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15 Things You Learn In a College Music Education Program Vs. 11 Knowledge Topics You’ll Need While Teaching Music That You Won’t Learn In a Music Education Program

Updated: Jun 8

A college student sitting in a keyboard lab.
College student in a keyboard lab.

I would like to preface this article by firmly saying two things.  First, a music education degree, or two, or more, is very valuable.  The point of this article is never to diminish the value or claim that you can be a great music teacher without going to college.  I wouldn’t know enough to say the latter: I have two Music Education degrees and know I became a much better teacher after I earned them.  

Secondly, the purpose of this article is not to insult the degree programs themselves.  Music education programs include what they should include to have students get done what they need to in four years, including student teaching.  I think I would be correct in saying that every teacher and professor would agree that it takes more than four years of college to create a great teacher, maybe even a competent teacher, as most teachers learn an extensive amount about their jobs during their first years of employment.  The purpose of this article is to expose the knowledge gaps that perhaps coursework could fill if somehow students were able to cram more topics into their degrees than what four years would cover.  

It’s wishful thinking, all of it, and really no fault of anyone except the ridiculously fast passage of time and lack of enough hours in each day.  But fortunately, no teacher, especially music teachers should consider themselves done with learning once they attend their graduation ceremonies.  The rest of that knowledge that they should pick up will always be there waiting for them when they are ready for it.

Knowledge Topics the Typical Bachelor’s of Music Education Teaches You

In order to align  with accreditation requirements, many college programs look roughly the same.  Aside from general education coursework, this degree will include basic music/musicianship courses:

  • Music Theory

  • Aural Skills

  • Music History

  • Piano Skills

  • Conducting (Intro and Specialized)

  • Recital Attendance and Participation

  • Recital Graduation Requirement

  • Lessons in Major Instrument/Voice

  • Ensemble Participation

Students also complete:

  • Intro and Foundations of Music Education

  • Methods and Rehearsal Technique Courses

  • Student Teaching

  • Psychology and Educational Psychology

  • Courses pertaining to special needs students and other extenuating student circumstances, including mandatory reporter training, inclusion, differentiation and diversity

  • Methods/Pedagogy Classes for various instruments and voice (ex. Diction)

Music Education Students Would Also Enjoy Being Able to Include:

  • Music Technology for the K-12 music classroom

  • Literature and Repertoire

  • Jazz Pedagogy

  • Marching Band Pedagogy

  • Cross-training into other areas of the music education certification

A music classroom prior to the year 2000
A music classroom for previous generations.

The Bitter Truth About Music Education Certifications

Music Education Certifications are most often (Pre) K-12 Music.  It looks appealing to have customized degree programs, where students have their major instrument, and have a “track” to align themselves with, like vocal or instrumental and instrumental having a band or strings focus.  But with the certification description looking so broad, how does that impact the ability for a teacher to get a job?  Does it help them look more specialized or does it make their qualifications look too narrow?  Let’s look at a couple of scenarios:

  1. A music teacher with a specific specialization is hired and seems to have the right training for the job.  Their position is eliminated because of budget cuts because they don’t have the training to be placed elsewhere.  For example, a string teacher has had their position eliminated and because they have little training in general music, they cannot be moved to that position even though they are certified for it.

  2. A music teacher that is primarily trained in general music doesn’t have their contract renewed because the school wants to add a choir and the current teacher does not have any experience in starting and leading one.

  3. A recent college graduate has an interest in both band and strings and is very proficient in several instruments that span both areas, perhaps even has student taught in both settings.  The new teacher has trouble being hired for a job because their transcript doesn’t look specialized enough.

  4. A music teacher is experienced and qualified in some areas of music education but not all, and administration is struggling to find a teacher to teach classes at another building where someone retired.  The teacher is placed in that building part time as an itinerant teacher, but is struggling because they did not take courses for that setting and/or have never taught in that setting.

After informally surveying music teachers in a facebook group about this concern, there was quite a lively discussion about how expectations are different, but many agreed that it didn't matter what track you studied in college; you would be hired where you were hired and placed where you were placed. This meant that if you weren't proficient in the music education knowledge topics that you were expected to teach, you needed to become proficient- and fast!

A classroom with keyboard, smartboards, pro sound and individual workspaces.
A dream music technology lab for high school.

Solutions for Music Education Knowledge Gaps

Certainly there’s an answer to every scenario above and other similar ones not listed.  Perhaps teachers are working on a Master’s degree and can take coursework to assist.  Perhaps they’ll learn as they go.  Possibly it is taken as a sign that this isn’t the right fit for the teacher- the right one will come. 

There needs to be another solution to help teachers’ needs immediately and that assistance comes in the form of professional development.  However, most teachers cannot afford to go back to college, in neither time nor money.  But they do need to take courses to fulfill PD hours as mandated by their state and certification requirements.  

Courses that would definitely assist the experienced teacher in the areas of improvement and cross-training to other settings would include:

  • Additional instrument methods classes

  • Curriculum development

  • Updated technology

  • Integrating popular music styles and their educational/pedagogical value

  • Anything that makes their job as a music teacher easier, more efficient and less stressful

  • Anything else from the third set of bullets above, which is what they never were able to take in college that would help them now.

At Uplevel U: Music, we are working to change this, so that it is no longer a concern for music teachers, forever. With 6 courses so far, and one more being released shortly, it's a far cry from teachers having access to every micro bit of knowledge they could use. But it's a start, and it's a project that will not cease until music teachers have one website to find a course for every topic they need to supplment for themselves. Visit Uplevel U: Music today to see where we have started, how it is organized and how it can help you and your colleagues.

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