I was flabbergasted today during a discussion in one of my teacher certification courses when the course instructor suggested…well, actually, the instructor flat out told this class of music education students that it was unwise and unrealistic to expect to be able to both perform and teach at a professional level. This instructor warned the students against pursuing a double major in performance and education, claiming that no one from the institution had ever successfully graduated from the program without dropping one of the two degrees (a fact about which I am extremely skeptical), and that it was impossible to put in the hours of practice required to be a successful music performance student while simultaneously doing school observations, instrumental methods classes, and education courses.
Here were some reasons this individual outlined as to why being a music performance and music education double degree student was unwise. I’ll give my own opinions regarding these statements in a bit, but let’s first take a look at them and chew them over mentally:
- One cannot practice enough to satisfy the requirements of a music performance curriculum while remaining sufficiently committed to a music education curriculum.
- Students who choose such a major often view the education degree as a “fallback” degree, which is unfair to their future students and themselves.
- Professional performance ambitions are a distraction from becoming a good teacher.
- Good K-12 teachers perform as an avocation, not a vocation – i.e. for relaxation and enjoyment; one should sort out their vocations and avocations.
- If a student wants to perform, they should be a music performance major.
- Teaching is a serious profession in its own right, and must be treated as such – people can’t dabble as teachers.
- Teaching must be a calling, not a fallback.
One quick note before I proceed–I do not believe that the individual making these comments was being mean-spirited, and while I basically disagree with all seven of the above points, I think that considering them is good food for thought.
These statements reveal an attitude and outlook common among teachers:
Teaching is a serious profession, and few are qualified to really do it well.
And that I really do agree with.
OK–now it’s time to dissect this business. I think that the above statements reveal a defensiveness and insecurity common among teachers, and not just music teachers, but teachers ranging from K-12 classroom teachers to golf pros, swimming instructors, personal trainers, instrumental instructors, middle school basketball coaches, and every other job associated with education. You all know this phrase….it produces smirks among regular (non-teacher) folk and raises the hair on the back of every teacher’s neck:
Those who can, do.
Those who can’t, teach.
This old saying, like many that have withstood the test of time, is 95% bunk and 5% truth. Most fields of study and activity do in fact have both a professional and pedagogical career track, although more often than not the two are hopelessly intermingled, with the “professional” frequently engaging in teaching activities and the “teacher” engaging in professional activities. Is a research scientist a professional? Of course. What if they also teach a course? Do they teach others their laboratory tasks and procedures? Professionals? Teachers?
At a high level, professional and teacher become one and the same. If this can happen in the sciences, why should music be any different?
Anyone involved in the world of professional music knows that these lines are blurry and of little consequence. I can count on one hand the number of colleagues I know who don’t teach. Most of my fellow Chicago classical music performers, in addition to teaching private lessons, also perform educational concerts for schools, conduct area youth orchestras, work in the local high schools as sectional and chamber music coaches. Heck, some of use even get stuck conducting the violas during a school-wide drug lock down!
Here are two somewhat disturbing realizations that I have had as a result of talking to hundreds of music performers and educators. These statements may not be accurate for other communities or other areas of the world, but they are based upon many conversations with performers and educators in all walks of life:
Almost all of my professional performer colleagues also teach.
Almost none of my professional educator colleagues also perform.
Why is this the case? Let’s take a closer look at the seven statements listed above and try to shine a light on this discrepancy:
1. One cannot practice enough to satisfy the requirements of a music performance curriculum while remaining sufficiently committed to a music education curriculum.
Hearing this statement couldn’t help but make me smile as I recalled my own activities during the previous day. This has been a typical day for me for the past eight years–just substitute university teaching (my old jobs at the University of Wisconsin and Trinity International University) for the classes listed below:
Jason’s Schedule for Wednesday, September 26, 2007
|4:45 a.m.||wake up, blog and survey Internet projects|
|6:15 a.m.||drive to Lincoln Park; fight for parking|
|7:30 a.m.||practice double bass, trumpet, clarinet, guitar; read materials for three separate classes|
|8:30 a.m.||clarinet class|
|9:40 a.m.||return phone calls to contractors; schedule students|
|10:50 a.m.||trumpet class|
|11:50 a.m.||drive to Lyric Opera dress rehearsal|
|2 p.m.||Lyric Opera dress rehearsal – La Traviata (Bande part backstage)|
|2:45 p.m.||drive back to Lincoln Park; fight for parking|
|3:30 p.m.||orchestra rehearsal|
|5:30 p.m.||drive back downtown to Symphony Center|
|6:30-10:30 p.m.||play gig at Symphony Center|
|10:30 p.m.||drive back to Lincoln Park (3rd time of the day); drop off bass|
|11:15 p.m.||get home; blog, return e-mails, survey Internet projects, get ready to wake up in five hours and do it all over again|
I am concurrently in school full-time, teaching 25 students, playing gigs every week, doing weekly podcasts, and writing and operating this blog, as well as editing double bass videos, doing interviews, writing and submitting articles, setting up websites for people, teaching in an elementary school, running orchestra sectionals, and learning three new instruments.
My point (besides whining about my ridiculous life)? Don’t presume to tell me what my limits are or the limits of any other student.
More importantly, don’t discourage musicians from becoming proficient performers! But more on that later.
2. Students who choose such a major often view the education degree as a “fallback” degree, which is unfair to their future students and themselves.
Aside from using the argument articulated in response to the previous statement (namely, keep your business out of my business and let me determine my own limits), this statement reveals an insecurity about being taken seriously as a teacher. Many of the best teachers I know, when asked why they went into teaching, state practical reasons like security, a steady paycheck, and good benefits for doing what they love to do. Such practical reasons alone are likely not enough justification for going into teaching, but they almost certainly enter into most people’s list of factors.
Also, many people, when pressed, are not comfortable expressing all of the reasons that they have chosen to teach. Many of these reasons can be quite personal and emotionally charged, and, like discussing a medical condition or a sensitive event, some people may just not want to get into such reasons with relative strangers. Don’t assume that a statement like “it’s a fallback degree” reveals the whole truth–there may be much more there.
And even if it is just a “fallback”, does that mean that the individual will not place sufficient importance in their training and education, will not be genuine in their relations with students, and will not be a successful educator? Understandably, lots of people choose their professions for practical reasons, and it is unreasonable to expect teachers to operate with purely altruistic motivations. Practical decisions are not necessarily bad decisions, and while teaching is certainly more of a “calling” than, say, investment banking (at least for most people–there are some very passionate investment bankers out there), just because it is not someone’s first career choice does not mean that they cannot be successful educators and make a meaningful impact.
Need an example? Just watch Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s all about this issue.
Want another example of this circuitous route to a teaching career? Just look at me. I never wanted to teach when I was doing my undergraduate and masters degrees in the 1990’s, and it was only after teaching for a prolonged basis (and not especially liking it at first) that I began to grow into it. Now I love it. Go figure.
Don’t assume that a practical reason is an insincere reason, and don’t assume that initially viewing teaching as a “fallback” will mean that this attitude persists.
3. Professional performance ambitions are a distraction from becoming a good teacher.
This statement really gets my goat, because it represents a completely backwards set of priorities in a future music educator. There is a perception among music performance majors that music education majors are infantile performers, with abilities only slightly greater than the high school students that they may soon be teaching. This perception exists because, all too frequently, it’s true, and it’s true because of this “you’re a teacher, you’re a performer” split that statements like the above encourage.
I can’t count how many times I heard a poor performance in studio class which was shrugged off with a statement like, “it’s OK, they’re a music education major, after all”. Conversely, I have frequently witnessed surprise and astonishment among music performance students when they find out that the really excellent player they just heard was an……education major!
What’s the typical performer statement when they discover a highly instrumentally proficient music education major?
“How come you’re not a performance major?”
The typical response?
“Well, this education degree is just a fallback…..”
Defensive posturing or genuine disinterest in their education program? You know what I think.
Here’s a scary fact:
I am playing in the university symphony orchestra at which I am doing this teacher certificate program. There are two orchestras–this is the top orchestra, and I’m playing principal bass.
I am the only music education student in the entire symphony orchestra.
I repeat–I am the only music education student in the entire symphony orchestra.
4. Good K-12 teachers perform as an avocation, not a vocation – i.e. for relaxation and enjoyment; one should sort out their vocations and avocations.
Good musicianship is a skill (like pitching), not an attribute (like having brown hair), and, like sports, it must constantly be practiced or it will atrophy. For most musicians, the conduit through which they explore and develop their musicianship is an instrument. Those who continue to work at their craft and strive to achieve the highest levels of proficiency (not just “pretty good for an education major” proficiency) have more doors open to them, resulting in more and higher quality experiences and, therefore, more to teach.
It can be hard to keep up performance chops as an orchestra director, band director, or other full-time educator, and for many people allowing those performance skills to recede into the background does not detract from their musicianship. For them, the act of conducting replaces the act of performing in their musical development.
But the good conductors almost without exception previously attained a high level of proficiency on a specific instrument, then moved behind the podium into an educational/directorial role. They didn’t just magically become a good conductor without paying their dues.
How can a music education student reasonably expect to attain a high level of musical proficiency without paying their performance dues in some way, shape, or form as well?
Like it or not, there is an attitudinal and experiential difference between musicians who have played professionally, whether in a jazz, classical, rock, or other setting, and those who have just “played for fun”.
And students can smell it. They know if you’re the real deal or not. And they are more likely to respond to you if you can back it up with life experience.
Working hard instrumentally –> more doors open –> higher quality experiences –> more to teach
5. If a student wants to perform, they should be a music performance major.
Yo-Yo Ma was a history major. Enough said. If you’d like to delve deeper into my thoughts on music performance degrees, just read Road Warrior Without an Expense Account Part IX – Rethinking Music Performance Degrees.
6. Teaching is a serious profession in its own right, and must be treated as such.
This statement is reflective of the insecurity many teachers feel which we earlier discussed–the “those who can, do…those who can’t, teach syndrome. I agree with #6. It is serious. Teaching, to me, is a much more “serious” profession than performing.
The complicating factor with teaching music is how our own performing experiences inform and direct our teaching, and how a wealth of foundational and significant (and I don’t consider playing in your high school band foundational and significant–maybe that makes me a snob, but that’s how I see it) performing experiences makes for a more interesting, deeper, and perhaps better respected and more motivating teacher.
Does this mean that you have to play with the Chicago Symphony? No, although it would be a great experience for you as a future teacher. If you’re planning on teaching instrumental or choral music, practice, take lessons, go to festivals, take auditions, and do something on your instrument. In the long run, you’ll be happy you did.
7. Teaching must be a calling, not a fallback.
My observations have shown that people usually figure out whether or not they have the “teaching bug”. Some do, some don’t–it’s fine either way. If, after teaching some lessons or working on education degree, you feel like you aren’t into it, don’t like working with students, are impatient, or daydream through each pedagogical encounter, get out of teaching! Although I basically disagree with all of the above seven statements, I somewhat agree with the sentiment of the statements. Teaching is serious business, and a lackluster teacher will do infinitely more damage (or, at the very least, fail to do good) to young minds, to the next generation of citizens and musicians. Now this is serious business. If you don’t like it, get out! Trust me, there are much easier ways to make a living.
For those of you who are in it for the long haul and committed to improving your craft, don’t let misguided statements like the seven articulated above muddy the waters for you. There are misperceptions and suspicions on both sides of the teacher/performer divide.
For more on this topic, please check out my post Advice for Aspiring Music Performance Majors.
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