What your school orchestra director REALLY wants for the holidays!
by Julie Tebbs
For the last couple of months I have been volunteering in my son's beginning orchestra class. It has been an eye-opening experience.
There are 85 students and 2 teachers in this class, and I can see daily how hard the teachers work to try to reach each child. With a 42 to 1 ratio, they have been given a near impossible task. This tugs at my heartstrings almost daily. I love to watch these 4th grade students with their energy and excitement, and I've been wondering how I can help the teachers do their job in the best way possible.
So we sent out a survey to school orchestra directors across the country asking what gifts they most enjoy and what they need to make their job easier and/or more enjoyable. The results were wonderfully candid and helpful. We're excited to share with you what we can all do to help our school orchestra directors.
38 directors decided to help us with the survey. Of these, 6 were male and the rest female. Most of them (58%) taught 3-5 different orchestra groups. The size of the groups were mostly (45%) less than 20 children, 42% had 20-50 students, and 1 of the directors had over 100 students per group! Wow.
Our survey was brief (directors have no extra time), and hopefully to the point. When given a list of typical teacher gifts, 73% of our directors chose gift certificates as their most preferred gift. They would like these certificates to come from Restaurants (28%), Coffee shops (25%), or Book stores (22%). They also chose candy/chocolate (27%) and books (32%) as favorite gifts from the given list. They often mentioned that the most popular and appreciated gift was simply a handwritten thank you note from the student or parent!
When we asked open ended questions, I think we started to see real issues these teachers are facing. We asked what other gifts they would most like to receive, and what did they wish they could ask for from parents. The top 3 responses were, strings/accessories, donate money to the orchestra program, and volunteers to help tutor students or help maintain the music program.
One teacher mentioned they would love to have a stockpile of Kun, Viva Musica, or even Zarrett Sponge shoulder rests for students who can't get one, and a stockpile of Xeros endpin stoppers for cello and bass players who can't get one. Having strings on hand for quick changes also can help the director keep the focus on the music.
Volunteering was mentioned by many directors. One director would love to have, "sectional coaches/ other professionals who could come to work with my students in a small group setting." This is a great way for private teachers to find students and at the same time give support to the school orchestra teachers. If you are a string player, you can run sectionals, help struggling students, or simply help tune the beginners and replace fallen cello bridges! If you are a parent, there are many ways you can donate time to your director and make his/her life much easier. Just ask for a job! One teacher needed a parent to help keep the music organized. Another teacher specifically mentioned, "I would love for [parents] to volunteer to help out with something ahead of time, not [just] show up for an event (by then, it's usually too late)."
Many teachers requested that parents provide private lessons for their children and guided practice sessions at home. It's interesting to me that these requests were mentioned on a survey about gifts. By helping your child learn, you are giving your director (and your child!) a great gift.
Then just to complete the bigger picture, we also asked, "If money were no object, what is the one thing that would most help you in teaching your orchestra classes?" The top responses were, better facilities, practice rooms, more administrative support. This wish list is of course hard to come up with, but by knowing that they need better facilities and better support, you get a sense of the size of their job.
They also mentioned some large ticket items that would be very helpful to their orchestras but are hard to afford. These included, cello chairs, pre-paid field trips, computers and software, video recorder, theory books for everyone, and more music stands. Someone also said they would love to have "A nice double podium set from Wenger! Or surgery to make myself about six inches taller. Either one would help my students see me better."
Some of these items could be accomplished by pooling parent resources or reaching out to the community for donations. Ask your director what is on his/her wish list, then start thinking creatively and see what you can come up with. One director had no big ticket items on their wish list because parents had gotten together and bought the director a $400 laptop. That was one happy teacher.
One final word from a wise orchestra director, "The greatest gift I could wish for would be for parents to help their children continue in music and not let them quit . . . parents need to help kids continue in music throughout their schooling and not quit when the going gets tough."