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Extended Community Building

Highland High School, AZ

4301 E Guadalupe Rd, Gilbert, AZ, USA
Gilbert Public Schools
Director: Bill Bitter
Category: Miscellaneous Activity
Award: Gold, 2019

Project Description

I wanted to find a way to increase concert attendance beyond the typical “friends and family of musicians” outreach. We live in Arizona where a large population of retired adults (we call them “snowbirds”) move to retirement communities during the winter months each year, typically, October through April. The goal of the project was to market my orchestras to these visitors and encourage them to come to our concerts. I believed that the most effective way to motivate the audience would be to start by bringing the concert to them.

I started a Strolling Strings program specifically to create an ensemble that could travel. My original goal was to create an ensemble with community visibility “like the marching band.” Orchestras don’t typically participate in football games, parades, and other festive community events, so it’s easy for our students to feel (and sometimes be) invisible.

The model begins with a one semester Strolling Strings class. In addition to the music we learn and the “strolling” aspect of memorization, I teach my students to communicate. Visiting (I call it “schmoozing”) with the crowd is a large part of why people come to the show. We teach the students about how to talk and what to say. In the attached photos, you’ll see as many schmoozing pictures as there are performing shots!

During the second semester, we start to travel. The retirement communities are a short drive from our school, so I schedule 10 gigs per year for my students. In the beginning, it’s important to remember that you are an unknown. Many places have performance budgets, but they won’t give it to you out of the gate. Don’t expect it.
PERFORMANCE QUALITY and the experience with your students will dictate whether they want you back. The venue will (hopefully) ask you to come back. This may be the time to say, “Can you help with costs?” $200 for buses, for example.

It’s important to note, however, I did not charge a fee for my students to perform for years. And in fact, we lost money on the cost of transportation. This was intentional. We weren’t running a fundraiser, it was a marketing event. I wanted visibility and for people to come to our concerts at the school!

After many years of this relationship building, our program has grown substantially. We perform the holiday concert, for example, three times. Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night; all three concerts to a sold out, 900 seat auditorium. Filling the room wasn’t intended to be a fundraiser, but it has become one because we charge $5 to attend the concert (2 free tickets per performer). More than that, though, my students (all the way down to the freshman in the lowest group) feel so much pride in their performances because they are in demand. Imagine 2,700 people vying for the change to attend a high school orchestra concert!

Target Audience

The target audience for this project are the retired winter visitors (“snowbirds”) who move to Arizona during the winter months each year.

Specific Budget Breakdown

As I mentioned above, we actually make money on this project now, even though that wasn’t the original intent. If you have to pay for school transportation, that cost would be relevant, but otherwise, this should be a $0 budget marketing project.

New or recurring project?


How did you update/change this project from its previous occurrence?

I originally thought that although we were performing in the retirement communities for free, we could potentially get big donations from our listeners. It turns out that retired persons are notoriously frugal! (In my 30s I didn’t understand a fixed income.) We found over time that if we build relationships with our listeners, they would enthusiastically attend concerts.

After about 10 years, we transitioned from performing for free to charging $200. Our Strolling group grew from 15 to 60 students. 26 years later, we now charge $1,000 per Strolling performance in a retirement community (not at our school).

Recently, we have added a Valentine’s dinner to our yearly events, marketed specifically to this same crowd. It works only because we have spent years building a very large following. With a restaurant catered meal and students acting as servers, we transform our school cafeteria into The Crystal Ballroom. Tickets are $35 each! We do not rely on family members of musicians to purchase these tickets and very few do. The idea is always to create fundraising opportunities that don’t add financial strain to the families of my students.

Measurement of the success/effectiveness of this project?

This project has had a huge impact on our school community. Throughout the years, our orchestra program has blossomed, parent support is high, and administration is supportive. I believe that a burgeoning crowd at concerts helps our entire school community to feel appreciated, important, and noticed.

As for the retirement community sector, we have brought music and young people into their lives. They tell me all the time that they don’t know any youth “like this.” Of course they do, but teaching our students to share their talents AND how to speak with these adults builds a very much needed bridge. Word of mouth in these communities is so effective. We could easily perform 25 Strolling shows each year!

Because this is a marketing project, effectiveness is measured simply by the number of audience members at a concert, and more specifically, by the audience members beyond what can be accounted for by family members. When the need arose to increase our performances from one to two and then three performances of the same concert, I knew we were experiencing success.

Advice for someone looking to replicate this project in their own community?

First and foremost, you have to teach well and provide a high quality product. There is absolutely no substitute for great teaching and beautiful music. If you’re doing that, then start to think outside the box. Where are your potential audience members and how can you reach them? If you’re an unknown to them, dropping off a concert flyer will probably not be enough. If you need more administration or parent support, giving them a reason to support you (a full house!) is a great first step. Many times, young teachers want the support first and it doesn’t always work like that.

Finally, if you’re going to start an outreach project, I would encourage you not to jump to the end. Remember that we performed in retirement communities for ten years before charging. And we performed our own concerts for twenty years for free, too!

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