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Music educators can change lives. A good Music Teacher can instill a lifelong love of music, spark a child’s creativity, and encourage adult students to persevere in their studies despite the demands of daily life. They can inspire us for years after we first enter their classrooms.

This is the starting point for most students considering a major in Music Education: a caring teacher who made learning exciting. Music Teachers, after all, are a special breed, with a unique personality and a diverse skill set. If you’re thinking about attending college to earn a Music Ed degree, you might initially be surprised by the breadth and depth of studies you’ll be immersed in during your academic career.

It makes sense, though, when you consider how your favorite educators basically have super powers in two areas: performance and education.

Earning one of these degrees is no small undertaking. You need to understand educational theory, put in time in the classroom, and possess professional-level musicianship skills. To learn what the process of attaining a Music Education degree is really like, we spoke to educators at two of America’s top-ranked programs to get their thoughts on the admissions process, insights on where this degree can take you, and advice on how to become a Teacher who is able to effectively pass on his or her love of music.

Teryl Dobbs is an Associate Professor and the current Chair of Music Education at the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. She serves as an adviser to master’s and doctoral Music Education students and is an affiliate with Madison’s Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies and the Disability Studies Initiative. She holds a master’s and a Ph.D. in Music Studies/Music Education from Northwestern University.

Brenda Brenner is an Associate Professor of Music (Music Education) and the Chair of Music Education at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the IU String Academy and is the President of the American String Teachers Association (ASTA). She holds degrees from Wichita State University and the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.

(When you’re applying to Music Education programs, keep in mind that the program is designed to give you licensure in the state where the university is located. If you want to attend a college in New York City then move back to your home state of Texas, you’ll have to seek licensure in Texas once you’ve received your diploma.)

Now, without further ado, here’s what to expect when majoring in Music Education, in the words of Professor Hobbs and Professor Brenner.

What Will I Learn in a Music Ed Degree Program?

Teryl Dobbs

Music Ed here at the University of Wisconsin – Madison is an interdependent system of five programs, from bachelor’s all the way to the Ph.D., all interconnected. That’s something that’s really special about our program. The doctoral students and some of the master’s students have the opportunity to teach, to supervise students, do fieldwork and different practicum situations. There is a lot of mentoring and collaboration that goes on between the degrees.

The other thing is we’re now in our third year revising the undergraduate Music Ed teacher licensure program. What we’ve done is to now teach it very holistically. We focus on bringing in critical theory and putting it into practice. Students do work in inclusive schooling. We now teach two courses in popular music, on how to play it and how to teach it.

We have a composition course that is taught all through technology –- composition for the music educator. We use Ableton Live and other software; they end up doing spoken word pieces and mashups. They learn how to produce all the things their students are doing in high school.

If they want to be a music educator, they’ve got to really love music and more, importantly, they’ve got to love people. They’ve got to love working with all kinds of people. One of the central tenets of our program here is we’re seriously committed to equity and diversity. ‘Diversity’ meaning race, gender difference, sexual difference, and disability. We welcome all bodies and minds into our program and we want our students to be open to doing the same.

Brenda Brenner

We have four different degrees we offer at the Jacobs School of Music. The first is the Bachelor of Music Education, which is the traditional undergraduate degree, with different areas you can focus in. One is general music, which is elementary and secondary teaching — the regular music classes you would find in an elementary school. Then we have the secondary element of that, in which we focus on middle and high school level students.

We have a band track, a strings track, and a choral track. Each of the students in the Bachelor of Music [cohort] takes classes in all of the other areas so, for example, if you’re a string person taking a BME you would also take classes on how to teach band. They’re studying the wind instruments, the brass instruments, and the percussion instruments, so they could, potentially, teach all those students. The same thing for the band people; they would take string technique, woodwind technique, brass technique, and percussion technique.

Our students start out where one would traditionally think; they begin as an observer in classes (field experience). When they’re freshmen, it pretty much consists of going on field trips into the public schools to watch effective teaching and then, as they progress through the degree program, we have other experiences where they do units of teaching in the public schools. They would watch, for example, my string pedagogy class I teach.

My students go out once a week into the public schools to an assigned class. They start their first three weeks as an observer. In the second three weeks, they do sectionals on their main instrument. In the next three weeks, they do it on their secondary instrument. In the last three weeks, they work with the whole orchestra for a period of time.

We also have several other programs the kids can participate in. I have a large public school program called the Fairview Project in a local public school where we teach string classes for kids ages first through sixth grade. I have thirty-two students who come out and work with me on a regular basis. They can work as many hours as they can fit into their schedule. I’ll teach one day a week and they’ll watch me.

I have my more experienced teachers serve as the lead teachers. So the kids are out in the schools right away. I say that my sophomores, juniors, and seniors are my employees. They get the opportunity to be out in the public schools as their job for three years so they really do know what it’s like to be out in the schools and they get to know that same group of kids over that period of time.

We have a 100% placement rate. Any student who comes from our program who wants a job gets a job.

How Do I Get into a Program?

Teryl Dobbs

The Bachelor of Music degree requires a very high ACT, but there are other things the admissions committee looks for. To be accepted into the School of Music, the students come to audition for the studio faculty. They may say in their application and in their audition that they want to pursue a Music Education degree and licensure. Once they’ve been accepted into the School of Music and they’re freshmen, we consider them pre-Music Ed.

They go through all the musicianship courses, take music theory classes and other general education courses. They take piano and play in ensembles. Once they become sophomores, they enroll in Introduction to Music Education, an overview of the profession and a prerequisite for the next step of being accepted into the teacher education program. The students who have been enrolled in that Intro to Music Ed course audition for the Music Ed faculty.

We listen to a solo or jury piece and they write a short essay about why they want to teach children music. We’re looking for people who are very, very people-focused. They also then demonstrate their sight-singing and keyboard harmonization skills. (They’ve been working on those in their jury and piano skills courses.)

If they pass every one of those components, that triggers their entry into the Music Teacher education program. That allows them to move forward into the foundational professional sequence for their junior and senior years. They will now do their practicum in tandem with all their other educational courses and then start student teaching.

Brenda Brenner

We do three audition days over the course of the spring. One is in January, one is in February, and one is in March. The students, depending on their instruments, have to do a pre-screening. For example, my instrument is the violin, so there are so many violinists who want to audition that we have to do a pre-screening. (But other instruments don’t have pre-screening.)

That process really starts in November or December when they turn in their application and their pre-screening video. If you want to come to IU to study Music Education, you have to have a really high level of playing. You cannot get in here with a not very advanced level of playing because here, unlike at some other Music Education schools in the country, we have all our Music Education students study with our artist-teachers.

They are also members of the ensembles, along with all the Performance students, so there are no differences in requirements musically between the Music Education and the Music Performance students.

In addition to their academic qualifications, which we’re of course looking for, they also do a music education interview. In the interview, we will usually have them write a short essay which is usually asking something like ‘why is music education important to you’ or ‘what is your background in music education and what do you see your future being’.

We ask some basic questions about what your experience has been thus far and what is your interest in music education. Did you have a peer teaching experiences as a high school student? If they have had some past experience it’s going to give them a good idea of what they want to do in the future. It’s just to get a sense of whether they would be good in front of a class. We’re looking at some basic musical skills as well. Can they sing on pitch? Can they echo rhythm? Can they sight read? Those are things we like for them to be able to do.

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What Educational Opportunities Should I Look Into Outside the Classroom?

Teryl Dobbs

We expect the students, in addition to their traditional ensembles, to have two credits in global music ensembles. We’re doing a brand new world drumming course called Drumming the World. We’re working with the School of Music to get other ensembles going; these are starting to become very popular with non-music majors so it’s really a chance to reach out into the community.

For voice majors, in addition to the European/Western tradition of bel canto singing, there’s a new course on vocal styles of the world where they learn about different vocal practices from Lapland and jazz scat and belting (how to belt in a healthy manner and how to teach it).

We have an active MTNA group through our piano faculty. Our students in Music Ed have a collegiate NAFME chapter. I think there’s Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia and Sigma Alpha Iota. We’ve got a growing jazz program with several large and small jazz ensembles. We’ve got choral ensembles and contemporary music ensembles. We’ve also got a new electro-acoustic research laboratory called EARS. It’s a really vibrant community.

Brenda Brenner

We have a very active NAFME chapter that has an event maybe two or three times a month. Our ASTA chapter is really active. I have a huge group of students who go to the national conference with me in March. We bring in lots of people from the outside to fill in the gaps of things they want to learn about that maybe I’m not so well-versed in. That’s really helpful.

Who Should Attend a Music Ed Program?

Teryl Dobbs

If they want to be a music educator, they’ve got to really love music and more, importantly, they’ve got to love people. They’ve got to love working with all kinds of people. One of the central tenets of our program here is we’re seriously committed to equity and diversity. ‘Diversity’ meaning race, gender difference, sexual difference, and disability.

We welcome all bodies and minds into our program and we want our students to be open to doing the same. It’s also a focus of the faculty’s research and it’s one reason why we did the course revisions we did. It’s really important for music education to remain relevant to the kids in front of us and to remain fresh.

Brenda Brenner

The people who are interested in Music Education are people who have had positive experiences in music classes themselves. They typically have role models they would like to imitate or that they look up to and want to be like.

I think there is a personality [type] who feels comfortable, excited and energized by being in a room full of kids who are trying to do these sorts of things. There are other personalities and I see it when I go out and bring students with me.

There are some people who are just itching to get up and do their thing with me and others who are like ‘maybe not, I’m not exactly sure if this is what I want to do.’ And that’s okay! It’s something that’s a labor of love. You have to really want to teach, to get into the classroom and do it.

That said, I have had a lot of ‘conversions’ from people who have been Performance majors and realized they really love working with children and they really love being in the classroom. They really are interested in [education] and maybe they didn’t think they were.

I have always felt energized by groups of students and it has impacted me in the sense that I feel like it’s my way to give back to the world something that has filled me with joy. I’m like the luckiest person alive, to be able to work teaching music because I love music and I love how it makes me feel.

It’s just something I enjoy. I am so lucky to get to teach children and students of every age. It doesn’t feel like a job to me. It feels like a calling, truly, which is great.

How Has Your Music Ed Background Influenced Your Life?

Teryl Dobbs

I did my undergrad at the University of South Dakota, where I got a really solid practicum education, so I came out with some really good skills. I was not mature enough to teach so [instead] I became a singer and a flutist with the Air Force Academy band. I lived out in Colorado Springs and served my four years. I stuck around there and did a lot of performing. Then I started substituting and I really started to enjoy working with kids.

What really turned the switch on was when I got my first teaching job back in South Dakota; while I was there, I decided that I was ready and asked myself what was the next step.

I did the master’s program at Northwestern University. Two people really informed my thinking: number one was Peter Webster, who is retired now but is out at the University of Southern California. He has worked with creative thinking and technology. He just got me thinking about my career and moving forward. In fact, he was the first person who encouraged me to go for a Ph.D. I thought he was absolutely crazy! I owe a lot to his approach.

The next person would be Bennett Reimer, who is a seminal philosopher of music education. I applied to the Ph.D. program at Northwestern and I was fortunate enough to be his TA for a while. His thinking influenced me a lot.

One thing about the faculty there [at Northwestern] is that they are always learning. I think that’s one thing that both Peter and Bennett did for me is they would ask me ‘what are your interests?’ They would always encourage me and give me the materials I needed to guide my way. It was a really special place with an amazing group of colleagues I met there in the program; we have been friends for thirty years.

We’re all over the world now but I can call people and ask for advice, to read my articles, and give me input. I would like for others to have as good of an experience in this profession as I have had. I’ve been very fortunate.

I was lucky enough to land here in 2006 at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, working with Julia Koza, who again just opened my mind to all kinds of new and exciting ways of thinking about music education. I’ve really been able to put it together here, where I have the freedom to do so much.

Brenda Brenner

I have four degrees in music. I have three performance degrees. I have a bachelor’s, master’s, and a doctorate. I have an undergraduate degree in Music Education. I would have to say that, as a musician, the performing degrees were very, very important. They add to my Music Education degree.

I have always felt energized by groups of students and it has impacted me in the sense that I feel like it’s my way to give back to the world something that has filled me with joy. I’m like the luckiest person alive, to be able to work teaching music because I love music and I love how it makes me feel. It’s just something I enjoy. I am so lucky to get to teach children and students of every age. It doesn’t feel like a job to me. It feels like a calling, truly, which is great.

What Advice Do You Have for Incoming Students?

Teryl Dobbs

Anything they write and read will take longer than they think. Learn how to go back to a paper and rewrite and edit it. We’re fortunate we have a writing center here at UW – Madison that helps students. I’d say take advantage of anything you can with regards to your writing.

The other thing is that I remember when I started my doctorate at Northwestern, I had been teaching public school for sixteen or seventeen years and I had to create my own schedule. I had blocks of time that were quiet and I didn’t have middle school kids coming to talk to me; it took a while to become accustomed to being responsible to myself rather than to other people.

I learned a lot about my own process by asking ‘What kind of process am I going to create? When’s the best time for me to write? When do I feel fresh? When do I feel energized? Is it a good time and if it’s not a good time what else can I be doing so I feel that I’m making progress?’

Also, the first time students (and undergraduates, in particular) realize how much time and work go into making one lesson plan it’s like,’oh my gosh!’ We have to plan it and ask how are we going to execute it — or how are we going to perform at?

You’re performing for some of the toughest audiences you’ll ever have because you have to keep them engaged. You have to make sure everyone feels safe, that everyone is acting appropriately and kindly to each other, and this is going to go on every thirty or forty minutes during the day.

The other thing that’s really interesting is that our student teachers will come in and they are exhausted. I have never been so tired as I was when I first started teaching. You’re constantly ‘on’ and there’s an emotional drain. You’re learning how to pace yourself. You learn about how much planning and effort really go into your teaching. You learn to be very intentional about bringing theory into practice.

With students, sometimes, it’s like just big words and they don’t know how the theory is going to work. For instance, if we’re talking about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, where you put together a couple of people – one is a master, one is an apprentice – I’ll say why don’t you do this in your classroom? If you’ve got one kid who’s really good at a particular scale and you’ve got a friend over here who is not, have them work together. That’s Vygotsky. You probably do that anyway.

There is knowledge you can draw on so your students have a stronger, more meaningful music experience. That’s what I try to do.

Brenda Brenner

I think that to be really successful as a Music Teacher you have to be a fine musician. I think they really need to focus on their instrument, learning to play it well, and having as many varied and rich performance experiences as possible. Secondly, search out a lot of apprenticeship situations for yourself so you have that storehouse of experience when you’re in front of students.

Work with a wide variety of students so you just get more practice. You would never think of playing a recital on your instrument without practice! It’s the same thing in education; you just need more practice in front of groups so that you can feel comfortable and you can be successful.

Do not close any doors. Keep all the doors open and give yourself the widest variety of experiences. You never know what you’re going to be doing ten years down the road. My trajectory has changed many, many times in my career. It’s still changing. I think you have to be open and seek out the best possible experiences, to be curious and put yourself out there.

What’s Your Advice for Recent Graduates?

Teryl Dobbs

Once you graduate and finish everything up, take some time during the next few weeks to sit back and just absorb and reflect. Take that time to let everything sink in and settle. Congratulate yourself on what you’ve accomplished. It’s huge. This is really one of the only times you can sit back and rest on your laurels.

You worked really hard to earn those — so sit back and enjoy it! Then, once, the jobs and the interviews start coming, you’ll be able to articulate your practice and begin the rest of your journey.

The other thing is you should have a really solid support system, whether it’s a personal relationship, family, or your cohort of friends with whom you graduated. Call on people. Your professors are always a phone call away. I tell people ‘call 1-800-DOBBS.’ Call on us as part of your network.

Brenda Brenner

I tell my students they need to network like crazy. By ‘networking’ I just mean going to the Music Education Association conferences and not being afraid to meet people and say, ‘Hi, my name is Brenda and I’m looking for a job.’ You just have to put yourself out there and see what happens.

You need to be on top of the whole job search so you’re ahead of the game. My students who have had some problems getting jobs were the ones who were doing it last minute. It’s like anything else: you have to practice. You have to practice the interview process, you have to know what to expect and you have to take advantage of your mentors. I spend a lot of time mentoring my students in the process of getting a job.

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