Music Education Philosophy I Learned on the Job

Music Education Philosophy

What we learned while earning a degree in music education only cracked the surface of what’s needed to be an effective teacher. Luckily our profession encourages collaboration, mentoring, and sharing what works. This makes it possible to have those vital “you may want to think about that again” experiences.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to learn from some of the greatest teachers in our state of Georgia. To collect even a fraction of what they have shared with me would take several books. That said, here are a few of my favorite bits of wisdom gathered in more than 34 years of teaching.

“How To Do It” Quotes

“If they pick up an instrument – you teach. If they open their mouth to sing – you teach. If they walk in your door – you teach. So, when they walk out they are better than when they walked in.” – paraphrased from Joe Kirchner, former music coordinator

“A fair teacher will do what’s needed to create wins for their band, chorus or orchestra, but the truly great teachers will do what is needed to create a win-win for everyone because every kid matters.” – Jay Wucher

“Teach them everything you know, every day, and eventually something will stick.” – Dwight Satterwhite

“Make sure everything they need to know is covered in class. Don’t expect them to learn it at home.” (This includes more than just music. It includes how you carry yourself, how you treat others, concert etiquette, etc.) – T.K. Adams

“How would our ‘Academic’ teachers change how they teach if they had to recruit kids into their classes just to keep their job?” Add to that, “Would we change if we didn’t have to recruit?” – Former teaching partner of mine

“Sweat the details – That’s often where the music is.” – From many music director colleagues

“Of course my students play better than me. How else is our profession going to continue to grow?” – Dr. Phil Jameson

“Elementary School Teachers are the Best Teachers!”

I saw that on a t-shirt. Having taught in elementary, middle, and high school, I can’t argue with that statement. If you have never taught in elementary school – GO! Spend a day (or more) with an elementary classroom teacher and then again with the music teacher. Then, try teaching a class or two.

The class management skills alone will be worth it!

It Takes a Village

Remember to foster community in your building by forming genuine relationships with:

  • Custodians – nothing needs saying, unless you like doing everything yourself
  • Lunchroom workers – do you like to eat, do you use the cafeteria for meetings?
  • Principal’s secretary – often finds money that wasn’t there earlier
  • Principal – often approves money that wasn’t there earlier
  • Scheduling counselors – ever had to get the 1st trumpet player (or soprano, or violin) back into your class?
  • Academic teachers – “LGPE? I’m giving a pop quiz and Jimmy can’t miss or he’ll get a zero. After all, academics are more important…”
  • PE teachers – “It’s my gym…”
  • School bus drivers – ever needed an unplanned stop or a last-minute performance opportunity?
  • Music colleagues – there’s power in numbers – always work as a team, even on budgets, recruiting, etc.
  • Yourself  – If you’re no good to you, you’re probably no good to anyone else.

The Best Advice I Didn’t Always Follow

“Don’t stay stupid – ASK!”

Even if you feel it’s probably a dumb question – or – you don’t want to bother anyone, ask! Our profession is built upon quality educators who are more than willing to share their knowledge and experience. Understanding your limitations is important.

Remember, the great ones know how important music is to our kids and society. They want to share.

“How Not To Do It” Quotes

Sometimes observing how not to do things can be a great lesson, too.

“He needs band more than band needs him.”

A couple of years back a young director and I were talking about a kid he was teaching. The director was talking about the kid’s problems with acceptance, difficulty learning musical parts, awkwardness trying to march, and so on. As we talked and I offered a few suggestions, the director said, “Well, he needs band more than band needs him.” That didn’t sit well with me. Are we inclusive and in the business of educating kids or exclusive and in the business of trophies on the wall and lines on our resume?

“Keep the best and shoot the rest!” 

That statement wasn’t uncommon when I first started teaching. Like many educators, I strongly believe that music is for everyone. It’s okay to have groups at different levels that differentiate between the needs of the kids. It’s okay to have standards and not allow the dumbing down of our curriculum. But it’s not okay to exclude kids just because they don’t measure up to your exclusive standards.

“We teach 70% of the school….” 

This is a mistake I’ve made. A principal said, “We need general music for the kids who do not wish to perform.” We (the music teachers) said, “We teach 70% of the school right now in a performance group (band, chorus, orchestra). Isn’t that enough?” She replied, “What? The other 30% don’t matter? It’s too important to their development to miss out on music just because they don’t wish to perform.”

Then the principal smiled and suggested we get paid 70% of our salaries…

“I can’t write a lesson plan. It’s music! We work a little, then fix as it comes up.” 

You need to plan! Plan your lessons. Your week. Plan your semesters. Plan your whole year (performances, rehearsals, workshops). And don’t forget to include your family in your planning! Then constantly evaluate, see what needs tweaking, make changes and keep planning. It’s important to write these plans down. Use a notebook so you can track your progress, and so you’ll be less likely to “forget something” or ask “didn’t we already do that?”

“Music is the most important thing the kids do.”

That which seems most important to us may not necessarily be as important to our kids. Ever had students who were homeless? Students who were living in poverty or stressed about an AP exam? Ever had students with overbearing parents? Try to remember that our students have many facets to their lives. Sometimes we can get more by giving a little.

The Importance of Our Work

If you think what we do is just not that important, let me leave you with one quick story.

I had a particularly challenging student in my third year of teaching. He was an angry kid who had been forcibly taken away from his parents and placed in a group home. We had our moments when we would go around and around.

Last spring at my retirement concert, this student drove 80 miles to be there. He sat through more than an hour of middle school band performances and tributes. He waited in a reception line to say, “Thanks, Mr. G. Being in band made growing up bearable.” Today he has his own business, a wife, and two kids – and is a respected member of his community.

The thing is, I always thought that band (and I) needed him more than he needed us.

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