Girl Scout tricks: What music teachers can learn about retention from scouting
Who would have thought that my experiences and the training I received as a Girl Scout leader would influence my approach to piano teaching? Good retention is as important to the Scouts as it is for piano teachers. Teens everywhere are busier than ever, and it's increasingly difficult to fill the spaces they leave in our schedules when they drop out. I soon found that what was successful in my scout troop also worked in my piano studio. As with most advice, not all of it works for everyone but I encourage you to try a few new ideas and see what works for you.
Girl Scout leaders are encouraged to give teens more choices and a stake in decision-making to acknowledge their growing need for independence. Rather than asking my troop open-ended questions like "What would you like to do this year?," I tried surveys and offered several pre-screened choices. In my piano studio I experimented with giving older students more choice in the repertoire they played. Rather than trying to "sell" one particular piece, I tried playing through several vetted pieces for my students and involved them in the decision. Sometimes I send home repertoire to play through during the week so students have more time to decide. In the late spring and summer I let students choose anything they would like to work on. A Beatles' piece? Für Elise? Now is the time.
Most of my scouts proudly displayed the badges they earned on their vests. These recognitions helped them recall favorite activities, and the growing line of yearly participation pins was a source of pride.
I've noticed that the pins, certificates, composer busts, and trophies my piano students earn for completing piano examinations are also tangible signs of progress. In my studio I've added a mounted plaque with engraved names of students who complete the top level in piano exams and another for those students who present a senior recital. Younger students are eager to discuss what they need to do to add their name to a plaque.
Over time, I observed that service projects were quite meaningful for my Girl Scouts. Attendance was high when it involved an activity where they felt they were making a difference. My piano students also like to participate in service work, and they have especially enjoyed performing in informal programs at local nursing and rehab homes. One of my special needs students was thrilled at the thought that he might brighten someone's day by playing a few of his piano pieces. Some of my students have volunteered as monitors for our state piano exams. They like receiving documentation of their time to help fulfill religious and honor society requirements, and parents are thrilled to see their children using their music in practical ways.
While scout troop activities are almost always social in nature, piano lessons can be a lonely affair. Monthly group lessons have always been part of my studio, but I also found myself adding field trips modeled after scouting activities. I've arranged group seats at piano concerts featuring young professionals and group picnics at music festivals. Field trips to play early instruments were well received. These occasional excursions have been fun for me as well!
My Girl Scout Brownies started out meeting weekly after school, but with busy schedules in middle school, our meetings moved to evenings and weekends. In high school, I resorted to email surveys and texts to try to find a quorum. While it's not always possible to adjust my piano studio to that extent, I do my best to try to accommodate the schedules of my older students. Given a choice between swim team and attending piano lessons, I think I know which way most of my students lean, so I'd rather not ask them to choose.
Most teens are risk takers, and scouting leaders are encouraged to offer opportunities for risks that are relatively safe—think sky-diving or extreme camping. I wondered if my piano students would also take a risk? I've tempted students with pieces several levels beyond their comfort zone, and I've been pleasantly surprised when a few will steam ahead, motivated by the challenge. When a piece is polished, I sometimes encourage students to see just how FAST they could play and still make musical sense. Not all of my Girl Scouts were excited to rock-climb, and not all of my piano students appreciate a push, but it's worth a try on occasion to see who might grab on and take the leap.
Scouts are encouraged to re-register in the spring, and they are rewarded with a patch—even though their dues are not paid until the end of September. I could clearly see the value of asking for a commitment while they were still engaged. I started passing out a list of the year's activities and earned badges right before sending home the registration forms, just to remind them of all they had accomplished.
I've found that it's also a good idea to ask your private students to register and pay a deposit in the spring. It forces families to commit early and makes them think twice about losing their deposit if they are waffling in the fall. If they do decide to drop, you will have bought some time to fill the hole in your schedule. It occurred to me that my piano students also forget what they've accomplished during the year, so I try my best to write year-end evaluations highlighting what went well while also noting goals for the year ahead. I try to plan for an exciting recital piece so they are playing something they enjoy around the time I'm asking whether they will continue in the fall.
I started out leading a troop of twenty little Brownies who happily sold cookies and earned badges, and I ended with seven teen Ambassadors who struggled to find time even for the camping trips they loved.
I know that in spite of all my strategies and hard work, it's inevitable that I will also lose a few piano students. I hope that they will frame this decision as "taking a break" rather than "dropping forever" and that they will return to lessons sometime as an adult. I have heard it said that Girl Scouts who sell cookies for even one year are more likely to buy cookies as an adult. It's my dream that my former piano students, who have studied for many years, will encourage their children to also learn to play the piano—and perhaps buy some Girl Scout cookies, too!