During my 32 years as a music educator, I realized that many people including a few teachers and administrators had no idea what a “true” music educator was, and what it entailed to become one. I hope this article will be of enlightenment to you.
As a youngster in my late teens and during my twenties, I was privileged to have studied with the first trombonists of the CBS Symphony in New York City and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I studied for one year at Juilliard School of Music in New York City, and then joined the Ina Ray Hutton Band, with whom I was a participant in a big band movie short. The following years I worked on TV shows, recorded with name bands, and of course played for numerous radio shows, which were called “remotes.” During those early years, I traveled thousands of miles doing “one nighters” throughout the country as a dance band musician. I was a professional!
At the age of 25 while “on the road,” I decided to go to college. I luckily chose the State University of New York at Potsdam (formerly known as Potsdam State Teacher’s College) in upper New York State, considered the most reputable school in the East for Music Educators. When I entered school I had no idea what the word “Music Educator” really meant.
At this time in my career, I had built a small reputation, and was recognized by a few of the students and professors the day I enrolled at Potsdam. My glory as a minor celebrity was short lived! The only thing I knew how to do was to play the trombone, as did my fellow students on their respective instruments. As I, they also had a good working knowledge of their instruments, as well as piano majors. These students had been well trained by “Music Educators” at their respective public schools or by private teachers. All of us had put in many hours and years of practice beginning at a young age.
The purpose of the school was to show us how to play all the instruments, including strings, learn how to harmonize written melodies, compose simple compositions, conduct, have ear training, and LEARN HOW TO TEACH. We were taught to sing and breathe properly, how to direct choirs and worked “hands on” in campus school classrooms from kindergarten up. Each semester we took private lessons on a different instrument supplied by the school to get a working knowledge of each, and then performed a recital before the faculty for a grade. We were required to play in a beginning band and stringed orchestra with the instruments we were studying at the time. The professors at the rehearsals pointed out the inherent problems of each instrument, so we’d know what trouble spots to be aware of when we began our teaching careers. At this time they taught us how to use the proper embouchures (lip positions), to bow properly, and to sit and stand correctly so that our students would not develop bad playing, breathing, and singing habits. Bad habits are hard to break once you’ve acquired them. It’s the same with ballet dancers and ice skaters. Our professors also related many of their personal public school experiences when they’d been teachers. We were given the opportunity to conduct a concert band with a prepared score, which was of invaluable training. It truly got me ready for student teaching and my first instrumental job.
While we were absorbing and learning all this material, we continued to study our own major instrument. The reeds of the woodwinds were sometimes rough on my trombone lips. We were also taught how to deal with teachers, administrators, custodians, secretaries, and how to write letters of application for a job, for which I was forever grateful. At the same time we took the liberal arts courses required to graduate college, which were coordinated with the music education program. We did our practice teaching in different communities away from college at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels during the entire second semester of our third year of school. Besides receiving my B.S. in music education, I was also qualified to teach K-9 as a regular classroom teacher, which I eventually did for four years. I later received my Master of Arts degree.
After I graduated college, I again continued my travels on the road. With the fine vocal training I had received at Potsdam, I toured with a professional vocal group throughout the country and performed at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. After again working with numerous big bands, I was asked to play first trombone with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, a famous TV and recording group. My final jobs were with the show bands of Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Las Vegas when I decided to go into teaching.
When I began my first teaching assignment in Palmdale, CA, I was ready. But the learning didn’t stop there. For the next 27 years, I attended conventions and workshops twice a year to reinforce what I had learned at Potsdam. I found out I never knew enough and that’s the way it is today. I’m still continuing my education during my retirement.
When I breezed into Potsdam University as a young 25-year-old professional, I thought I had it made because I knew how to play. How wrong I was! Any professional who is thinking of becoming a band, choir, or orchestral director, should go to a “reputable” music teacher’s college where they’ll be properly trained. During my years as a teacher, I’ve seen other instructors, former professional instrumentalists and vocalists (who hadn’t gone to a music teacher’s college), personally give parents a dazzling display of pyrotechnics before or during a beginning band or choral concert. When their groups finally performed, some were abysmal failures! I was always amazed that it didn’t seem to faze the proud parents, who would applaud for anything when their children were involved.
The professors at my college with years of public school teaching were in complete agreement that music teachers shouldn’t teach more than one discipline. In other words, a band director should only teach band, an orchestral teacher, strings, etc. A music curriculum that required teachers to teach them all, band, strings, choir, and classroom music, were doomed for failure. Just the scheduling problems alone can be maddening, especially when classes are taught back to back, from the beginning of the day to the closing bell. I’ve seen this happen in many communities in Southern California during my tenure as a teacher, where successful districts decided to change, and had their music personnel teach everything. Within a year their formerly successful programs had deteriorated. It’s almost like “dumbing down” music education.
Teaching music requires an incredible amount of energy. It’s one of the most demanding courses to teach. When a music teacher is required to teach band, strings, choir, and classroom music, they find it necessary to hold back in each class so they can survive the day, the week, the month, so they won’t lose their health. I advised a new music teacher who was doing an incredible job in all disciplines, to let up or he’d burn out in a few months, which is common among music teachers. The principal couldn’t praise him enough for his choir and I told him that I had advised the teacher not to overwork. After a couple of months the teacher caught a cold and lost his voice, which wouldn’t heal. He took a short leave of absence to visit his family in Canada, and never returned after Christmas as he had promised. He’d succeeded in doing a superlative job with band, strings, classroom music and choir, but paid the consequences.
When interviewing prospective music teachers, a panel of well-qualified music personnel with successful track records, including an administrator, should do the questioning. They’ll soon know if the individual being interviewed is qualified for the position.
In the final analysis, the goal as I’ve clearly stated, is to have dedicated and well trained music personnel at each school, so that our children may receive the best music education possible.