1. Be an outstanding musician. “As a music educator, you have to be a great musician. Music teaching is about guiding inexperienced musicians in developing their musicianship and a big part of that process is always demonstrating high levels of personal musicianship,” states Kerry Filsinger, University Fellow and PhD candidate in Music Education at Temple University Boyer College of Music & Dance. “I am constantly striving to become a better musician, so that I can be the best possible music model for my future students.”
2. Learn how to improvise. A teacher who can walk into the classroom and perform on their instrument without music is a great asset, says Edward Smaldone, professor of composition and director of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. “Music is about communication, not just about playing what is on the page. If the music does not live in your imagination it can’t be communicated effectively. You need to practice both: reading and improvising.” Smaldone stresses that improvisation is a valuable skill to learn and hone, and not just on your instrument. “Knowing how to improvise means you can adapt,” he says. “Lesson plans provide great ideas, but as a teacher, you can’t script every word for every situation.” This translates to myriad situations music educators will find themselves in, from needing to transpose to figuring out how to make a wind ensemble work with too many of one instrument and not enough of others. And it’s a life skill that can be passed on to your own students.
3. Acquire entrepreneurial skills. According to Russ Sperling, president of the California Music Educators Association and instrumental music specialist for San Diego City Schools in the Visual and Performing Arts Department: “It’s no surprise that, as a music educator, you must be a fine musician. At the same time you have to be skilled in marketing because you’ll have to be recruiting students into your program. You’ll also have to deal with all of the administrative work it takes to run that program.” Susan Wharton Conkling, professor and chair of Music Education at Boston University School of Music, adds, “Music teachers must stop limiting their thinking to music education as a K-12, public school enterprise. They must also stop limiting their thinking to music education as band, chorus, and orchestra.” She points to other areas where music educators can create employment for themselves: working with very young children, partnering with local YMCA or youth-based clubs; working with senior centers and retirement or assisted living facilities. Conkling goes on to say, “Music educators who have developed high-quality, broad-based musicianship are ready to be entrepreneurial. They can already think ‘outside the box.’ These music teachers will always have employment because they’ll create their own employment.”
4. Become as broad-based and well-trained as possible. “Employers will look for candidates who can do a lot!” says Dr. Deborah Sheldon, professor and chair of Music Education at Temple University Boyer College of Music and Dance. “They will be more drawn to those who are skilled and capable in a number of areas, from instrumental to choral to general music. They will look for candidates who bring something unique to the school such as ideas for how to connect the school experience with the greater community, the use of new technologies to advance music and arts, and entrepreneurial ventures that will bring greater visibility to the arts. They will have their pick of many candidates so the one who is well-prepared, a polished musician, a creative thinker, an artful teacher, a good communicator,and a team player will have the advantage over others.”
5. Combine advocacy with exchange to create better programs. Lauren Kapalka Richerme, a doctoral student in music education at Arizona State University, published an important piece, “Apparently, We Disappeared,” in the September 2011 Music Educators Journal. She emphasizes the value of sharing ideas within the broader community that lead to action. Richerme states: “Music educators must alter their practices by implementing the ideas generated from their dialogue with various constituencies. Words are not enough; we must change our actions as a result of these exchanges. Combining advocacy with exchanges allows music educators to promote and improve their programs and build a better relationship with their communities.”
6. Learn all you can about relevant technology. Technology plays a significant role in music education. From apps and programs for everything from teaching chording and music theory to recording, tuning, and improvisation, music educators and music education majors have a wealth of options at their fingertips. But the technology changes quickly and sometimes dramatically, so it’s essential to continually stay on top of what’s current, assess its value, and learn how to use what’s relevant.
7. Keep an updated list of your skills, relevant experiences, and training.When you’re ready to enter the job market, having a running list of your experiences will come in handy. You’ll want to memorize some of it so you can succinctly respond to interview questions in a way that demonstrates why you’re the right candidate for the job. Take advantage of opportunities where you can teach or assist in teaching music to a variety of ages. Gain experience speaking in front of groups. Find performance venues and get your music out there. Participate in relevant workshops. Explore the music of other cultures. And remember to add all of it to your list of skills and experiences.