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That is the Question.

by Richard Williams


One perplexing decision faced by high-school students on the verge of entering collegiate music programs is whether to teach or perform.  Period.  Black and white.  Will you spend the rest of your life in an elementary-school music classroom playing Orff instruments and chanting the “ta’s” and “ti-ti’s” of Kodály rhythms, or will you spend your time playing standard concerti and meticulously preparing for orchestral auditions?

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  A simplified interpretation of this Kipling text is all too often applicable to music majors.  Performance majors are the cream of the crop – the “serious” musicians.  Educators – well, educators want only to bask in the simplicity of working with children or they were performance majors who just didn’t quite make it as performers.  After all, you don’t really have to be that great of a musician to be a teacher to children, right?

What we have here is a failure to communicate.  Why, all too often, is there such a deep rift between music-performance majors and education majors?  Who dictates that these groups of students can’t civilly and collaboratively interact on a regular basis?

As a musician who earned both a Bachelors degree in music education from Columbus State University and Masters degree in music performance from the University of Maryland, I have frequently pondered these questions.  Only years later, now that I am actively professionally involved in performing and teaching, do I realize how misguided these perceptions actually are.  With time, the reality is brought into focus: the distinction between the titles given to these two degree tracks becomes increasingly blurred in the real world.  Whether you like it or not, you will most likely end up being a teacher at some point in your life.  Is that such an awful thing?  Does that mean you’re destined to spend hours designing lesson plans that are curricularly based on state and system-wide education standards?


Although collegiate music-education major degrees are generally designed to address the needs of individuals who are interested in working in the day-to-day setting of a public-school music classroom, this shouldn’t be a limiting factor in your decision to be a education or performance major.  Just because you will spend lots of time studying the workings of public-school educational models and pertinent music-education theorists doesn’t mean that you can use this knowledge ONLY in a public-school classroom.

Case in point – moi.  Although I completed a Bachelors program in music education, I couldn’t fathom spending every day teaching a full-sized 6th-grade beginning band.  It’s just not for me.  However, I greatly enjoy using all this educational pedagogy in non-traditional, specialized environments, and with music-advocacy and outreach projects.

So, what does life look like for a person who enjoys teaching and is serious about classical performance?  Post-masters program, I left the DC metro area and taught 6th grade for a phenomenal fine arts program in the Columbia, MO Public Schools.  I know what you’re thinking: “You just said you didn’t want to teach in a traditional classroom setting!”  Traditional classroom this was not.  The folks in Columbia really have their act together and priorities straight when it comes to music education.  6th-grade band is taught in daily like-instrument classes by specialists.  My job?  Well, I taught 21 of the coolest horn students I know.  My largest class size was seven students, and I was paid to play my horn and teach three classes a day.  It doesn’t get much better than that!  With all the free time, I spent my afternoons and evenings practicing, performing with one of three orchestras in town, or playing with a variety of local chamber ensembles.

Now, I reside in Atlanta, GA where I freelance, maintain a private studio, and teach courses as a part-time faculty member at Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music.  One striking thing about teaching 6th-grade followed by university is that the underlying educational pedagogy of teaching human beings anything is basically the same.  So, it turns out that all that time spent bouncing balls to rhythms, learning Kodály solfege symbols, and playing pentatonic scales on Orff instruments may not have been for nothing after all.  The content you teach won’t always be the same, but the process by which you teach content is very similar.  For example, before a 6th-grader even plays the first note on an instrument, the student must know how to properly take it from the case, how to assemble it, how to hold it, and how to breathe and exhale to sound a note.  Likewise, before collegiate freshmen begin writing 16th-century species counterpoint, they must first know many functions of music: clefs, key signatures, half vs. whole steps, interval distances and qualities, note durations, etc.

The deconstruction of complex concepts into their most basic parts before their sequential reconstruction applies in multiple situations: lessons (both taking and teaching), master classes, classroom teaching, etc.  For example, would you learn to play Strauss’ opening passage in Ein Heldenleben through multiple repetitions at full tempo?  No.  You’d likely set a goal for your practice session, such as playing the proper rhythms.  Then, you’d likely begin working with a metronome below the performance tempo.  You may even begin this process by playing the rhythm entirely on one pitch.  Then, you may try adding in the written pitches along with the rhythm.  See what I mean?  You already deconstruct complex things into simpler pieces in your own practice sessions.

So, is teaching such a bad thing?  Well, where would you be without it?  Are you already playing the role of teacher in some capacity without having realized it before?  It’s both completely possible and incredibly rewarding to perform and teach, so don’t rule out the possibility of being an educator in some capacity.

I’ll leave you with some final thoughts:

Consider this: the things you learn in a music-education program are often applicable in multiple settings, be it traditional classroom environments or non-traditional advocacy or outreach programs.  Consider this: most music education programs simply consist of more courses stacked on top of a music performance track.  Consider this: the basic instructional pedagogy that you learn in a music-education program can be applied to teaching AND personal learning in multiple situations – giving master classes, teaching private lessons, organizing your personal practice, etc.   Consider this: if you’re considering being an education major and still want to seriously perform, TAKE YOUR TIME!  Throw out the window the notion that you will graduate in four years.  Education courses are extremely time consuming; so, if you are serious about maintaining a high level of performance, consider taking lighter course loads over a longer period of time to preserve your personal practice time.

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