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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Am I Cut Out to Teach Music?

There are lots of reasons people ask themselves, "Am I cut out to teach music?". I hear it most in the springtime, both from college students curious about the field, and from weary teachers overwhelmed by stress. My intent with this post is three-fold: to reassure and help burned out music teachers refocus on their "why", to guide prospective music teachers in thinking through career choices, and help struggling music teachers identify possible causes and find a path forward. I do not think there is one way to be a good music teacher, but I do think there are certain "keys to success", mostly in terms of mindset, that can make or break a music teacher's career. If you or someone you know is wrestling with this question, I hope these thoughts bring some clarity!

If you're wondering whether or not you're "cut out" to be a music teacher, here are some important questions to ask yourself:

1. Do I love and respect the children in this community?

I don't mean in a patronizing, "I'm here save these poor little children, bless their hearts" kind of way. I mean do you actually care about their well-being and success, and want to build personal connections with them and get to know them as human beings? If you feel like you don't have enough in common with them to connect with them right now, are you interested in learning (rather than interested primarily in sharing yourself and your background with them)? It's important to ask this question specifically about the community you are in/ entering- I've met plenty of teachers who "love children" but don't realize they have a very specific idea of what children are like that doesn't match the population they are working with, and that leads quickly to resentment.

2. Do I love and respect music?

Do you honestly believe that music is important for humanity or do you think it's just frivolous fun? If the main reason you went into/ are thinking about going into music education is because you want to have fun making music, and you think the primary purpose of music class is for children to have fun or "get a break", then that may be a recipe for burnout. As soon as those 5th graders become too cool for school and tell you everything is boring, you're going to lose your purpose. Sure, absolutely, music is fun! But it is so much more than that. You need to have an honest belief that music is fundamentally important for its own sake and that it is equally important to math, literacy, and other school subjects.

3. Do I have a foundational understanding of music pedagogy?

You can love and respect the students and your subject matter all you want, but if you don't know how to teach effectively you most likely aren't going to get the results you're hoping for. This is a common problem in education in general: people who have a passion for children and education but think they can be an effective teacher without ever learning how to teach. I think instances of these types of people in music education may be higher, though, because of people who enter music education from other areas of teaching (or other areas of music) without any understanding of effective music teaching specifically. Obviously you are going to grow a lot in this area the longer you teach, but if you don't have a fundamental understanding of what works and what doesn't, you'll grow frustrated with your students' lack of progress.

4. Am I disciplined?

This may sound odd, but I really don't think you can last long in the teaching profession without a certain level of self-discipline. So many music teachers fail because they can't keep up with everything! By nature as a music teacher you are responsible for hundreds of humans and to do your job well you need to keep track of all of them. You also need to figure out how to get large groups of children to stand in a specific location at a specific time and do a specific thing in front of large audiences. This kind of stuff doesn't happen by winging it! You may get lucky a time or two but if you don't have a way to keep yourself accountable for all of your responsibilities, you won't make it very far. Sure, all of us drop a ball here and there, and we all hope to be extended grace when that happens, but you can't rely on colleagues or administrators to do your job for you without losing their respect. 

5. Am I a proficient musician?

I hesitate to even say this because I see it blown way out of proportion and too narrowly defined within the music education field. There are many ways to be a good musician- performing at a professional level is not the only way. Still, there is a certain amount of truth to the underlying concept that we ourselves must be able to do what we are hoping our students will be able to achieve in our classes. It will be difficult to be an effective teacher or gain the respect of students and coworkers without it.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I firmly believe that the aspects of a successful music teacher I described above are not innate- all of them can be learned, and all of them are areas in which we can (and should) continue to grow throughout our careers. Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by secondary things in our work life that feel way more important in the moment than they actually are, and it's important to return to the core of what brought us into the profession in the first place. I'd love to hear your thoughts on my list in the comments below so we can continue the professional dialogue!


  1. I feel that some 3rd and 4th grade students don't respect the music I choose for us to perform or study, and when I mention that it has value beyond entertainment, they balk and complain. I try to choose music that is aurally pleasing, has relatable lyrics, and is culturally significant (tells a story about life or contains artistic descriptions of human experience). Do you have any resource materials on the value of STUDYING music rather than just expecting it to be "ear candy" or a game time? Some teachers try to encourage me by saying that children learn best through games and will be most receptive if it is not framed in a highly academic fashion. But at times, I feel it is important to mention that music is a discipline and a practice that will not always be "fun" and will actually require work to make it sound good. I try to elicit student choice and ask for the students to help decide how we'll perform something for a concert. I have recently been floored by how unmotivated they are to be challenged. For example, my 4th graders are learning to sing a descant part (partner song type activity) and when it was a challenge, almost all of them voted to sing it in unison rather than practice again and work harder to achieve the more beautiful sounding harmony performance style. It was their day to have a party in class (earned a reward choice day for 1/2 of class) so that probably influenced their willingness to sing it a second time, but it just seems that their motivation is totally on immediate gratification rather than taking time to perfect and polish something to a performance they can be proud of. Do you have any words of wisdom to share in this regard? I only have a few more days with these 4th graders, so part of me wants to give up, but I know they deserve a music teacher who is going to stick with it till the end! Thanks for your post.

    1. This is a great question and has prompted a lot of thinking for me- I hear this sentiment from other music teachers too and I know what I think but it's difficult to organize my thoughts and effectively put them into words! I also know that I may be misunderstanding your situation and your thoughts, since I am just going off of what you have typed here rather than being able to talk in person and see your class in action.

      Having said all of that, my main response to this is the importance of relationship building. All humans- children and adults- are motivated by people they care about. You can't have "tough love" without the love, and people don't trust the judgement of people they perceive to be "other" or who don't understand them. Convincing students to be willing to try hard things, be open to new types of music, and take your work seriously requires strong relationships. The other relational aspect of this problem is your relationship with the community: building respect for you and for your subject/ program with the rest of the staff and with the parent community will help create more buy-in within the classroom as well.

      And relationships go both ways- it's important to examine whether the musical material you're selecting is "relatable/ culturally significant" to all of your students, and that you aren't the only "gatekeeper" of what type of music is considered serious, valuable, or worthy.

      I'm not saying you don't already have positive relationships with students and the community and don't already consider all of your students' backgrounds in selecting musical material, but that would be the first thing I would examine in trying to figure out how to increase motivation and respect for music as a serious subject. I'd love to hear your response to these thoughts!