Hartley, L. A., & Porter, A. M. (2009). The influence of beginning instructional grade on string student enrollment, retention, and music performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 370-384.
What did the researchers want to know?
Does the starting grade level of beginning string instruction affect initial enrollment, retention, or ensemble performance by the seventh-grade year?
What did the researchers do?
Hartley and Porter surveyed 166 elementary, middle, and junior high school string teachers in Ohio about their initial enrollment, retention at the end of the first year of instruction, and retention at the beginning of the seventh-grade year. To gauge performance achievement, Hartley and Porter visited and recorded 22 middle school orchestras (that were primarily made up of seventh-grade students), 36% of which started in fourth grade and 32% started in fifth grade and sixth grade respectively. Three string specialists (who were not told the starting grade level of the ensembles) rated each performance using the state-approved form for large-group adjudicated events.
Just over half (50.3%) of all schools enrolled 20% or less of students in the starting grade level, 37.6% enrolled 20% to 40%, and only 12.1% enrolled 40% or more. When comparing the percentages of the student body who enrolled in beginning strings according to starting grade level, Hartley and Porter found no statistically significant differences in initial enrollment.
In terms of retention at the end of the first year of instruction, 23% of teachers reported retaining 50-65% of students, 19.6% retained 65-80% of students, 36.5% retained 80-95% of students, and 22.6% retained 95-100% of students. There was a significant difference in relation to starting grade level: schools with later starting grade levels were more likely to retain 80% or more of their students at the end of the first year of instruction, as shown in the table below.
In terms of retention at the beginning of the seventh-grade year, 12.8% of teachers reported retaining 30% or less of students who initially enrolled, 27.6% retained 60% of students, 40.4% retained 90% of students, and 19.2% retained 95-100% of students. There was a significant difference in relation to starting grade level: schools with later starting grade levels were more likely to retain 60% or more of their students at the end of the first year of instruction, as shown in the table above.
When comparing the overall ensemble performance ratings, there were no statistically significant differences between groups that began instruction in fourth grade, fifth grade, or sixth grade.
What does this mean for my classroom?
Some teachers may worry whether starting instrumental music at a later grade level could have negative effects in comparison to starting at an earlier grade level. However, delaying the start of instrumental music until sixth grade likely will not hurt initial enrollment or performance achievement in later grades and may actually help increase retention.
Additionally, Hartley and Porter found that schools with a fourth-grade start level were more likely to have fewer meetings per week than sixth-grade beginners, and schools with more class meetings per week were more likely to have a higher retention rate at the end of the first year. If given the choice between starting instruction in an earlier grade level but with fewer class meetings per week or starting in a later grade level but with more frequent class meetings, the latter may be preferable.