College Music Education Programs: Considerations Beyond the Diploma

College music education programs provide the skills you’ll need to be a music educator in a public school classroom. But to get a teaching job, there are some additional things to keep in mind.

by Amy Mertz

1. Your diploma is not the only credential you’re likely to need in order to teach.

“The degree is a major part of the process, but there are also required examinations,” says music education professor Elaine Bernstorf at Wichita State University. This typically includes a state licensing exam along with a background check.

Matthew Schillizzi, associate director of Admissions and Recruitment at Temple University Boyer College of Music and Dance echoes the same. “Graduation from Temple’s music education program and certification by the state of Pennsylvania are two separate things,” he says, “but almost all of our music education majors complete both. Our program prepares students to be highly qualified to teach music PK-12, but official documentation from the Pennsylvania Department of Education must be secured through application for certification to teach in the public schools and many private schools.”

Schools want to graduate only students who are completely ready to go out and teach. “Students from my program are eligible for licensure in the state of Illinois,” says Jacqueline Kelly-McHale, chair of Musical Studies and director of Music Education at DePaul University. “Once their program of study, state exams, student teaching and edTPA (see below) have been completed, the certification officer approves their application for licensure.” 

This gives students the opportunity to complete all the necessary requirements to become full-fledged teachers while still getting support from their college or university communities. 

2. You may need additional licensing to teach in another state.

If you did not attend school in the state where you’d like to teach, chances are you will need to take additional tests or even classes to work in another state. 

At the very least you’ll need to apply for reciprocity — a process where one state formally accepts training and/or teaching experience from another state. 

But according to the music education faculty at Temple University, “Reciprocity is not necessarily complete and automatic, so sometimes an additional exam or requirement will need to be fulfilled for a student to be eligible to teach even in states that do reciprocate. We recommend that students with an interest in teaching elsewhere review specific eligibility requirements on those other states’ Department of Education websites well in advance of applying for positions there.”

California’s credential is quite rigorous, says Ruth Brittin, chair of the Music Education Department at University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music. It is accepted in most states. But, she says, “Some states have a very competitive culture, others less so. Some may expect one to really specialize, others have many more positions for excellent musicians who can teach across grade levels or specializations. I encourage students to check with the various states’ education departments and to do a lot of internet sleuthing to get a sense of the particular state’s musical culture.”

3. You may want to consider going straight on for your master’s. Or not.

There are mixed opinions about whether to go straight from your undergraduate degree to do a master’s or if you should accumulate some experience first. 

Brent Talbot, coordinator of Music Education, at the Sunderman Conservatory at Gettysburg College recommends the latter. “Entering graduate school with a few years of teaching experience provides a much richer opportunity for learning and development,” he says. 

“Graduate schools focus on re-imagining, deconstructing, and co-constructing larger ideas in music education philosophy, history, sociology, curriculum design, and teaching and learning practices. Teachers in graduate programs will gain a great deal more and be better contributors when they can draw upon or problematize the real-world experiences of their own teaching.” 

Since teachers with master’s degrees earn higher salaries, those with a master’s but no experience may be a more expensive risk for a school district to take. Ultimately, it may actually depend on the state in which you plan to teach. 

At Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music, music education professor Elisa Dekaney says it’s really up to students to decide when to go to graduate school. “In our state (NY) where teachers must have a graduate degree to receive professional certification, we have had great success with our one-year master’s degree in music education…Because we have had such great success with the students who stay with us for 5 years and are able to find jobs without difficulties, I think this model is a successful one.”

4. Whether you’re an instrumentalist or a vocalist—you’ll have to study both.

Certification doesn’t differentiate between instrumental and vocal music. Most states certify you in “music” and as such you will need to know about all music. As an instrumentalist or a vocalist you are likely to choose a “track”—but almost every program will require you to have training in both. 

“While some universities in our state (Kansas) provide options for vocal only or instrumental only, our university finds that many jobs include some aspects of both elementary and secondary,” says Bernstorf at Wichita State. 

“Therefore we require all of our majors to study the PK-12 license program.” 

The same is true at DePaul, says Kelly-McHale: “Knowledge across both areas is required in Illinois. We do have students choose a track to focus on; however, our program is comprehensive and there are only a few classes that differentiate the degrees.”

5. If you didn’t get a bachelor’s degree in music education, you may still be able to pursue a master’s degree and teach.

Maybe you started as a music education major and then changed to performance. Or maybe you got a degree in music business but found that training and teaching others was actually your passion. If you already have an undergraduate degree in music it is possible, in most cases, to get a master’s in music education and teach. 

Brittin at University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music suggests considering the following: “First, make sure you are really intrigued with teaching, that you like being around people (as opposed to spending most time in isolated practice or writing), and that you are curious about how people learn and how to facilitate that learning. Then, ask lots of questions of grad and credential programs. Look for an institution with not only a strong placement rate (into jobs) but a strong track record of their graduates continuing to teach 5, 10, 15 years down the track.”

6. Education is a not just a degree, it’s a life.

According to Elisa Dekaney at Syracuse, “Graduation is the beginning of a new phase, not necessarily the end of another. Music teachers are more successful when they decide to live as lifelong learners. Finding a mentor in the school district or even from another school is very helpful. There should be no shame in failing or making mistakes. I am a college professor and I still learn a lot from my students and from my colleagues.” 

Talbot at Gettysburg encourages future teachers to be changemakers. “The best music teachers use music to create change in their communities,” he says. “They are highly passionate and incredibly strong musicians who inspire others to be the very best versions of themselves. 

“Ask yourself: How can I become an exceptional musician and teacher? How will I use music to address social, economic, and political issues in our community or across the globe? How will I create, respond with, and perform music with others? Go forth and change our world!”

One more important point: Be sure that you are interested in more than just the potential job stability for which some people turn to teaching. For the best teachers, there is much more to teaching than that.

Currently a freelance writer and photographer, Amy Mertz was formerly the assistant director for Admissions and Community Programs at the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music. 

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