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Making the Most of College

Dan Blaufuss | October 2008

An unfortunate fact is that many new directors quit teaching within five years. I am one of those who left the field – in my case after a single year. Occasionally I reflect on what I might have done differently and what advice I would offer to high school seniors considering a career as a school director.

Take music classes seriously. At the start of my teaching job I went over my old course catalogs and compiled a list of every required music class. As a teacher I found that I used material from every one of those classes, even music history, which (as evidenced by my grades) was one of my least favorites.

Take ensembles seriously. Actions speak louder than words, and good things happen to those who show up to rehearsal on time with a good attitude and their music learned. As I was preparing for my senior recital several accompanists backed out on me. In desperation I went to the wind ensemble director, who was also a pianist. He agreed to play my entire recital on about three weeks’ notice, commenting that he was glad to help after the contributions I had made to his ensemble over the years.

Play a few secondary instruments well. Methods classes are an excellent start, but all-university bands or community groups are where you learn the inherent problems of each instrument. I recommend that non-brass players pick up a mid-ranged instrument (trombone, euphonium, or horn) as most people will find these easier to play than trumpet or tuba. Non-woodwind players should start with the clarinet. Brass players who struggle to get a sound out of the soprano clarinet might start with bass or contra and work their way back up. How well you play an instrument can affect recruiting. Few fifth graders have heard of a euphonium, but if they think it sounds cool when you play it they might be more inclined to try it themselves.

Add extras. Guitar classes are increasingly common, and those inclined to teach younger grades might find a recorder class added to their teaching load. College is also the ideal time to become familiar with notation, drill design, and recording software if classes are not offered on these. The more skills you have, the more marketable you are.

Start teaching now. As important as the above points are, music teachers spend their days working with children, not instruments or concepts. Make friends with an area music teacher and volunteer time leading sectionals. Build a private studio, not just on your instrument but on anything you feel comfortable teaching. Some people enjoy teaching private lessons but dislike running rehearsals, and others prefer large groups to teaching lessons. I devoted almost no time to either in college and was already at my first teaching job before I came to this last point:

Be honest about whether teaching is right for you. Two types of teachers are memorable: the best and the most bitter. Everybody has bad days, and the first year of teaching is always the most difficult, but a consistently unhappy teacher has little to offer students. I once had someone ask me to rate my enthusiasm on a scale of 1-10. When I suggested I was at about 5 or 6, he responded that the rest of the group would always be two points lower on that 1-10 scale than I was.

There are many career options for music majors besides schools and symphony orchestras; my position here at The Instrumentalist is just one example. Some may also find that they are happiest keeping music as a hobby. Whatever path you choose, the staff of The Instrumentalist wishes those of you beginning college next fall the best, and if you pursue a career in teaching, we will be there to help you become the best teacher you can be.