no one else was successful, and you will have done so without breaking the back of your school budget. Believe me, it can be done. There were a few bumps in the road, but nothing that ever made me feel that I might have over-reached. When you see your student conductor raise her baton to play for the parents and the school, you will have a sense of pride and accomplishment that nothing else you have done for your school can surpass.
David Chambers, Principal
C.S.H.M. High School