What Does It Take to Be a Music Teacher?
Music Teachers instruct elementary, junior high, or high school students in performance and music theory. They also lead various performance ensembles at the school, such as the marching band, choir, or orchestra.
How To Become a Music Teacher
Q&A - Quick Answers
Music Teachers can be found in both primary and secondary schools, where they also lead musical ensembles like the choir, orchestra, concert band, marching band, or jazz band, in addition to conducting music lessons during class time. Usually, there will be a greater diversity of ensemble options at the high school level than at the elementary or junior high level.
Many schools have Choral, Band, and Orchestral Music faculty on staff. While many of their job duties overlap, the demands will be slightly different based on which type of music they teach. Generally speaking, Instructors in these roles teach performance skills, improvising, reading music, and sometimes, composing.
Music Instructors report to their school Principal and their school district’s Supervisor of Music. Depending on the size and hiring budget of their school, they may also work in the classroom with a Teaching Assistant or Teaching Intern who is on the way to earning his or her degree.
To learn what it’s like to be Music Teacher, we spoke to these award-winning music educators:
- Kevin Brawley (General Music Teacher, Torrence Creek Elementary, NC)
- Keith Hancock (Choral Music Teacher, Tesoro High, CA)
- Ashleigh Spatz (Music Specialist, Burgess-Peterson Academy, GA)
Both Kevin Brawley and Ashley Spatz are Country Music Association Music Teachers of Excellence. Keith Hancock is a GRAMMY Music Educator of the Year. These are just a sampling of the awards they’ve received; scroll down to the Sources section to read each Teacher’s list of honors.
What are the job duties of a Music Teacher?
For reference, I am a General Music K-5 Teacher, so I teach music to every K-5 student in my elementary school.
My day to day duties look something like this:
- I arrive an hour early to school to prep and set out materials/instruments.
- I have morning duty which, for me, involves greeting the kids while playing my guitar as they come off the bus.
- I teach my morning classes (K-2).
- I teach my afternoon classes (3-5).
- I have after-school duty which, for me, involves making sure the kids walk home with the correct parent.
- I stay about 30 minutes after dismissal cleaning house, going over the lessons I taught, tightening them up, adjusting anything for the next day, and readying the room for the next day.
- I also lead an after-school 4th and 5th grade elective choir one day a week. This involves planning for concerts, planning rehearsals, connecting with parent volunteers, etc.
As a General Music Elementary Teacher, my job duties include teaching six 45 minute classes a day. I teach every student in the school which at my current school is about 500 students a week, but I have taught in other places where I had close to 900 students a week.
I create lessons and assessments for kindergarten through 5th-grade students and communicate with their parents throughout the year. We have two schoolwide performances each year and several smaller performances for special assemblies or PTA meetings. I have breakfast duty in the cafeteria every morning and carpool duty every afternoon. I voluntarily run a steel drum band and chorus that rehearse once a week and have several performances throughout the year.
There are also leadership opportunities. I am the head of the “specials” team which encompasses art, music, P.E., Spanish, and gifted, and I am a Lead Teacher for all of the Elementary Music Teachers in my district. My duties with those roles include planning professional development, writing curriculum, mentoring new Teachers, and participating in advocacy efforts.
A typical day involves arriving at 7:45 am and teaching three choir classes, which are 100 minutes each. Between the first two periods, there is a tutorial period where students can come in to get extra help.
In each choir period, I am teaching the students vocal technique, music history, music theory, sight-singing, and the learning of repertoire. I lead each rehearsal from the piano. Between classes and after school, I am answering emails, working individually with students, filling out paperwork, and planning events for the choir.
How many hours a week do Music Teachers work?
It varies, but generally, I will be in class an hour early and ½ hour after dismissal. Right off the bat, that equates to 47.5 hours per week. When choir is in session and concert season is approaching, that number can easily be much higher.
I try and leave my work at work so I can focus on my family. My first few years, I brought home a ton of work and was ALWAYS working on lesson plans. I realized very quickly that was unsustainable, so I have made a very concerted effort to leave work at work.
Teachers are salaried employees, which means you work until the job is adequately done. This can become a tricky issue with work/life balance as most Music Teachers are extremely passionate about their career and will pour everything into their job. During the day expect to work 40 hours a week, and then it is up to you how much more of your outside time you want to devote to your job. How many concerts do you want to plan? How many extra rehearsals? How much time and effort do you want to put into lesson prep and planning?
It can be a very delicate balance to excel at your job, but still leave time and energy for your home life. Typically, High School Band Teachers require the most after-hours commitments because of marching band, but music teachers at all levels can spend many hours working outside of the classroom and actual school day.
Most of my days I am teaching from 7:45 am to 2:45 pm, and I work after school until about 4 pm. I try not to bring work home with me but sometimes I answer emails and do some work at home.
There are some outside rehearsals and performances that require me to spend extra time on a few nights throughout the year. I also take my groups on trips overnight, and these can last up to ten days.
On average, Music Teachers earn approximately $51,000 annually. The salary range runs from $31,000 to $88,000.
Music education salaries can vary widely. This difference is based on experience and/or the school district in which the Teacher works. Certified Teachers who are newer to the field will earn on the lower end of the spectrum; their salary increases as their time on the job does. In public schools, the districts are funded by property taxes so, generally speaking, schools in wealthier communities are able to pay higher salaries.
Although we’ve all heard the stories about art department budgets being slashed at schools across the country, this isn’t necessarily the case everywhere. It’s still possible to find rewarding work as a Music Teacher!
In fact, the path to landing a teaching gig in a school is more straightforward than many music careers. It’s a matter of having the correct educational background, work experience (including internships or Student Teacher gigs), and connections to the community where Teachers are seeking work so they can know about available teaching opportunities.
Is it hard to get work as a Music Teacher?
Yes and no. Jobs are out there, but you may not be able to find your dream job right off the bat. Maybe you are extremely motivated to work as a Middle School Choral Director in a particular city, but you may have to settle for teaching high school general music the next town over. This is why Music Teachers are certified to teach so many subjects.
Unfortunately, it seems the answer would be no. I have seen way too many unqualified or unmotivated Music Teachers to believe otherwise. In NC, our programs are deemed essential, and therefore funded fully. Obviously, some programs have more administrative or community support than others, but I believe you make your own luck. I have a well-funded and very well-supported program because of the effort I have put in, which leads to the results I have gotten.
Outside of school, there will always be a market for private lessons if one were to go that route.
After developing their musical education through schooling, they would need to find out what jobs are available through online postings and word-of-mouth. Applications need to be filled out and interviews need to be obtained.
- Develop your content knowledge as much as possible.
- Develop voice, piano, and conducting skills.
- Develop confidence in your ability to concisely convey verbal information.
- Talk to experienced Teachers to find out the best teaching strategies for a variety of situations and creative repertoire planning.
As part of their college coursework, aspiring music education professionals begin their careers via teaching internships. They may also teach within their communities concurrent with their academic pursuits, perhaps as a community Choir Director or Private Instrument Teacher.
Once they have received their state teacher certification, they can apply to positions as a Teaching Assistant, Long-term Substitute, or a part-time or full-time Music Teacher. Assistant, Substitute, and part-time teaching roles are good preparation for a full-time career role, especially if these openings are difficult to find in the immediate area.
For music education majors who are still in school, teaching internships and community teaching gigs can help build a network of colleagues who know of openings in their schools or in neighboring districts.
Experience & Skills
Music Teachers must be skilled performers and patient, inspiring instructors. Piano skills are necessary for Instrumental Music Instructors, too, who are required to demonstrate keyboard proficiency in college. Band or Orchestra faculty must also be able to demonstrate mastery of their principal instruments.
People skills and the ability to work with kids, teens, and young adults are, of course, paramount. Many of these skills can be learned during the teaching internship that’s required of Music Education majors.
What skills does a Music Teacher need?
Having the ability to teach singing and play the piano is invaluable. Other skills that aid in the process are repertoire selection, conducting skills, and interpersonal skills. The ability to lead a team, articulate goals, and do curriculum planning is a big benefit.
A Music Teacher needs to be a strong leader and a strong musician. They need to be able to relate to students and clearly articulate goals and know how to meet them. They should be organized and hard-working, and they need to be able to work with adults and children alike.
You need to have top-notch problem-solving skills and people skills in addition to your musical and pedagogical knowledge. Teachers collaborate with all different sorts of people on a daily basis who come from varied backgrounds and may have a different set of values than your own. To really thrive at this job, you have to be willing and prepared to problem solve and work with students, their parents, other Teachers, and Administrators.
I feel like a Music Teacher needs the same skills every other classroom Teacher does, and then they need a strong musical understanding on top of that! A good Teacher (regardless of subject) will be patient, flexible, pragmatic, unpredictable, genuinely excited about their subject material, and able to meet the kids on their own level.
I am convinced that my non-traditional musical background (never classically trained until college, never performed with a choir until college, toured the country in a van after high school with my band, releasing numerous independent records, touring, recording, composing, etc.) has set me up for success in a very unique way, and that translates into the unique teaching style I have developed.
Education & Training
Aspiring Music Teachers must satisfy their individual state’s educational requirements before they can seek work, so it makes sense to attend school in the state where you intend to teach.
For example, colleges in California will be geared towards meeting California’s state teaching requirements, while a college in Kentucky may have differing requirements. Additionally, not all schools require the same level of academic credentials. Some may prefer candidates with Master’s degrees in addition their Music Education Bachelor’s.
What does it take to be a Music Teacher?
Most states require a K-12 music certification which certifies that you can teach band, orchestra, chorus, and/or general music from kindergarten to 12th grade. This requires taking a certification test for your state and then participating in professional learning throughout your career to keep your certification valid and renewed.
Employers prefer that you have a four-year degree in music as well. Some schools will hire you on a provisional basis as you work towards earning these educational qualifications.
A classroom Music Teacher needs to get, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Teaching Certification/Credential in Music. This process varies with each state’s requirements.
In NC, a Teacher needs to be licensed for their content area and have an associated college degree. I have a BM in Music Education with a concentration in Voice from UNC-Charlotte. My licensure applies to any K-12 music position I would apply for, but I have only ever been interested in teaching elementary
There are a huge variety of professional organizations and associations dedicated to teaching music, many of which have collegiate chapters so students can get immersed in the world of music education early. “I just know the vocal side,” Hancock says, “but definitely the American Choral Directors Association and the NAFME (fka MENC). That is crucial to getting professional development.”
Other groups which may provide valuable educational, networking and community resources include Music Teachers National Association, the College Music Society, National Association of Teachers of Singing, American String Teachers Association, International Association for Jazz Education, and International Society for Music Education
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“You are responsible for everything that happens in your classroom. Don’t play the blame game. It’s no one‘s fault but yours when there are music or behavior problems. Figure out the solutions.”
Is there anything else you think aspiring Music Teachers should know?
When I began my teaching career, I was hyper-focused on lesson planning, teaching techniques, and long-range curriculum choices. This was a necessary and important first phase of building my program, as it set the expectation for excellence immediately.
Once that foundation had been built, I began to see much better results when I focused on the personal relationships with my students. My kids would lay in traffic for me because they know I would do the same for them. This kind of relationship is not earned without an honest and loving effort on both of our parts. I would hope that any aspiring Music Teacher can find a way to set high expectations for their students, teach them applicable musical skills, and show them that music is not some secret beast living off high in the hills… it is something their students can understand, enjoy, and participate in fully!
All of this can be done under the umbrella of love and caring relationships. The best thing a student could ever say about me would have nothing to do with the musical skills I taught them, it would be that they felt loved by me and that they understood how much I believed in them back then, and that I still believe in them now.
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“How do you foster a social environment in your class?
We do monthly social activities, a summer retreat, and have a mentorship program to build the team/family feel of the program.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Kevin Brawley is an Educator, Children’s Choir Director, Public Speaker, and Professional Development Specialist from Charlotte, North Carolina. He has been a Public School Teacher for nine years in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at Torrence Creek Elementary, and a private Guitar Teacher for nine years prior to that.
As a Teacher, Kevin believes in every child’s ability to learn regardless of circumstance or background. He prides himself on having an inclusive and positive learning environment for all of his students–especially those with disabilities. His energetic and unorthodox teaching style is focused on student engagement, a willingness to search for unexpected teaching moments, and honest personal relationships with each of his students, which make the rigorous concepts he teaches easy for them to get excited about.
As a speaker, Kevin has an energetic and uplifting presence and burns to see a revival in education. He is passionate about removing the limitations of what people believe is possible in a classroom. Where others may see obstacles, Kevin sees opportunity for innovation and an infusion of new ideas. He has spoken around the country about teaching students with autism and has been chosen to address the entire staff of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at their back-to-school learning symposium. He has also spoken at business events and to undergraduate music education students at UNC-Charlotte.
In 2015, Kevin began planning to outfit his school with a professional-level recording studio. After being named one of only 30 National Music Teachers of Excellence by Nashville’s CMA Foundation in 2019, and with grants awarded locally by the CMS Foundation and other private donors–his dream became a reality in the spring of 2020. Kevin has received numerous awards and recognition for his work, including being named the UNC-Charlotte Young Alumni of the Year in 2019, and the UNC-Charlotte COAA Outstanding Alumni of the Year in 2020.
Currently, Kevin is writing his first book, The Sober Teacher, and is working to create an online home school music program to help parents give their students the same level of musical instruction and possibility available in his classroom.
Keith Hancock is the Choral Music Teacher at Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, where he has taught for about a decade and a half. In 2017, Hancock won the GRAMMY Music Educator of the Year award.
He has been profiled in the The Orange County Register, Grammy.com, GrammyInTheSchools.com, CBS This Morning, Smart Music, Broadway World, UPI, FX Tribune, Orange County Department of Education Newsroom, Billboard, National Federation of State High School Associations, Irvine City News, PBS, GospelMusic.org, Bangor Daily News, LA Times, Daily News, U Discover Music, Downbeat, and Variety.
You can also watch Keith Hancock interviewed live backstage at the 59th GRAMMYs and check out a congratulatory video from the National Education Association.
Hancock’s choirs have been invited to perform at the American Choral Directors Association’s Western Division conference twice. They have also performed in Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England, Ireland and Carnegie Hall in New York. His Madrigals group has journeyed to France, Germany, and Luxembourg.
Ashleigh Spatz has teaching in her bloodline. She was born into a family of Teachers who instilled in her a love of lifelong learning and a passion for using her talents to create positive change in society. Ms. Spatz started her career in Fulton County Schools where she honed her skills as a General Music Teacher and learned from the best. She now works for Atlanta Public Schools and has found her home at Burgess-Peterson Academy. She excels at creating a positive and challenging environment for her students who feel encouraged to take risks and let their talents shine.
Ms. Spatz has received several statewide and national awards including the Give-A-Note Music Innovator Award in 2020, the CMA Music Teacher of Excellence Award in 2019, and the Teach On Project Award in 2019. She has worked for the Georgia Department of Education to write curriculum and music education standards for the state. She has a passion for mentoring new Teachers and is not only a proud Teacher but also a proud mom to her four children, a fur baby, and 18 chickens.