The first time I entertained the idea of becoming a music teacher, I was in 5th grade. We were asked by our teacher to write a speech about our future career goals to present to the class. I wrote a lively talk about how I wanted to become a band director. You see, as most musicians do, I grew up in a very musical family. In fact, my dad was the high school band director in my small town, which explains my enthusiasm for holding a baton. As time went on my career goals shifted, and I majored in music performance in college, rather than education. As time went on even further, I found myself teaching elementary music and loving it. All this to say that many roads lead to Rome, it just depends on how you want to get there. There’s the direct and most common path, but there’s also a couple of scenic routes. So you want to become a music teacher? Here’s how to do it:
1. Develop Your Musicianship & Professional Network
This may be the first step, but it is two things you will have to continue to do throughout your journey to becoming a music teacher, but also after you become a music teacher. Also, this first step is majorly foreshadowing steps to come. In order to become a music teacher, you must be an accomplished, or at minimum competent, musician. If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you are in your high school years. Start now. Learn how to practice effectively and efficiently, listen to recordings, play for people, and play with other musicians. Take music elective courses like music theory and music history. If those aren’t offered at your school or in your community, consider seeking a tutor. Although I did not have either of these courses in high school, I did take piano lessons for a very long time, which provided me with an exorbitant amount of music theory knowledge. Taking the time to absorb as much as possible in these beginning stages of becoming a music teacher will not necessarily unlock expert level skills, but will at least get you thinking and aware.
Growing your professional network in high school or your young musician years may not seem like an important step, but it is a small world, and the music world is even smaller. I played in high school honor bands with a member of the Canadian Brass and a future colleague in my undergraduate studio. It’s important to be friendly, professional, and keep in touch with those folks you play with or for. In the music business, they say it’s all about who you know. This can also be true for music education. Plus, it never hurts to be polite, friendly, and gracious, no matter your career goals.
2. Get Experience Teaching or Mentoring
This is an important step for both high school students who are considering a career in music education, as well as pre-service teachers who are completing coursework. As often as you can, take opportunities to speak in front of a group or work one on one with a younger student or friend. Even if it isn’t music related, the experience you gain critically thinking through a process and speaking effectively to a crowd will only help you in the long term.
When I was in high school, I taught piano lessons and beginning trumpet lessons to younger students. Granted, I didn’t charge as much as a professional player, but I made some pocket change and gained a lot of experience teaching one on one. I learned a lot about my own trumpet playing, and I also learned that teaching beginning brass players was not my strength. Similarly, in college I was a counselor at a fine arts camp. I thoroughly enjoyed the summer, but did not feel particularly comfortable as an authority figure to high school students. I did, however, love to teach piano lessons to kindergartners and teach preschool music classes. These early experiences gave me an idea of what it would look like to become a music teacher. Now, I’m an early childhood and elementary music educator. Early experiences not only gives you the opportunity to practice your teaching skills, but also helps you identify what kind or area of music teaching you may best identify.
3. Apply, Interview, and Decide on a College, University, or Conservatory
You’ve decided to go for it. You love to sing or play your instrument, you get excited about working with students, and you’re officially ready to commit yourself to the life of a music educator. Now it’s time to decide where to apply. Where should you apply? What happens after that? The first step to becoming a music teacher is compiling your list of possibly schools. Although it’s easy to pick based on the successful football team, or where your friends go to school, it’s important that you think really critically about your options. As a music education major, you’ll likely be part of a music school, and an even smaller cohort of music education students. Every school has a different dynamic and it’s important to make sure you find a good fit.
When looking at schools to apply to, research the music education faculty. Think about what area you’re thinking you may want to go into, whether band, choir, or elementary, but also remembering it may change. Many faculty members at universities do research and write articles, so make sure you take the opportunity to read any articles or publications they may have published. If you know any current students at the university, especially in the department, ask questions. Gather as much information as you can.
Once you’ve decided where to apply, you’ll begin the application process. You’ll likely be asked about your personal philosophy, which should include music and education, as well as your future career goals. Be sure to include anecdotes about your varied musical and teaching/mentoring experiences. This is your time to shine and explain why you’ve decided to be a music teacher! After your application is submitted, a school may require an interview. This is your chance to talk about how excited and eager you are to work with kids and develop their musicianship. Also keep in mind that you’ll likely need to audition to be admitted to a music education program, since you will be a member of the music school and the education school. Take a deep breath and enjoy performing—this is why you want to teach music, to give students the opportunity to perform and share their musical gift.
After you’ve completed this somewhat rigorous process, it’s time for the waiting game. If you have done your due diligence, you’ll have a decision to make—where should you go? Odds are, particularly if you had a campus visit and a department interview, you’ll have a gut feeling about where you belong. If you find yourself unsure, make sure to communicate any questions or concerns—often times faculty are more than happy to discuss with you after an offer has been extended. Then take a deep breath and accept! You are well on your way, but the journey to become a music teacher has only begun.
4. Get Organized & Stay Focused!
Once you are in school, the real work begins. Music education students have some of the heaviest course loads of anyone I know. Often you are carrying the load of a music performance student (either in an instrumental or vocal studio) as well as an education student, as well as music education specific courses. Because of this, many music education students take a full load for 4-5 years, not including student teaching. To make sure you swim rather than sink, get organized and stay focused! Odds are many of your colleagues will become your closest friends, which will help in holding you accountable to your schoolwork. Although the course load can be heavy, rest assured that the majority of your assignments will be exciting and immediately applicable to music teaching and learning. Often times your assignments will be proposing lesson plans and developing classroom activities that you can later use in your professional life. Take the work seriously, but also enjoy the process and take feedback gracefully and politely.
While you are in school to become a music teacher, it is a fantastic idea to start getting involved with professional organizations and attending conferences. Both usually offer student rates, which are severely discounted or even free! Seeking additional training beyond your classes will help you develop your professional network and get an inside look at how the profession really works. Develop relationships with those educators you admire and reach out for mentor-ship or advice throughout the process. Your student teaching will provide a world of knowledge and behind the scenes looks, but it’s always healthy to gather as much knowledge as possible and hear varied experiences.
You’ve finished your coursework, you’ve wrapped up student teaching, and your cap and gown is ironed and ready to go. Now, before you’ve even walked across the stage and gathered your diploma, it is time to get ready for your certification exams. Every state is different in the way they require you to be certified to become a music teacher. I have been certified in two different states, and each process has been drastically different. However, you will likely have to take at least two-three tests to become eligible to teach in any given state. Additionally, state education offices push through a lot of paperwork, and can often be delayed in processing new applications. Be sure that you register for tests and apply for your certification early. Also be sure to stay in constant communication with the appropriate state office to ensure things are processed properly.
As a future music educator, you’ll likely need to pass a music specific exam to teach. Generally speaking, your education courses should have you adequately prepared for any content you may be tested on. However, state certification tests are notorious for being a little tricky, and it would probably be useful to review test-taking strategies prior to sitting for an exam. Often states will have sample questions or even full tests on their websites for you to review. Take advantage of these resources so you understand the format of the test. The same is true for any general content or professional tests you may have to take. Be sure to take the proper steps prior to taking any test, as there is often a window you must wait before retaking. This could severely delay your certification. If you take the time at the front end, you will likely be successful and be able to move through the process quite smoothly.
(Side note: There are other ways to qualify for certification other than through an undergraduate music education program. Depending on each state and its rules, options include a master’s degree with certification for those with a bachelor’s degree in music, as well as alternative certification.)
6. Finding a Job
You’ve graduated, you’re certified, and now you need to get hired to officially become a music teacher. Schools often post jobs for the following academic year the month or two of the previous academic year. For example, if they are looking for a teacher to start in August, they will probably post the opening by May. My advice is to check for postings often and cast your net wide. The best place to look for job openings is often school or district human resource webpages. These are usually updated daily, and may get pushed to state organizations, but the school district itself is the primary source.
Since you are likely going to be applying to several different schools, I recommend making a portfolio on your computer rather than reinventing the wheel each and every time you apply. Certain elements of a teaching application will always be the same: certification, resume, teaching philosophy, and references are almost always part of an application. Take some time to develop these documents to the highest level so they are ready to go.
7. Private Studio Teaching
After years of being in school working hard to become a music teacher, you may decide through your varied experiences that classroom teaching is not for you. Additionally, many musicians spend an exorbitant amount of time honing their skills on their principal instrument, and feel they have much to offer young singers or players. No matter the case, private teaching is almost always a part of a music educator’s career, whether exclusively, or in addition to classroom teaching. To become a music teacher for one on one lessons, many of the same practice techniques and thoughtful pedagogical strategies still apply just like if you were in front of an ensemble or classroom.
Private instructors often have the task of seeking out students, which can be a tricky endeavor. Some schools contract independent musicians and music educators to come in to their actual building to teach before or after school or even during ensemble rehearsals. Others compile a list of possible private lesson instructors for students to contact independently. Regardless, the best avenue to find students is through school programs. If you are interested in becoming a music teacher for private lessons, your best bet is to offer a free master class or section rehearsal at a school. This way, students get the chance to work with you risk free and in a more comfortable group environment. It is also not a bad idea to offer a trial lesson, where you can meet with students and parents to discuss expectations, both yours and theirs. Another way to find private students is to join a teaching network such as Musika. Referral services do the work of finding students for you and many also deal with billing so you don’t have to.
Surely, after casting your net wide and participating in a series of interviews you will find yourself at home in a new music classroom or rehearsal space. It may also happen that you decide one on one teaching is more your speed and develop a private studio. Regardless, all of your hard work will have prepared you for what is to come, but the real learning has yet to take place. Becoming a music teacher on paper is a set of steps most can follow, but becoming a music educator is a process that will continue to breathe and grow throughout your career.