7 Things Music Education Majors Can Do When Facing the Job Market

Prospective and current music education majors… you’ll be facing a very different job market than in the past. To be employable, you’ll be required to have a broader set of skills and be far more flexible in where and how you work. And it won’t work for you to wait until you’re ready to graduate to start looking for a job.

See what music educators around the country recommend to help prepare you to meet the job market head on.

1. Be an outstanding musician. “As a music educator, you have to be a great musician. Music teaching is about guiding inexperienced musicians in developing their musicianship and a big part of that process is always demonstrating high levels of personal musicianship,” states Kerry Filsinger, University Fellow and PhD candidate in Music Education at Temple University Boyer College of Music & Dance. “I am constantly striving to become a better musician, so that I can be the best possible music model for my future students.”

2. Learn how to improvise. A teacher who can walk into the classroom and perform on their instrument without music is a great asset, says Edward Smaldone, professor of composition and director of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. “Music is about communication, not just about playing what is on the page.  If the music does not live in your imagination it can’t be communicated effectively. You need to practice both: reading and improvising.” Smaldone stresses that improvisation is a valuable skill to learn and hone, and not just on your instrument. “Knowing how to improvise means you can adapt,” he says. “Lesson plans provide great ideas, but as a teacher, you can’t script every word for every situation.” This translates to myriad situations music educators will find themselves in, from needing to transpose to figuring out how to make a wind ensemble work with too many of one instrument and not enough of others. And it’s a life skill that can be passed on to your own students.

3. Acquire entrepreneurial skills. According to Russ Sperling, president of the California Music Educators Association and instrumental music specialist for San Diego City Schools in the Visual and Performing Arts Department: “It’s no surprise that, as a music educator, you must be a fine musician. At the same time you have to be skilled in marketing because you’ll have to be recruiting students into your program. You’ll also have to deal with all of the administrative work it takes to run that program.” Susan Wharton Conkling, professor and chair of Music Education at Boston University School of Music, adds, “Music teachers must stop limiting their thinking to music education as a K-12, public school enterprise. They must also stop limiting their thinking to music education as band, chorus, and orchestra.” She points to other areas where music educators can create employment for themselves: working with very young children, partnering with local YMCA or youth-based clubs; working with senior centers and retirement or assisted living facilities. Conkling goes on to say, “Music educators who have developed high-quality, broad-based musicianship are ready to be entrepreneurial. They can already think ‘outside the box.’ These music teachers will always have employment because they’ll create their own employment.”

4. Become as broad-based and well-trained as possible. “Employers will look for candidates who can do a lot!” says Dr. Deborah Sheldon, professor and chair of Music Education at Temple University Boyer College of Music and Dance. “They will be more drawn to those who are skilled and capable in a number of areas, from instrumental to choral to general music. They will look for candidates who bring something unique to the school such as ideas for how to connect the school experience with the greater community, the use of new technologies to advance music and arts, and entrepreneurial ventures that will bring greater visibility to the arts. They will have their pick of many candidates so the one who is well-prepared, a polished musician, a creative thinker, an artful teacher, a good communicator,and a team player will have the advantage over others.”

5. Combine advocacy with exchange to create better programs. Lauren Kapalka Richerme, a doctoral student in music education at Arizona State University, published an important piece, “Apparently, We Disappeared,” in the September 2011 Music Educators Journal. She emphasizes the value of sharing ideas within the broader community that lead to action. Richerme states: “Music educators must alter their practices by implementing the ideas generated from their dialogue with various constituencies. Words are not enough; we must change our actions as a result of these exchanges. Combining advocacy with exchanges allows music educators to promote and improve their programs and build a better relationship with their communities.”

6. Learn all you can about relevant technology. Technology plays a significant role in music education. From apps and programs for everything from teaching chording and music theory to recording, tuning, and improvisation, music educators and music education majors have a wealth of options at their fingertips. But the technology changes quickly and sometimes dramatically, so it’s essential to continually stay on top of what’s current, assess its value, and learn how to use what’s relevant.

7. Keep an updated list of your skills, relevant experiences, and training. When you’re ready to enter the job market, having a running list of your experiences will come in handy. You’ll want to memorize some of it so you can succinctly respond to interview questions in a way that demonstrates why you’re the right candidate for the job. Take advantage of opportunities where you can teach or assist in teaching music to a variety of ages. Gain experience speaking in front of groups. Find performance venues and get your music out there. Participate in relevant workshops. Explore the music of other cultures. And remember to add all of it to your list of skills and experiences.

Comments

  1. Bethany

    I don’t know how to play the piano but i want to be a music major because i love to sing. Do you think i can still be a music major?

    • Check the application, audition and required classes at schools you’d considering attending. Then look at the article “Prepare to be a Music Major” on our website. Note that at most colleges, there are music electives open to all students as well as choirs, choruses, a cappella groups. You don’t have to be a music major to be able to sing!

    • We’re not quite sure what you’re asking about re: music education as a career. Limitations of course would be that it would be the wrong fit for anyone who:
      • Doesn’t like working with the age range they’re teaching;
      • Isn’t flexible – some music teaching jobs require you to teach at more than one school;
      • Isn’t comfortable working as part of a team;
      • Isn’t willing to do what’s asked, including getting families and the community to attend concerts, and supporting school fundraising endeavors;
      • Isn’t able or willing to work long hours when needed (including some evenings and weekends);
      • Isn’t willing to advocate for music in the schools.

      But if you love transmitting knowledge about music, thrive on watching young people grow in their musicality, realize that for some students music is the only thing that makes their day worthwhile, enjoy having your summers off (unless you choose to work another job in the summer), want to continue performing yourself (most music teachers do, and that provides a great role model for students), and enjoy working as part of a team rather than alone — then becoming a music educator can be a great fit.

  2. Gretchen

    My concern is my piano skills. What are the general required piano skills for a elementary school music teacher? I took a piano proficiency in my undergrad work but I don’t know if that is enough. Any feedback will help.

    • Check the state regs where you want to teach. Piano proficiency is helpful, but we spoke with some elementary school music teachers who talked about workarounds including background tracks for concerts. One teacher from Pennsylvania mentioned that one can teach the Orff philosophy and accompany on a xylophone instead. She also said that as a non-piano person herself, she often plays the melody line and simple chords on the left hand.

      But again, do find out what’s expected where you plan to teach, maybe even talk with some K-5 music teachers to get their sense, as well and to figure out how to present your skills when you’re ready to interview (and do read other articles about interviewing for music ed jobs on MajoringInMusic.com).

  3. Great read… I’m starting my 2nd year of undergrad in the fall for music composition. I told one of my teachers that I’d never teach b/c I don’t have what it really takes… being that I’m 28 with several life experiences, he vigorously disagreed. I want to devote my life to being the best composer/film scorer I can, but should I automatically assume I’d be teaching and plan on it? Suggestions? Thanks.

  4. Everybody needs to find that school that is the best fit for them. I almost changed careers because I got so burned out and low self-esteem about my teaching ability. I hope this will be the year to get away from the administrator who tries to improve her teachers by yelling at them ( in front of students, right before a concert – nothing is off limits). I wouldn’t mind my long commute so much if I didn’t have to worry about that. However, I have learned a lot in my 14 years in this county and 9 years in “that school.” I just hope I can market myself in my cover letter / resume enough to get an interview over the many applicants. I am definitely trying to connect with other music teachers because I see so many specialists hand picking their replacements the colleagues they want to work with.

  5. Jane

    Awesome article! I have a question for whoever would like to answer. Would it be very difficult to get a job as a public school music teacher with a degree in music performance and passing Praxis 1, 2, and PLT instead of having a degree in Music Education?

    • You’d need to check the state regulations where you’re looking to teach, but to our best knowledge, you need to be state certified throughout the U.S. in order to teach in the public schools. Private schools are different – each has it’s own hiring criteria.

  6. Ethan M.

    I am in High School and I am considering a career in music education. Are there any tips I would need on how to pick a good college program, and/or how should I approach getting a MS/HS teaching job after college? Would there be any steps that I would need to take in the future to make sure that I get a quality teaching job at a quality school?

    • There are at least two directions we suggest you explore. One is the world of music education – curricula and other background for becoming a music educator and the work a music educator does. There are more pieces and parts to the job than there used to be. Check out this article: Finding Your First Music Teaching Job.

      The other major aspect to consider is what kind of school would be a good fit for you, since most schools DO offer music education as a major. There are several articles on MajoringInMusic.com to get you going, especially under the tab, “Thinking about Majoring in Music?”

      Regardless of the school you go to, there are no guarantees about jobs. You’ll serve yourself well by joining your college chapter of NAfME (NAfME Collegiate) as well as other organizations relevant to your particular instrument (SNATS for voice students). Any experience working with MS/HS students you can get as well as networking you can do will also serve you well. Finding ways to stand out will also serve you well: what will you have to offer a school district that’s unique and relevant?

      We hope this is useful – let us know! And best wishes!

  7. Carolyn

    Good points! Also, depending on your state’s licensing requirements and teacher tenure laws, wait until you are in a position with tenure before pursuing an advanced degree(s). A master’s degree and no classroom experience can make you a more expensive and therefore less desirable job candidate.

    The program I graduated from in 1980 divided us into instrumental music education majors and vocal/general music education majors. Hopefully colleges have moved away from this – even 35 years ago it wasn’t a good system. I began my career as a middle school band director, but for the past 18 yrs. have been teaching PK-8th grade vocal/general and middle school chorus. DEVELOP SKILLS IN ALL AREAS!! WORK ON YOUR PIANO SKILLS!! If you are an instrumentalist take voice classes and chorus. Wind instrument players – pay extra attention in string classes! Guitar skills are handy for anyone! If you are a vocalist learn to play as many instruments as possible.

    The Common Core Curriculum and PARCC assessments are currently a big thing in NJ where I teach, and elsewhere. Be ready to demonstrate how music education can support student achievement in these areas – hopefully without compromising the music education.

    Good Luck young music educators – you’ll NEVER have a boring day at work. Have Fun!!

  8. Mike

    The author left out two major points, which are true across the State of Ohio at least.

    1. Do not under any circumstances, have more than five years of teaching experience. You will never be called for an interview or have any hope of landing a job with higher than that amount. Well, perhaps I’m being unfair. I could only confirm this from the six districts who responded to my applications, out of the 30 or 40 for which I applied over two years. I have 12 years of experience and the law says I’m entitled to be paid accordingly. So if you’re just starting out, you’re going to get lots of those calls. Select the best offer in a district where you’d like to stay for a long time.

    2. Once employed, do not ever get laid off. I don’t mean fired for doing something stupid, I mean being laid off due to cuts. Just refuse to let that happen. Also remember that if you’re part of a union, they will do nothing to help you should you ever fall into the Reduction In Force category.

    Aside of that, the rest of the list was spot on!

  9. Jason R

    I think all of these things (on the list) are the barest of minimums.

    If I were to offer advice on this I would stick to a few more practical items for someone right out of college.

    1. Be certified.

    No certification means no interview 99.999% of the time.

    2. Work on your resume.

    Playing first trumpet in your college band is great, but doesn’t belong on a professional resume as separate professional experience. It does a disservice to everyone; instead list such items as part of a college summary.

    Do any extra work you can to build your CV, but don’t list working a band camp as an actual real job in education (though I have seen more than a few principals fooled by this one). Work as a sub in local system while in college, work summer camps, or just having a summer job can show that you are a dependable/non crazy person, which is 99% of what the school district is looking for.

    3. Cold calling/email can work ( most of the time) to get an interview.

    Think about what you are going to say before you call, give them a reason to talk to you!

    4. Be mobile.

    Go where the jobs are if you want one, even if it means moving the next state over.

    5. Apply for jobs that fit your experience level.

    If you are right out of school either look for entry level programs, small programs, or your hometown area are easier places… expect your first program to be something that you have to build, pay your dues.

    6.Most interviews are about how you will handle certain situations.

    Since most principals have no idea what good band director is really about, this actually favors people right out of college, since both have little idea of what a band director ‘really’ does. In addition, most principals have only worked in their current system, and it makes them very one dimensional in how to approach things. Offering a more experienced and nuanced view seems to fall flat in the interviews I have taken and in many cases can be a threat to the interview person or team. Often the insecurities of the people you work with will take precedent over the quality of education.

    7. Learn how to really teach.

    The job market is full of people that want to only teach high school right out of the gate, teaching middle school ( for at least 3 years) is where you learn how to teach and build a program.

    • Sean C

      Is cold calling appropriate? I was told in school to not do that…although at this point only having 4 interviews out of 32 applications is very frustrating. Also:
      1) Who would I call specifically?
      2) What should I say?

      • We contacted Paul Fox, who wrote Tips for Music Teacher Job Interviews for MajoringInMusic.com and he responded with this:

        “This is an excellent question with no “right or wrong” answer. You are right to assume most school districts discourage random phone or e-mail inquiries regarding employment opportunities. Candidates are often directed to complete an online application (e.g. the service paeducator.net in Pennsylvania). In my own experience many years ago (it landed me several job offers), I made the extra effort of mailing a personalized letter and resume to the superintendent of schools declaring my interest and availability to be considered for future music jobs in his/her district. After several weeks, I then used an excuse to call the HR department, superintendent’s secretary, or other staff member in charge of job applications to check if my materials were received and if anything else was needed… certified transcripts, references, sample lesson plans, etc. Today, I would even go as far as creating a protected professional website, an “e-portfolio” with all of these things and video recordings of my teaching and performances, and then contact the employment department in order to share my site’s password.”

  10. JM

    While I agree that people need to explore these characteristics, I have found that most administrators do not necessarily care for them as much as they do about finding someone who is well-recommended by more affluent educators, college professors, and other administrators. What you know will make you a good teacher, but who you know will definitely be what gets you in the door.

  11. Starting a Music Together center or teaching for a licensed Music Together center is a great option for music majors who love small children. The curriculum is research-based and of the highest quality. There is also a lot of room for creativity and improvisation. You can set your own vision, hours, tuition etc. I chose this path as a daughter of a middle school band teacher, because I witnessed my father’s frustration working in a school system that did not support the arts as much as they could have. Football was always number 1. I find that teaching Music Together is personally and professionally rewarding, and with the support of the larger organization, have plenty of opportunities for professional development. There are still many cities without Music Together, even though it is an international program In Over 40 countries. good luck! Don’t be discouraged!

  12. pam

    I went to university of michigan and these were all traits that shouldve been instilled by a good program already. This article is not exactly groundbreaking in it’s suggestions. The problem is universities passing teachers without these skills.

  13. Good article with helpful tips, and the content and variety of comments are very insightful. I agree we need to hear from all sides even when experiences have been mostly negative, and sometimes especially when that happens so we can learn more about why.

    Both of my sons are teachers (one English/video and one History). One finally got his first full time teaching job this past year and the other is still substitute teaching after 3 years out of school.Its a rough rough market for teachers overall and I imagine its even harder for arts and music teachers as their programs are continually being cut. I am actually an engineer by degree/trade, however I write custom songs for weddings/anniversaries, perform out as a solo artist and teach piano/guitar. I am in the process of transitioning my career from engineering over to music and I know it will be a difficult path. I definitely see how music is being short changed so many ways in our society between the programs being cut to consumers no longer buying CDs or downloads (paid MP3 downloads decreased last year for the first time since they were available) . Its a music streaming world now and while there are payments for this they are extremely small compared to what we used to make when selling our music as a CD or MP3. As a result of all this I’ve recently decided to dedicate a large part of my musical efforts in helping to make people more aware of how important music is in our lives. Its going to be a hard sell in many cases but its a cause worth fighting for as they say. Thanks again for a great article and comments – Keep it coming!

  14. FirstYearElementaryBandTeacher

    I find this list a bit vague and unrealistic…

    When it comes to the actual interview (if you can make it that far!), the interviewing panel cares more about what you would do in certain situations than your musical talent or your Praxis scores. Heck, you’ll be lucky if one person on the panel is a music educator at all!

    Yes, you need to be a confident and knowledgeable musician–that’s a no-brainer–but if you’re on the hunt for your first teaching job, you really don’t have the answers to give that a seasoned teacher would have. The panel is looking for your ability to put yourself in those hypothetical situations that you’ve never experienced before and give confident, honest answers to their endless scenarios, which usually touch upon classroom management, member retention, scheduling, parental conflict, etc. (all very important skills that you will develop as you spend more time in your own music program!).

    Don’t be discouraged–I’ve been contracted for 3 months now and love my job! There are definitely moments where things just click and it’s awesome, but the job truly is a lot less about music than what your students see.

  15. Megan

    From someone who has won several jobs over the years, do not overlook the importance of developing master teaching skills. In many ways, especially instructionally, music education is very different, but in many other ways it is the same. You must be a master teacher as well as a talented musician and skilled music educator. The frame of reference of the administrators interviewing you is not the same frame of reference as you music education professors. Know your buzz words, familiarize yourself with the current trends, reading across the curriculum and the common core. Be prepared to be an employee of your district.

  16. Chris

    Great list. And while the descriptions one could write may vary slightly, the main points apply equally to music performance and composition majors.

  17. Ben Thompson

    This article was clearly written by someone who has never stepped outside academia.

    Administrators aren’t interested in quality musicians or educators. They’re only interested in individuals they can control, who won’t deviate from the status quo or draw unwanted attention to their own administrative ineptitude. There is no room in the 21st century for passionate music educators.

    The path to a successful career in music education is to walk a tightrope of apathy, complacency, and mediocrity. Unless you’re a yes-man/woman with no pride, no principles, and no passion beyond your next paycheck, you will sadly find music education to be a unfulfilling, oppressive dead-end career.

    • Ryan

      Wow, Ben–you sound discouraged. While I’m sorry that you feel this way, can you kindly try and vent to some friends or family instead of posting this stuff? This kind of all-out negativity is toxic to those considering music teaching as a profession.

      • John

        Ryan, Ben does bring up a good point.

        First, do not try to diminish freedom of speech, and his will to express his discouragement. Out is out there, whether or not you have seen it yourself.

        With the economy as it is, there is no point in sugar coating. The simple fact is music is being pushed aside so the other “core ciriculums” can be tested non-stop.

        Music educators are forced to not teach music but to make their lessons centered around the curriculum being taught in the standard “3-R’s”.

        Sugar coating will not do any good for those preparing to take these steps. I know, I began the journey myself. Between a bad private instructor (which i had no control of dropping because of the school) and continually added requirements every year, there was no way i was able to complete a successful degree.

        The best advice I can give is to stay flexible!! If that means taking time to finish your degree then so be it. That may mean completing a BM and working a few years, then go back and complete your music ed, and certification.

        Work retail. Retail just plain sucks, but it is a great tool for learning the entrepreneur skills needed for successfully running a music program.

        Teach private lessons starting your Junior year, you now would have had 2 years under your belt of education practice. This is the time to start using it. As you use it, it will make you a better musician, and increase your knowledge of what you need to do, and be successful.

    • David Walker

      Unfortunately, I have to agree with Ben Thompson. Ryan, I’m glad that you have been to a utopia of sorts but the reality especially in urban and rural school districts that serve an African American population is that of a certified substitute teacher that can be used as a dumping ground of students that they cannot place anywhere else. It’s not negativity, it’s reality. I know it first hand. I have been to one school district that appreciated me as a music educator and administrator. None of the others have even come close.

    • Cindy

      Dear Ben, I just want to assure you that there are administrators who value high quality musicians who are excellent teachers. Yes, integrating common core with music standards can be time consuming but is very valuable to help students see that music is an important part of all content areas and life. Our arts integration elementary school (it is a public school, not a charter) values music in and of itself as well for the many connections it helps students make in their learning.

      Keep looking and hopefully you will find a supportive place to to teach and learn,
      Cindy
      Elementary Principal

  18. Terri

    Great tips here! I have certainly lived #3-launching and building a private-lesson studio, independent band program in a parochial school, and an early childhood music studio. Pre-service teachers should know that the same marketing and recruitment skills useful in a school setting can help them create their own jobs. Sometimes it may be necessary, whether due to personal circumstances or market conditions. Here’s a point to discuss, however: Should we create a job for ourselves in a school that has cut the full-time music teacher? In my situation, there was no formal band program before I created one. The parents paid me directly, but I was also responsible for my own retirement and health-care costs. In this situation, my building of the program eventually led to the hiring of a music teacher, but given the current educational climate I can imagine school systems taking advantage of entrepreneurial music teachers. We should address this as a profession.

    • Thanks Terri – you bring up an interesting point. We’ll look into this for our next music ed article. Those who are trained to think and work as entrepreneurs are certainly more equipped to find creative solutions to the kinds of challenges that music educators will continue to face.

  19. Elsie

    I just retired for the second time. This is old news to this life-long North Dakota music educator. My colleagues and I have organized the Kindergarten graduation program,directed the middle school musical, directed the high school choir and band, and many of us provide the accompaniment for many of the solo and ensemble events all the way to the state level. We have organized Music in Our School events for a half dozen area schools to perform together, including beginning and middle school bands in the programs. Some of us arrange performances in local nursing homes and occasionally do street concerts, and many perform in community bands and other performance groups. We sell magazines to buy instruments for elementary schools and do cake walks for band trips/ WAY TO GO NORTH DAKOTA…LOOKS TO ME LIKE WE HAVE THIS ALL COVERED!!!

    • Elise,

      Great to hear that you and your colleagues in ND have been entrepreneurs ahead of the curve throughout your careers! We’d love to hear more about some of the great ideas you’ve amassed in your teaching career that would support those in the process of becoming music educators. Unfortunately not everyone coming into the profession realizes what it takes to be a music educator especially in the 21st century. This is particularly true in areas where, in the past, music educators didn’t have to worry about covering more than one school, staying current with technology in addition to all the other aspects of the profession, and doing so many other things beside teaching.

  20. What a great article!

    As director of fine arts for the Longwood Central School District, I lead a department of 40 art and music teachers. We provide an outstanding arts education to over 9,000 students.

    My doctoral dissertation focused on advocacy for school arts programs. I combined my passion for music education and school arts administration with a pre-teaching background in corporate public relations and marketing.

    Currently, I am the Chairperson for Public Relations and Information for the New York State School Music Association, NYSSMA.

    May I be included on your list of experts for future articles?

    Thank you.

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