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, (54)4, 370-384.
Linda Hartley and Ann Porter examined how the starting grade level (fourth, fifth, or sixth) in string programs in Ohio affected recruitment, retention, and performance. Recruitment and retention were addressed through a survey of string teachers in Ohio. Thirty-one percent (172 teachers) responded to questions about starting grade and enrollment. The responses indicated that starting grade level made no difference in recruitment, and that retention improved for programs with a later start.
In order to examine the effect upon performance, the authors visited and recorded 22 middle school orchestras (at a median seventh grade level) toward the end of the school year. The recordings were then evaluated by three judges utilizing a festival-style rating system. The starting grade level did not have a statistically significant impact upon the judges ratings. In other words, orchestras that began in instruction in sixth grade performed as well as those that began in fourth or fifth grade.
This study raises interesting questions, particularly for music teachers in my part of the world (New Jersey) where instrumental instruction typically follows an early grade, pull-out lesson approach with less frequent class meetings. While the impact of frequency is not addressed directly in this study, one wonders if students would be better served by waiting to begin instruction when more frequent (optimally daily) instruction is possible. Another aspect that needs to be explored is the trade-off between less-frequent small group instruction vs. daily large group instruction.
Anecdotally, my sense is that we are not getting our ‘bang for our buck’ from the pull-out lesson approach. This study is helpful in illustrating that alternative approaches to beginning instruction may be equivalent at worst, and an improvement at best.