music instructor

Building Your Career as a Music Instructor

Teaching music can be a rewarding and fun career. As a job, being a music educator also has its share of challenges and demands. If you’ve been thinking about what it takes, and how to prepare for a career in teaching music, I can answer many of your questions and give you some important things to consider as you go about choosing and creating your own career destination in music and education.

None of us are truly unique, but our paths most certainly are. I like this expression because it causes me to reflect on my own career path, and how my experience as a Music Teacher might be helpful to younger musicians. I never really expected to have a career in teaching, but that was just how it worked out. On the other hand, many of my current students feel they will be ready to embrace teaching at some future stage of their music career. I remember thinking the same thing during my college years. Whether you are thinking about teaching music as your main pursuit or perhaps have thought about teaching music as a “day job” to sustain your living costs while pursuing an artist career, this article is for you.

“Called” to Teach

Teaching music affords more than just earning potential (don’t let anyone tell you there is no money in teaching); it also stimulates lifelong learning and helps keep you stay young. As a Teacher, you have the opportunity to interact with young people and to positively impact their lives each and every day. A great Teacher shows their students what the future might look like for them, and how their learning can help prepare them for a productive and good life.

Music is both a vocation and an avocation; not every student you teach will become a professional, but music can enrich their lives in so many ways. On the other hand, teaching is both a profession and a calling. A Teacher needs to learn many specific skills and must undergo training in order to be effective. Teachers need patience, creativity, strong musical skills, and most importantly they must truly care deeply about the students they teach.

Music Pedagogy

I like to describe pedagogy in the simplest terms as “how to teach good.” Students have different learning styles and capabilities; a Teacher must be prepared to teach to all students. Learning must also be progressive. That is, there is a sensible order in which things should be learned. Students need to crawl before they can walk, and walk before they can run. The Teacher must put themselves into the mindset of the student and help the student to make real and lasting progress. They do this by remembering what it was like for them to learn and relearning together with the students.

Especially in music, students must learn to DO things (play their instrument, read and write music, perform in a group, compose songs, etc.), so giving an explanation of how to do a specific thing is not enough. For actual learning to take place, the Teacher must design and structure activities, proscribe practice routines, and students must diligently follow those routines while correcting errors and marking their progress along the way. This process in itself is a great example of music pedagogy.

A Teacher does not need to be an expert in pedagogy to succeed. Some Teachers have a natural ability to improvise in the classroom, and others design very detailed and thorough lesson plans. The important thing is for a Teacher to have some awareness of what works best for their students, and the ability to change an activity when something isn’t working well. Having an arsenal of teaching techniques is a good way to prepare for this. Just as with music, teaching requires some practice, and a good musician can usually learn to be an effective Teacher. Aside from classroom management and curriculum design skills, the actual teaching of students should always follow some kind of organized plan, and this is where knowledge of music pedagogy can be crucial to teaching and learning.

As a Teacher, you have the opportunity to interact with young people and to positively impact their lives each and every day. A great Teacher shows their students what the future might look like for them, and how their learning can help prepare them for a productive and good life.

The Business of Teaching

Aside from your skills as a Teacher and a musician, you will also need to prepare to market yourself to potential employers and students. This is a totally different skillset which also requires you to adopt some creative business thinking. A good starting point is to understand that education is a business. Students pay tuition in order to learn, and your teaching (and their learning) is the “product” of your effort, skill, and knowledge. This is what you are paid for.

Fortunately, there is always demand for music education, which creates a market for teaching skills. The best Teachers are always in high demand because students know in advance that with a good Teacher, their thirst for increased knowledge and skilled training will be fulfilled. If you are well prepared as an educator, you should find there are always plenty of good opportunities to teach.

As in any market, there is competition. There are other Teachers and schools, and the students or whoever is hiring the Teachers need to be able to quickly understand why you are the best choice for them. This means at minimum having a good resume, artist bio, and cover letter. If you are planning to teach private lessons independently, then you will need some marketing materials, such as a website and social media presence, plus posters, flyers, and a business card. Many Teachers also produce instructional videos to promote themselves and earn money via the web. Teaching online is also an option.

Learn as much as you can about the education industry. If you are enrolled in college, it’s a great place to start, with your own institution as a model. I’m not suggesting you go to business school, but it’s smart to learn all you can about business. There are many great books and online resources. Having a mentor is also a smart idea. A mentor can lead you and help prepare you for what is ahead, plus encourage you and connect you to their own network.

Lifelong Learning

One of the best things that comes with being a Teacher is continued learning. I see it as a “secret” of teaching: to learn as much as possible from the students. My goal for each and every one of my students is for them to learn some useful things from me. And I also want to learn something from each of them. If I can learn even one thing from each of them, I would learn a lot.

As Teachers, we need to stay current with what is going on in the music field, because things change very quickly. We can’t rely on our knowledge from ten years ago and expect to know how to prepare our students for the future environment, let alone the current one. This means we are constantly engaged in research, to understand new trends, methodologies, music, and techniques. The best Teachers are usually actively engaged in ongoing research, reading books, listening to new music, attending conferences, and finding fun and interesting ways to better their knowledge and improve their skills in their teaching focus areas. To be a strong role model to students, Teachers should also be engaged in continuous learning and professional development.

Getting an Education

If you are teaching privately it will be helpful to have a music college or conservatory degree in order to attract students, although a bachelor’s degree is not a hard and fast requirement. There are some good Private Instrument Teachers without degrees, as they may have other credentials, such as performing locally on a regular basis or being featured on high profile gigs and recordings. Most schools will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to apply for a job teaching music.

High schools, elementary schools, and middle schools usually look for a degree in music education, although they might hire a Music Teacher who can also teach other subjects, depending on the size and the type of the school. Many public schools require certifications which must accompany a degree in music education. In order to receive their degree and be certified, Student Teachers must complete a practicum, which involves observing and being observed in the classroom while teaching.

Colleges will often look for more specialized degrees related to the area of teaching and courses to be taught. This makes sense since if you are studying composition, for example, you would want a Teacher who was a Composer and had studied composition themselves. It takes a trained Guitarist to teach college level guitar students, to give another example. For college teaching, a music education degree is good mostly for teaching music education courses.

Of course, there are people who teach across musical disciplines too. They may have degrees in performance, but be able to also teach music business, or arranging and production. In this case, it is important to have a portfolio of demonstrable skills in the areas you intend to teach. Sometimes flexibility and the ability to teach across disciplines can be a big plus for schools looking to hire one person to cover a variety of courses. Other times, a college may be looking for a specialty, such as marching band, composition, or a specific instrument like harp or trombone.

Getting a college degree is a good opportunity to build a variety of skills, whether in production, business, writing, performing, or any other area outside your major. For those wishing to teach in college, a master’s degree is usually essential. If you are shopping for a music degree, one good resource is the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges which is published every year. You could also talk to a High School Guidance Counselor or visit a local educational resource center or a library, and of course, Google is always a terrific tool for searching for more info on schools.

One of my mentors, Rob Rose, shared a really important pointer: (paraphrasing) “There are two things you need to be a good Teacher. Knowledge of your subject and the willingness to share it with others.”

Career Planning

Think ahead and try to imagine what your career might look like in the short, mid, and long-term. There are musicians who focus on their artist careers first and then develop teaching careers later on. Others are focused on becoming Teachers right away. It might be helpful to do a personal and professional self-assessment, where you write down all your strengths and weaknesses along with your likes and dislikes. Try to describe exactly what your career will look like in 5, 10 and 20 years. It’s important to write everything down as this is a way to make your plans more tangible and real. You can then also show it to Counselors and others who may have important suggestions or information for you to consider in light of your specific goals.

In my own case, I started out teaching privately while I was earning my college music degree. During those years, I was employed by a small neighborhood music store near my home in Somerville, Massachusetts. That led to other opportunities, such as teaching at other stores and managing the store’s school instrument rental program. This was an excellent opportunity to learn on the job, and I developed organized teaching methods and approaches for different types of students at all levels and ages. It also provided a nice steady stream of income I could use to pay my rent and other bills.

A few years later, I was asked to teach classes part-time at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I had earned my degree. This was my first taste of classroom teaching. I remember being nervous about it just before I started. One of my mentors, Rob Rose, shared a really important pointer: (paraphrasing) “There are two things you need to be a good Teacher. Knowledge of your subject and the willingness to share it with others.” Later I got more valuable tips from my department heads and deans. Much of the advice was fairly common-sense, such as to learn all your students’ names. As I gained more experience I became more confident as a Teacher.

It may be difficult to know exactly where your career path will lead, but forming a set of clear (written) goals, considering the obstacles that exist and how to overcome them, and learning to recognize opportunities will help you to get ahead.

Classroom Teaching Versus Private Studio

As I described above, my own experience includes teaching privately and in the classroom. I have also conducted master classes and workshops on music and music education in many countries. There are some important but interesting differences to consider when it comes to the kinds of teaching you may find yourself doing. Facing a large lecture hall full of hundreds of students is a very different challenge compared to teaching a single student sitting in front of you.

In front of a group, especially a large group, I always think about it as being similar to a musical performance. It’s important to get the audience’s attention early and maintain it throughout. Keeping your presentation short and concise, speaking loudly and clearly, making eye contact with members of the audience, appropriate pacing, and having a strong conclusion are all important aspects to pay attention to.

As with public speaking, there are some techniques to learn as you start out. Channeling any nervousness into a productive outcome is one such technique. (“Stage fright” is not limited to just performing!) Judicious use of humor can also be an effective tool. I found it helpful to observe Public Speakers and Master Teachers to take note of the most effective techniques they use. I also observed less-experienced speakers to learn what NOT to do. I found certain TED Talks on public speaking to be helpful, such as Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s presentation on the research into body language.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, with a private studio student, you have a chance to really get to know them. You can quickly ascertain their level of musical knowledge and ability, assess how they learn, and map out a strategy for their progress. It’s rewarding to see growth in your individual students over time and understand your own role in that progress. In this case, you can understand them as an individual, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and find ways for them to learn and make progress. The Teacher-student relationship becomes more personalized.

It’s vital that you inspire them to learn. One way to do this is to display your own mastery, without showing off. If you can demonstrate your own skill in a way that makes them feel they can learn from you, and show them the steps they can take to get there, your most eager students will be grateful to you and remember their lesson times fondly. One of the most rewarding things about teaching is when your students come back years later (sometimes many years later) to tell you what a positive impact you had on them and their learning.

Whether in the classroom or studio, a Teacher can’t know everything. It’s fine to admit when you don’t know the answer to a student’s question, or when you were wrong in the past. Honesty and transparency engender respect and admiration from students. When you can, it’s important to answer students’ questions in a clear way that everyone can understand. You know you are doing it right when you see the light bulb switch on above their head.

Show Them the Way

Remember that for every accomplished person, there was a time when they didn’t know anything. We all had to learn, and at the beginning, we need Teachers to show us the way. Teaching music really is something you are called to do, a vocation. While there is money to be earned, one shouldn’t do it only for the money (there are easier ways to earn money). You could be a part-time or full-time Teacher, and combine that role with just about any other kind of career, in music or outside of the music field.

I clearly remember a metaphor shared often with me by my father, who was a Professor at Cornell. He said he felt like a mother bird in the nest, going around to each student to deposit a small bit of knowledge in their minds, as the mother bird would provide sustenance to her chicks’ outstretched open beaks. As a Teacher now myself, I can identify with that image fairly easily. If you think teaching is in your future, seek out other Teachers you admire and respect and ask them to share their secrets with you. Teaching is one of the best ways to keep learning, and if you love music, you might love teaching it to others as well.

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