How to engage under-35s: Retention

This is the second set of recommendations drawn up following our research into young people’s attitudes towards making music. It follows on from the resource entitled How to engage under-35s: Recruitment.


  1. Think about group dynamics
  2. Learn names
  3. Get them hooked!
  4. Keep it flexible 
  5. Help people to feel confident in what they are doing
  6. Have a shared goal
  7. Get people more invested and give them ownership

Before getting stuck in, it’s important to flag up some points:

  • There is a huge diversity across the ‘young people’ in the age group we are looking at.

Some of these are fresh out of sixth form and highly ambitious amateur musicians, living flexible student lifestyles and wanting a musical challenge. Some are single parents, juggling childcare and work commitments. Some are in demanding jobs, living in a new city and wanting an opportunity to socialise in a relaxed environment.  Some are confident in their musical ability, while some are coming to music for the first time or returning after a long break, and would be strongly put off by the prospect of an audition.

  • Do you specifically want to recruit more under 35 year olds, or just more members in general?

Not all groups need under 35s. Why do you specifically want to recruit people in this age group? Would a regular intake of new people who are in the 50+ age group necessarily be a problem? However, some of the recommendations in this resource may still be useful to consider even if you are not specifically targeting younger members.

  • Some of the suggestions in this resource involve a change in the culture of a group.

We appreciate that group culture might be a difficult thing to change, and there may be resistance to doing this from within the group. We’re not saying that in your specific case you must change your group culture in order to attract younger members. But on the other hand this difficult change is sometimes necessary – and can be effective.

  • This resource contains a pick and mix set of recommendations.

No set of recommendations is going to be appropriate to the needs of every single person in the 15-35 year old age bracket.  Similarly, not all of the recommendations here will work for every single music group.

  • There is no ‘magic solution’.

Recruiting and retaining younger members is something that requires effort, energy and capacity over a prolonged period of time. Trying one of these suggestions for a couple of weeks and then losing momentum and giving up will not work.  Some of these suggestions may not yield results for a few months. Keep trying, and remember, we’re always at the end of the phone if you want advice.

Before moving on, think about why your current members are part of your group, and whether your group in practice matches up to how you are selling it in your promotional materials and on your website.

If there’s a big mismatch (e.g. you say the group already has a lot of young members and is very sociable, but in practice, your youngest member is 40 and you go to the pub once a term, or, you say players of all abilities are welcome, but in practice the pace of rehearsals is quite fast and needs people to be Grade 5 standard or above), new members are more likely to feel like they’ve been ‘mis-sold’ your group and less likely to return.

Assuming there’s a good match, the following suggestions may be useful:

1. Think about group dynamics

The social element of being in a group is crucial. Good group dynamics don’t just happen by accident! Tuckman’s theory of group dynamics talks about groups going through various stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. Having an awareness of where the group is at, and helping them to move on through the various stages can help a strong and inclusive dynamic to form. Here are a few ideas you could try:

  • When new members come to your rehearsals, how will you ensure they feel welcomed? Some groups told us they use buddy systems or have a revolving welcoming team to make sure new people aren’t left on their own. You might want your welcoming team to be explicit about their role, or you might want to have secret welcomers.
  • Having a break in the middle of a session can create a great opportunity for people to socialise. But some members may be shy, especially if they don’t know anyone, and might not want to go up and interrupt a lively group of people who already know each other. Again, assigning roles to some of your more outgoing, sociable members, getting them to make sure no one is left on their own, could help with this. You might want to delegate a physical space in the room as a “talk to me” space, where people who may be more shy can go and hang out during a break time, in the knowledge that other people in that area are friendly and will talk to them.
  • Celebrate the welcoming, friendly, inclusive values your group has – and regularly refer to these as something your group can be proud of – this will keep these values at the forefront of people’s minds. People can often want to create this but forget to when they arrive at a rehearsal and a few friendly familiar faces are there, it can be easy and comfortable to settle into a clique. If you keep referring to the group as one where everyone is friendly and welcoming, it can help counter the easy tendency to get comfortable and form cliques.
  • Ice breakers and warm ups can be really useful – activities that encourage people to come out of their comfort zones and take risks helps create the feeling of a ‘safe space’. As well as helping with group social dynamics, from a musical perspective they can really help the group to come together, work as a team, listen to one another and feel musically connected to one another. There are lots of websites with ideas you might want to incorporate, or make up some of your own.

2. Learn names

There’s a wide body of research in the field of education, psychology and social science on the importance of learning students’ names. Being called by your name sends out signals that you are recognised and valued as an individual within a group. Franklyn D Roosevelt and Bill Clinton were both said to be great at remembering names, and this ability is partly attributed to their presidential success. In a large group, it will be difficult for one person to know everyone’s name, but encouraging people to know (and use) the names of other people in their section is a good start.

“A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” – Dale Carnegie, author of How to win friends and influence people

  • Could you build a name game into a warm up activity? With a vocal group, you could get people into pairs and get both people to spell out each other’s names in the air and follow the shapes of the letters with a sirening sound. With an instrumental group, could you put names on all the music folders, rather than ‘violin 2, desk 1’, give everyone a folder at random, and get them to find who to give it to?
  • General pair/small group work, where you remind people to introduce themselves by name, can be helpful.
  • Give people name badges.

3. Get them hooked!

  • Make them want to keep coming back! If you are friends with lots of people in a group, you are more likely to keep wanting to come along, so create an environment where friendships can form and flourish.
  • Similarly, give people a way to carry on chatting in between rehearsals. This could be through something like a Facebook group (members only space), or a WhatsApp group, or similar.
  • Ice-breaker type activities that encourage people to share something about themselves can pave the way to people forming relationships beyond sitting next to each other and playing or singing.  You could try a round of ‘two truths and one lie’ over a break time, or at the pub. There are plenty of websites (e.g. this one) with suggestions for these kinds of activities, and any youth workers in your group are likely to have a few suggestions up their sleeves!
  • Encourage people to stay after a rehearsal and go to the pub together. Make a point of saying that everyone is welcome, so it isn’t perceived as being something that only the ‘in crowd’ are supposed to go along to. It can be hard for less confident people to muscle into a pre-existing group. What about things like Christmas dinners or picnics and jamming in the park during the summer, or going to a Burns Night ceilidh or bonfire night fireworks display?
  • Make time for these kinds of activities on a regular basis. Although they’re not necessarily ‘musical’, they’re so important in terms of building a healthy group culture and keeping people coming back. Make sure you strike a good balance between offering these kinds of activities and it feeling like ‘enforced fun’ though – it needs to feel like it’s genuine otherwise people will feel like they’re being obliged to be sociable. It’s about creating the conditions and planting the seeds that enable good social dynamics, not about forcing them to happen.

4. Keep it flexible

  • If you’ve said that you don’t expect people to come to every rehearsal in your recruitment material, it’s worth re-emphasising that it’s ok to not be at everything on a regular basis during rehearsals, otherwise the initial promise of flexibility could seem hollow. People need to feel like what they are sold (i.e. flexibility) is what they’re experiencing in practice.
  • How will you support people who have missed sessions so they don’t feel guilty for holding people back? There are some ideas in the first part of this series of resources on Recruiting Younger Members
  • You might want to think about attaching ‘conditions’ to flexibility.  E.g., 'It’s fine not to be here every week, but if you miss a session, you need to catch up before the next session.' Or 'You don’t need to be at every rehearsal, but if you want to take part in the concert you need to have attended at least x% of rehearsals'.
  • How will you bring the rest of the group on board, so that if you say it’s ok to miss sessions, no one is projecting frustration on people who have missed a week? If you’re a group that currently requires members to be there every week, introduce this idea gradually; perhaps give it a trial term. ‘Sell’ it as something positive, as an idea that could help recruit new members, and acknowledge potential concerns that this might bring down the standards. Get the group on board in terms of how to make the trial a success.

5. Help people to feel confident in what they are doing

This partly relates to recruitment, and being open about what standard your members need to be. There’s no point in doing a big recruitment drive, recruiting lots of near-beginners, and then expecting them to be able to sight read and play to at least Grade 5 standard. People are most likely to feel confident when they’re in a group appropriate to their level of skill and experience.

  • Don’t forget praise. This can come from an MD, or section leader, or just from player to player. Rehearsals can easily become focussed on things that need improving, or tweaking, or better phrasing or intonation etc. Making time to compliment and tell people what they’re doing well can be a huge confidence boost.

Confident people are more likely to be feeling comfortable and happy and in turn, more likely to make friends.

6. Have a shared goal

Creating opportunities for the group to pull together and have something to work towards and look forward to has been proven to build a sense of team work, as well as leading to a sense of satisfaction in having achieved something. It can also help individuals to develop their musical skills, a factor that featured highly in our research in motivating young people to join a group.

  • The opportunity to take part in exciting performances was appealing to the young people we surveyed as part of our research.
  • Making a recording can be a huge sense of achievement for a group, and something exciting to work towards.
  • Going on tour doubles up as something exciting to look forward to, with the added benefit of a social element around it.
  • Not for all groups, but for some, entering a competition can really work as a way to pull a group together and focus on achieving something as a team.

7. Get people more invested and give them ownership

Give people a sense of ownership and a clear role within a team. If people feel like they’re a stakeholder and have a clearly defined role to play, it can help people feel embedded within a group, and more invested in seeing the group thrive. When the group does thrive, people will feel a sense of pride in having been part of making this happen: win-win!

The role someone takes could be big or small, formal or informal, anything from committee membership, to being the one who rounds up people to take them to the pub at the end of a rehearsal. Make sure you show appreciation, whatever the role is.

Be careful not to make people feel ‘put upon’ however. Being given a role you don’t really want to take on can lead to guilt and resentment and could end up having the opposite effect to what you are trying to achieve.

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.