GUEST ARTICLE: Preparing for a Career in Music Education

Special thanks to guest author Edward Reisert for this week’s post on becoming a music teacher.  Edward Reisert teaches choral music at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York.   He maintains an active private voice and piano studio, and has served on the faculty of the Contemporary Commercial Music Vocal Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah Conservatory since 2009.    Contact:  ereisert@cloud9.net

Preparing for a Career in Music Education

Teaching music is one of the most rewarding careers that one could imagine.  If you love music, this is an opportunity to share your passion with others.  I have been fortunate enough to teach for 24 years in the public schools.    While some days are easier than others, I find that most days are exciting and challenging.    No matter how much I feel that I have seen and heard it all, something new happens daily that reminds me of how dynamic this profession is.

The current trends in education suggest that 30% of all new teachers leave the profession after 3 years, and almost 50% leave after 5 years.  While many factors are at issue here, is a startling reminder of the difficulty of the job itself.  I find that 99% of the teachers out in the field are completely dedicated to the profession and are passionate about their fields of expertise.  I really love what I do, which makes it easier to tolerate a tough day in the classroom or a lackluster meeting provided by the administration.

Who is a good candidate for teaching music? 

Depending on whom you talk to, you may get one of two basic answers:  “Someone who loves music” or “Someone who loves working with people.”  The answer is “both,” but I happen to think that the later is even more critical to a teacher’s success.  While I love teaching music, I wouldn’t mind teaching Foreign Language or Mathematics.  It really is the students that make my job rewarding and ever-changing.   I must stress, however, that I am also expected to have high-level musical skills, so I continue to take private voice lessons, and regularly take classes and workshops that relate to my profession.

Teaching music is an incredibly important job.  At the elementary level, you are, for most students, their first introduction to the world of Music.  You have the ability to develop innate musical skills in children and make an incredible impact toward creating life-long lovers of music.  At the high school level, you have an obvious stake in helping students be prepared for college.  While few of your students may choose music as a career, it is your hope that all of them will keep music in their lives.  I love to hear when a student is touring in a college a cappella group, performing in extra-curricular opera scenes, participating in a cover band or singing in the university choir.  We are educating audiences of the future, and music education is critical to maintaining the Arts in society.

Teaching music is not an easy job.  In fact, it is a very difficult one.  In addition to the classes we teach, we also are required to attend meetings, remain current on parent correspondence, engage in mandatory teacher training workshops, create budgets and a host of other responsibilities.  In fact, I sometimes feel that the classes that I teach are the least time-consuming part of my day.

Teaching music is a very public endeavor. We music teachers present concerts for large public audiences, and those performances are one large measure of our work as teachers.  Furthermore, these performances can be videotaped and broadcast on local cable stations.  That is a LOT of scrutiny. Can you imagine a math teacher having their students get up in front of an audience and solve math problems in order to demonstrate what their students learned this semester?

Contrary to popular belief, we music teachers work with everyone, not just talented students.  At the elementary level, it is likely that you will teach every student in the building.  That means that you will have students who love coming to music every day.  You will also teach students with special needs, students who are not native English speakers, students with emotional issues and yes, students who simply don’t like music.  Add to that list a host of other societal issues including poverty, substance abuse and broken families.   At the middle and high school, some students will be enrolled in your class simply because they need the credit to graduate

While the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind Act) labeled music as a core academic subject, music programs are constantly under attack.  This is going to require you to not only be a great teacher, but you are going to need to be a great advocate for your field of expertise.  It is very easy for districts to look at the Arts as an easy place to cut staff, so you need to be a presence in the school community to ensure that your programs remain in tact.

Where will a collegiate-level teaching program lead me?

While public school programs may seem to be the most obvious choice, there are plenty of other places where one could teach music.  You could open a private studio, teach Kindermusik™ classes to youngsters or teach in Arts In Education programs across the country.    To teach at the university level, you will usually need a Masters degree even for adjunct work, and a full-time teaching job in post-secondary education will most likely require a Doctorate.

For this article, I will stick to K-12 music education.

What does a collegiate-level teaching program look like? 

When you choose a college, you will need to decide between a liberal arts school with a strong music/music education program and a conservatory that has a music education degree program.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but you can count on the following as part of your core curriculum:

  • Private instruction on you major instrument
  • Theory, ear training and sight-singing
  • Music Education classes that address the skills necessary for teaching
  • Ensemble performance and/or chamber music
  • Piano class
  • Instruction in brass, woodwind, string and percussion instruments
  • Conducting
  • Instruction in methodologies, such as Orff, Kodaly, Gordon and Dalcroze
  • Psychology
  • Student Teaching practicum

When choosing a college program, I would encourage you to ask specific questions in your search:
How many of my teachers are currently working in the field of public education?

How much time will I spend out in the field observing and engaged in student teaching?

Do you have job placement and teaching certification programs?

Are there recent graduates from the program to whom I can speak, or better yet, visit and observe?

I am so grateful that I began observing and teaching in the field in my freshman year.  This was probably the factor that formed me as a teacher more than any other component of my education.  I was able to observe and teach classes in elementary general music, middle school general music, middle school and high school orchestra, band and chorus and special education.  Considering that your job may have some or all of these requirements, you want to make the most of your learning while you are still in school.

You actually need a license to teach? 

When you begin teaching in the public schools, you will need to apply for a provisional certification.  These requirements vary from state to state.  In addition to your bachelor’s degree, many states will have some or all of the following to complete your application:

  • Certification exams
  • Special workshops (on subjects such as Child Abuse Identification),
  • Videotaped lessons
  • Fingerprints (no joke)
  • Fees to complete your application

After you have begun teaching, you will be required to teach for a certain number of years to receive your permanent certification.  In many states, you will also need to have completed your Masters Degree in a related field.  Therefore, when you are just beginning teaching, you will also be required to begin a graduate program and balance the two during your most vulnerable years.

Just to get an idea of the requirements, check out the New York state Teacher Certification site:

New York State Teaching Certification Requirements

While I am still in high school, what are some experiences that will help me to prepare for college? 

As I stated before, the people connection is one of the most important factors in choosing a career in education.  Therefore, if you are in high school, get out and teach!  This could be teaching music at a summer camp for children, teaching the children’s choir at your church or synagogue or tutoring students at the elementary school on your primary instrument.  Many people say, “I could never work with young children. ” Try it before you make any decisions, as you may surprise yourself!  Don’t box yourself into only teaching music.  Any teaching experience in any discipline will be helpful.

I would encourage you also to become as proficient in your primary instrument as you can.  In most University programs, the expectation is that you will be equally competitive on your instrument as the Music Performance Majors.   You will have a variety of additional classes, yet you will need to be able to perform just as well as the students who have additional time to spend in the practice room.

Vocal skills and piano skills are a huge asset.  If you are in a high school instrumental ensemble, such as band or chorus and can fit choir into your schedule, you will be glad you did.  It helps to enhance your auditory skills, and helps you to gain confidence in singing in front of others, which you will, no doubt, do in your music education career.  Piano skills are critical, as you will absolutely need them in any elementary general music employment.  Furthermore, you will likely use them at some point in your teaching at the middle and high school levels.  Many interviews for teaching positions will ask you to play something on the piano, regardless of the job requirements.  Lastly, if your school offers Music Theory or Music Theory AP, these courses are a must.  You might as well get an early start on those skills!

A final thought

There is no more insulting expression than “Those who can–do.  Those who can’t–teach.”   I happen to know incredible teachers who graduated from some of the most prestigious music schools in the country.  Many of these teachers are also active performers in the professional world.

I say, “Those who can–teach, and do it well!”

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