The 7 Principles of Drum Corps Recruiting and Retention

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Recruiting and retaining members are among the most difficult challenges any new or rebuilding drum corps will face.  Although this is a problem seen primarily in DCA and Division 2/3 DCI corps, a focus on the elements that make up a recruiting and retention program will help any corps be successful, regardless of its competitive stature (or lack thereof).

The fundamental principle behind it all has nothing to do with hanging up flyers in band rooms, or breaking Jeff Ream’s record for posting on Drum Corps Planet. The key to success is to focus on improving your member’s experience of being in the corps.

The #1 goal is to create a fun, rewarding, friendly and family environment that will make people want to return to your corps, regardless of the competitive outcome.

The following principles will help your recruiting and retention program. You may agree with all, some or none, perhaps your corps already incorporates a few. In any event, these steps will make the experience of marching more rewarding for your members, which will lead to a higher retention rate and recruiting success.

Principle 1.  Create Internal Social Ties.  Drum corps is family. You must encourage and help your members to meet people in other sections of the corps. If your members have more social ties, they will be less likely to leave, and more likely to return for another season. They will be less likely to leave, for example, if the two snare drummers on either side of them decide not to march.  Breaks and lunch schedules should be coordinated with all sections, with the occasional full-corps potluck lunch or pizza party. Save the staggered lunches for critical times of the season or when you only have one field, for example, because they kill as much as 75% of the potential social contact. The basic principle is that if a member has friends in the corps, they will likely return next season.

Rookies are intimidated at the first rehearsal.  It is your mission to make them feel welcome on Day 1.  Once at rehearsal, it falls on everyone – members and staff – to make the new members feel welcome.  As people join, introduce them to the corps, applaud their presence.  Making someone feel like they are on the team when they walk in the door will makes a difference. And ditch the “rookie” concept. Once someone is in the corps, they are in. Period. Finally, if somebody doesn’t return for a season for whatever reason, be nice to then. Invite them to rehearsal, to march in parades.  Do not shut the door, no matter how frustrated you are they didn’t come back. By taking this approach, you will stunned how many people eventually comeback.

Principle 2.   Include Family.  The primary reason a member gets pressure from their family “not” to march, especially DCA, is because their family is not included in the experience. The solution is to proactively include your family in the experience, any way that you can. Make your member’s family feel welcome at ALL rehearsals, and even host events during the year such as Family Day, Open House or a picnic where the corps plays the show for family and friends, and everyone gets to interact. This will help keep family pressure at a minimum and keep people in the corps. Along this line of reasoning, the Renegades allowed anyone in a member’s family to buy a Renegades corps jacket. They were also making a huge sacrifice, yeah?

Principle 3.   Zero Staff Conflict.  No matter what the issue is, there must be no staff conflict in front of the corps, and your staff must be 100% supportive of one another in front of the corps. A staff in conflict will hurt morale, and lead your members to question the staff. If a contentious issue comes up, deal with it in a professional manner—away from the corps.  It is fine to agree to disagree, as long as everyone is on the same page when a final decision is made.  Avoid doom and gloom at all costs, especially in a crisis. No matter how talented an instructor, if their bad attitude will poison the corps, let them go or suffer.

Principle 4.  The End of Rehearsal Rule.  With very limited exceptions, it must be the mission of the director and staff to get the members to leave every rehearsal on a positive note, feeling like something was accomplished, and excited about the next rehearsal. Sometimes, this is hard to do after a bad run-through, for example, but stick to this rule.  This is important in senior corps. When DCA members walk away from a rehearsal bummed out, the staff doesn’t have an opportunity to turn things around face-to-face for another week (at least).

Principle 5.  The No Stress Rule.  The key to success is not the lack of adversity, but rather, how you respond to adversity.  Whether you are the Blue Devils the Bushwackers, things go wrong during the season. Your bus may breakdown on the way to Prelims (Renegades 2002 DCA). Your tenor section leader may forget his uniform to DCI Finals (Dave Gary, 1987 SCV). Law enforcement may kick you out of your rehearsal site for no reason (Renegades, every year). A hurricane may hit as you take the field (DCA 2006, everybody).  If you establish a culture of supporting one another and not pointing fingers when things go south,  your staff and members will recover from mistakes, you will have a fun and productive season, and the corps will get better.

Principle 6.   Embrace The Internet.  The Internet is a valuable tool, one most corps don’t use properly. Encourage members to promote the corps online. This will create a sense of community within the corps, and get the corps free visibility. The key is to make it clear to members they cannot and do not claim speak for the corps.  Mistakes will be made, but these are easily rectified behind the scenes. There is no need for a nervous breakdown when members post about your corps on the Internet.

Principle 7.    Add a Killer Performance and Rehearsal Schedule.  Add one or two non-competitive performances during the season where the corps can stand still and blow the faces off people who don’t know what drum corps is all about.  This is a great way to increase visibility in the community.  Along those lines, give your corps members time off.  Some senior corps have non-stop summer schedules make it difficult if not impossible for members to stay in the corps if they get married, or take on a job or school commitment during the summer.  One or two free weekends during the summer where you literally “order” the corps to take time off and have fun will buy goodwill with the members and their families, and keeps burnout away.  A schedule with a break and the corps being great are not mutually exclusive.  Simply put, rehearsing every possible minute throughout the entire summer is not in the corps best interests.

The Bottom Line.  The key to recruiting and retention is to improve the experience of being in the corps.

(c) Lee Rudnicki 2003

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