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The ABCs of Engaging with Music Educators

There are no shortcuts when it comes to building trusting, long-term relationships

By Kirk Young
From The Harmonizer, Jan/Feb 2018

Do area music educators respond well to your chapter's outreach efforts? If not, rest assured that it probably has little to do with whether these educators have a cooperative nature or whether they like barbershop harmony. Instead, it likely has everything to do with whether you have paid the price to earn the educators' trust.

I have an unusual perspective on this. Not only have I been both a Barbershopper and a music educator for decades, but as a past BHS staff member I visited more than 100 chapters and observed the results of their outreach efforts. I saw various successful approaches, and I've also seen many Barbershoppers who had the best of intentions but the worst of methods.

I've also lost count of the number of educators with whom I've discussed the way Barbershoppers perform outreach. I can tell you that until you earn a music educator's trust, your chapter will be seen as little more than one among many entities vying for their attention. The process that follows outlines how to stand out, build trust, and truly help music educators in their mission to change lives through singing.

1. Before asking "how," ask "why"

A chapter has to do some soul-searching before contacting a school or a music teacher. If your end-goal is to recruit young men into your chapter, stop right now. Membership growth is for a different chapter committee doing a different kind of outreach -- and definitely among a different pool of candidates. Youth Outreach is about giving with no strings attached. Any other motive, and teachers will shut you out.

Be certain that music educators have no reason to infer that your motive is to:

  • recruit their students and/or steal away their best male voices
  • use their auditorium for a discount or for free
  • compete with the music educator in the community
  • evaluate the music education program or alter the curriculum
  • "force" this teacher to like and use barbershop in their program

You need not downplay your chapter's love of barbershop, but educators must be confident that your help is unconditional. Yes, they'll get to know barbershop as they get to know you, and high-quality barbershop sells itself. But music educators need to come to barbershop on their own terms. Never forget that your mission is to help music educators change lives through singing -- on their terms, with no strings attached.

2. Understand the realities of music education

Don't expect much success if you simply show up and say, "We're here to help your program!" Music educators hear that from others all the time, and most have been burned. To stand out as different, you have to be different.

Recognize that each music educator already has a vision for their program, and much of it is dictated by state and district curriculum standards. This is not your program to take over. No strings attached means that you believe the music educator knows best how to run their program and you will support them 100%.

3. Determine chapter interest

Once chapter leaders are of the same mind, survey member interest in Youth Outreach. If there is at least 80% buy-in, proceed.

Active or passive program? A "passive" program can just be monetary donations to a local school. An "active" program requires research, member involvement, traveling, support, logistics, and more.

4. Conduct Demographic Research

A. Look at your chapter roster. Are there any member or family connections to surrounding school districts?

B. Look at your area. Which schools are near the bulk of chapter membership?

C. Cross-reference connections. Are there any relationships between 1 and 2? Does anyone in the chapter know an administrator/teacher/staff in the building personally? Have a professional relationship with the school district? Have students at the school? If one school stands out, this is likely your target school. Otherwise, do more demographic research.

D. Don't visit the school yet. "Cold sales calls" do not work with music teachers. Teachers are inundated each week with phone calls, emails, letters, pamphlets and flyers from travel companies, fundraising companies, attire companies, music sales and more. You don't want to become just another flyer to ignore or a letter to be thrown in the trash.

E. Do some online research. Research the arts departments of area high schools. Look at the program types, enrollment, faculty numbers, the number of choirs and concerts. Do they host musicals? Do they have a band or orchestra? Is the program thriving or struggling?

F. See which schools stand out. Cross-reference your school data to the chapter's intended program and narrow down candidates to a maximum of four or five schools; then you need to take some road trips.

5. Conduct field research

The following tasks are to be completed without ever speaking to a music teacher. It is important that you be knowledgeable about the program prior to initiating the relationship. At this point in the process, your chapter still has nothing substantial to offer, and you might damage your chances by pushing the wrong way.

A. Attend an upcoming concert for each school. Find a calendar online or at the school. It should not matter whether that concert is choral, instrumental, orchestral, combined, or even a musical. Have teams each attend as a discovery mission. Do not dress in chapter uniforms, wear name tags, or even bring recruitment materials.

B. Take copious notes. Get copies of all programs, handouts, materials. Note everything you see at the concert, both positive and otherwise. Does the school have a music or arts booster program? What is the state of the risers, stands, chairs, chair robes, music folders, stage, curtain, concert programs, sound system? Who is in the audience -- parents, community members, administration from the school, other students? Are there snack tables, ticket tables, ushers? What is the bearing of the students -- decorum, involvement, attitude, attire?

C. Leave when the concert is finished. Do not try to introduce yourself to the teacher, and do not try to talk to the kids or invite them to the chapter. You are on their turf. If educators or parents see some strange person hanging around and trying to talk to the young men in the chorus, this can paint your organization in a horrible light. Moreover, "sales pitches" at a school-sponsored event may be a form of solicitation that could be met with legal action.

D. Pick a target school. Gather all of the data and find the program that best fits your chapter's paradigm. Unless your chapter has greater resources than most, it is best to pick only one school as a "target school."

Note: While the demographic and field research steps may be unnecessary in some cases, the "Target School Research" steps are vital -- even if the music educator is a member of your chapter! Attend the concerts, write the letters, and do the homework needed to learn how to truly help the program. There's no other way for the chapter at large to gain an accurate picture of the program, and these steps speak volumes to educators.

6. Research your target school

Begin research again, this time specific to your target school.

A. Attend every musical event at the school. Marching band, concerts, choral, jazz, instrumental, musicals, talent shows, fundraising concerts, guest artists, student recitals. Observe the entire music program -- the choral program does not exist in isolation. As before, no chapter uniforms, no name tags, nor attempts to recruit anyone, parents included.

B. Take copious notes. Similar to step D of Field Research, but getting a more thorough understanding of the overall health of the program. Add the following two observations: How well does the school support the program? Did you see the concert advertised in the local media?

C. Leave when each concert is finished. Same as above, and for the same reasons. But after these concerts, your chapter will head in a different direction than with the first round of field research.

D. Compile your notes. Create an organized, detailed file of observations about your target school.

7. Contact the educator in writing

The day after each of the above concerts, draft a letter of appreciation from the chapter to each participating music teacher. Thank them for such a wonderful concert, and name a specific song or moment that shows you attended. Tell them how proud you are to have such a strong music department in your community and how much you appreciate their hard work. Use a colorful closing and have the president of the chapter sign it.

This letter should not include a request to come in and sing for the kids or have them sing on your show. You are only beginning to establish trust and intention. Your letters show your knowledge and support of their work. Trying to insert yourself into their curriculum, particularly at this early stage, undermines your intention of trust and shows them you don't truly care what they are trying to accomplish.

This letter should not include anything but accolades and appreciation for the teacher and the students. Avoid sharing how reducing vibrato or better tuning is just a chapter away! This letter promotes their program only -- not yours. Send copies to the music teacher's department head, principal, superintendent, the local school governing board and the school's local newspaper.

Continue to send letters like this after each concert throughout the entire school year. Soon the educator will recognize your chapter's logo, president's name, and actually wonder what your organization is about. That is the perfect position to be in at the end of the school year -- and attending a year's worth of events is important. No single concert or season will give your chapter the full picture of what this program is trying to accomplish.

8. End of Year Action

A. Consolidate what you've learned. Gather all your field research, demographics, visitations and notes to construct a total picture of the school's music program. Look for trends and identify an area where you can assist the school.

B. Put your money where your mouth is. The quickest way into a teacher's heart is money. Period. Nothing else will endear you quicker. Write an end-of-year summary letter to this teacher and introduce your chapter. Tell them about your mission and passion to support music education. Tell them how much you've enjoyed their body of work this past school year and that you want to help.

C. Provide needed resources. Here's the kicker: Send a big, fat donation check in this envelope, and tell the music teacher that you noticed an upcoming trip, or their need for choir robes or a better microphone. Perhaps the jazz band needed a new bari saxophone, or they needed a good concert program -- anything that would require money. Give them this donation -- no strings attached -- to spend on what you've mentioned or however else they see fit. Show them how happy you are to offer this financial help.

D. Keep it all about them. Use a snappy closing and with them luck! That's it. As with the other letters, this letter should not include a request to sing for the kids, recruitment or show information -- nothing but accolades and appreciation for the teacher and students. You must work to establish that you're there to support the teacher. There is nothing in it for you. The teacher can't feel threatened, moved-in-on, used, or manipulated.

E. Share sincere praise with others. Send a different letter to the department head, principal, superintendent, local school governing body and the local media. Detail how hard this teacher has worked, how brilliant the students are, how lucky this district is to have such a fine program, and your appreciation as a community musical organization for the fine music education happening with your children and families. Send a copy of this letter to the music teacher.

Following this path will allow you to contact the teacher directly the following school year. He/she will welcome your contact, if only to thank you for your support.

9. Now contact the music educator directly

Keep doing what you did before. Schools can change a great deal from year to year. Keep sending a chapter team to each musical event, and keep gathering the same kind of data. This year, though, there is another level. Now that you have established a rapport with the teacher, you can offer assistance.

Offer help specific to their needs. Using last year's data, offer something small to the teacher for every concert. Offer to create their concert programs, help with room monitoring at the spring solo and ensemble contest, usher, set up or clean up -- to sell concessions and give all the money to the school. Offer 10 guys to be at the beck and call of the music teacher, or something else that is suggested by your data.

After you send this letter/email, wait for a response. Take a breath, and wait.

If the teacher responds in the affirmative, that's awesome. If the teacher says "No, thanks," move on to another school. But if you do this right, I can't think of a single teacher I know who wouldn't take you up on your offer. More importantly, this teacher will talk to his/her other teacher friends about you and your support. Pretty soon, teachers will be calling you and asking for your help.

Because no strings are attached, music educators will feel safe exploring other potential collaborations that may boost their program. No matter what, you're now a music educator's ally. Educators can discover barbershop harmony at a pace that suits them as you boost their program and help them change more lives through singing.

It is all about the process and the relationship.