How to Become a Music Teacher


Music education is tied to a wide range of career paths for those who play instruments, sing or compose, and those who go to school to study the history, concepts and techniques related to the field. Most notably, skilled musicians encounter opportunities to teach music privately and at private music schools. In most cases, these positions seek skilled and professional musicians with some teaching experience, yet they do not necessarily require any formal academic or teaching credentials. Private music teachers don’t always hold certification in the field, nor have a connection to a national organization, like the Music Teachers National Association.

While private lessons can be a good way for working musicians to supplement their incomes, few people make a living from private music teaching alone. For this reason, becoming a music teacher at the elementary, middle school or high school level, or qualifying as a music instructor at a college or university level is often considered a preferable option. There are distinct educational paths that individuals follow in order to teach music at public schools, colleges and universities, and at the end of their studies, become qualified to provide instruction in music performance and theory.

How can I become an elementary music teacher?

Many elementary schools have music teachers or hire visiting music teachers (also known as “floating teachers” since they move from class to class, and even sometimes, from school to school throughout the week). At the elementary level, a music teacher’s primary mandate is to promote music appreciation and introduce students to basic concepts in music.

Future elementary music teachers may spend time exploring the history of music, music and musical instrumentals from countries around the world, or basic music concepts (such as reading music) through the introduction of accessible and easy-to-learn instruments, like the recorder. In addition to teaching basic music classes, elementary music teachers instruct students in singing, reading music, playing instruments, and learning the styles of well-known musicians. He or she may teach students one-on-one or within a group setting. While some teachers specialize in only one instrument, others are able to instruct students in a range of different instruments.

A music teacher’s role at an elementary school is varied. One moment can be spent teaching general music education lessons to 2nd and 3rd graders, while the next involves 6th graders arriving to class to learn the difference between soprano, alto, tenor and bass singing parts as part of a choir class.

Elementary school music teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree and become certified to teach in their state of residence. They typically complete the following steps to qualify for a teaching position at a public school:

  • Earn a four-year degree. Most elementary school music teachers have an undergraduate degree in music, and have completed several courses in music teaching. Others majored in an education-related field, with a specialization in music.
  • Complete a student-teacher experience. To get acquainted with teaching in an elementary school setting, aspiring music teachers spend one to two semesters as a student-teacher.
  • Satisfy the requirements to become licensed and certified. Every state has a distinct licensure process for teachers that include passing applicable examinations, paying license fees, and submitting to criminal background checks.
  • Earn a master’s degree. While some states require teachers to obtain a graduate degree after becoming certified, other educators choose to pursue an advanced degree in order to increase their qualifications, earn a promotion, and earn higher pay.

How can I become a middle school music teacher?

A small percentage of middle schools have band programs and employ one or more music teachers to teach music on a full-time basis. Music teachers at this level typically educate students on how to play music, refine their technique, cover the fundamentals (from scales and chords), and delve into more advanced music theory (generally in AP Music classes) that touches upon music phrasing, chord structure and composition.

Middle school music teachers must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in music, and have a license or certification to teach in their state of residence. Steps taken to qualify for a teaching position at a public middle school generally include the following:Young Musician Teaches Female Student To Play the Guitar

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in music (or similar), making sure to fulfill all requirements expected of music teachers at the middle school level. While some music teachers major in education, and then minor in music, all must complete a teacher education program to qualify for public school positions. It is not uncommon for some teachers to complete a master’s degree program in education shortly after earning their bachelor’s degree.
  • Complete a teacher education program. Aspiring teachers spend time learning how to teach music to middle school students, manage a classroom and prepare lessons. Completion of a student-teaching experience and/or an internship in a middle school environment is often expected of public school teachers, and takes place under the guidance of a seasoned teacher who acts as a mentor.
  • Satisfy the requirements to become licensed and certified. Every state has its own set of requirements for obtaining a teaching license, which ranges from completing an accredited degree program to passing applicable examinations.
  • Earn a master’s degree. Teachers may have to obtain an advanced degree, as required by their state, while others pursue a graduate degree in music to qualify for higher-paying jobs and stay relevant in the field.

Middle school music teachers have typically taken additional courses in music education and if they are responsible for a band program, they must be able to play and teach several instruments (at the very least, they are expected to have a working knowledge of all the band instruments and a more advanced knowledge of woodwind and brass). In schools with an orchestra program, they should be more than familiar with string instruments. Music teachers must also know how to conduct a band or orchestra, often organizing and leading performances throughout the school year for peers, staff and parents.

How can I become a high school music teacher?

High school music teachers typically teach instrumental music and/or vocal music to students as part of a larger band, orchestra or vocal music program. As a result, like their counterparts at the middle school level, the music teachers are expected to know how to play and teach many instruments. In most cases, they have a working knowledge of several different types of instruments and expertise in a particular family of instruments (woodwinds, brass or strings).

Most schools hire high school music teachers with the expectation that they are able to conduct the school band or orchestra and/or lead a chorus, when applicable. High school music teachers must hold at least a bachelor’s degree, possess specialized training as a music teacher, and be certified to teach in their state. The educational pathway that most high school music teachers complete includes the steps below: 

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in music (or similar field), such as music education, where they become well-versed in teaching students music theory, appreciation and technique. Teachers must be able to read music, and assist their students in learning to read as well.
  • Complete a teacher education program, and undergo a semester or two of a student-teaching experience (or internship), which allows aspiring educators to observe, interact with, and eventually teach students within a high school environment.
  • Satisfy state-specific qualifications to teach. Licensing requirements vary for teachers, and often involve completing accredited degree programs, passing examinations, and submitting to background and criminal history checks. For instance, the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation (OCTP) expects their certified teachers to have passed three assessments: the Oklahoma Professional Teaching Exam (OPTE), Oklahoma Professional Teaching Exam (OPTE), and Oklahoma General Education Test (OGET).
  • Earn a master’s degree. Some states require that their teachers obtain a graduate degree, while others complete a master’s program in music to qualify for higher paying jobs, such as a position as a department head.

How can I become a college or university music professor?

As is the case in other visual and performing arts disciplines, while most college music professors hold a master’s degree or at least a bachelor’s degree, they may in very exceptional cases, be hired primarily on the basis of their accomplishments as a musician. However, this is typically not done for full-time positions. College music professors are generally hired based on a combination of their musical experience (for example, their reputation and accomplishments as musicians, composers or directors), formal academic credentials and teaching experience, or has demonstrated potential to teach music at the college level.

Some universities have music conservatory programs, which are typically housed in separate music faculties. Depending on the school, job candidate and area of expertise, faculty members may be hired on the basis of their accomplishments as musicians and/or on the basis of their academic credentials. Typically, music professors at the university level hold a Ph.D. in music and have demonstrated expertise in a particular field of concentration, such as music theory, musicology, ethnomusicology or composition.

A doctorate of musical arts is called a D.M.A., and is generally pursued by those who wish to teach music and place emphasis on performance. College educators with this degree often teach piano, cello, violin or other instruments. Also, teachers may earn a musical arts degree in composition, conducting, music education and many other fields – all depending on their respective college degree programs.

As members of the music faculty, professors are expected to teach students privately and to lead ensembles. Depending on their area of specialization, they may teach instrumental or vocal music and/or teach courses in other areas of specialization, such as music history or ethnomusicology.  In addition, depending on whether they were hired as performers and teachers or as scholars of music, they will be expected to continue performing, composing or conducting music or (in the case of scholars) publish articles and books on topics related to their area of specialization.

Job openings may request a professor to teach a specific instrument, in which case, they are often expected to hold a master’s degree, possess experience teaching an instrument at the collegiate level, furnish performance credentials, as well as exhibit organizational and leadership skills. In addition to teaching lessons, qualified candidates also recruit students to participate in the school’s music programs, prepare chamber ensembles for performances, continue to perform, and coordinate the orchestra, chorus, band or musical ensemble related to their expertise. For instance, a professor of music specializing in violin may coordinate the string area of the school’s orchestra, which could be comprised of faculty and string majors studying harp, guitar, and orchestral strings.

What is the job outlook for music teachers?

Outside of the postsecondary teacher job market, the employment outlook for music teachers at elementary, middle and high schools depends on the local need and state budgets, as the arts is one of the leading areas of education to suffer from school district budget cuts. Teaching jobs in K-12 schools are often competitive, with many teachers staying in their positions for years. At colleges and universities, competition is also fierce, and may involve multiple interviews and an audition during a school’s selection process.

According to a nationwide listing of teacher shortages released by the U.S. Department of Education, certain states and school districts demonstrate a greater need than other areas to hire educators who are trained to teach specific subjects and grade levels. For instance, the following states were highlighted for experiencing a statewide shortage of music teachers during the 2015/2016 academic year: Colorado (to teach Music/Drama), Idaho (from kindergarteners to grade 12), Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Alabama (for the arts in grades 6-12, which includes music and band teachers), and Wisconsin.

For postsecondary music professors, the greatest number of job openings for the field (as reported by the BLS) have been found at colleges, universities or professional schools, which employed 71,050 professors in 2014, followed by junior colleges, which hired 18,970 professors associated with the music, drama and arts field for that same year. Job prospects for music professors are also found at performing arts companies and other types of schools.

In regions where competition is high for teaching jobs, music teachers with a performance background; reputation in the field; members of the National Association for Music Education; or possessing specialty skills (such as being bi-lingual or having a background associated with working with special needs students), tend to catch the attention of hiring committees more often and qualify for a greater range of teaching positions. The more technical ability and creative knowledge that a job candidate can demonstrate; the better chance he or she has of attaining a sought-after music faculty position.

Some music teachers do not assume positions at a K-12 school or college, and instead, choose to hold private lessons at their home, at a client’s home, or a rented space. As a private or independent music instructor, individuals set their own fee schedules and often enjoy a high level of flexibility when arranging classes. Another job opportunity for music teachers is becoming an in-house music teacher at a music instrument shop, which involves renting ‘space’ at the shop or teaching vocal/instrument instruction at a dedicated site associated with the shop.

What is the compensation for music teachers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salaries earned by music teachers in 2014 (in relation to statistics that included those who taught drama, music and the arts, and/or those who also conducted research as part of their occupation) were as follows:

  • Elementary and middle school teachers – $53,760 – $54,940
  • High school teachers – $56,310
  • Postsecondary teachers – $64,300 (median); $75,350 (mean)

How much a music teacher makes depends on a range of factors that includes educational credentials, years of experience, place of employment and where a teacher resides. For example, according to the BLS, higher-paying job opportunities for the occupation on the postsecondary level are found in the following states, which reflect the top-five (with annual mean salaries cited): New York ($111,960), California ($89,290), Maryland ($86,540), Connecticut ($84,470), and Massachusetts ($84,440).

Teachers with advanced degrees and a reputation in the field typically qualify for the higher-paying jobs that are found in postsecondary education circles. Music teachers seeking top-paying industries for the field may encounter a slight overall increase in pay at colleges, universities or professional schools ($76,350) over the annual mean wage paid to junior college professors ($74,460), as seen in 2014.

In conclusion, the field of music education and instruction is wide-ranging; however, competition for music teaching jobs is relatively high at all levels of education. Those who possess a performance background, advanced education credentials, and a reputation for music instruction, technique, or ability generally obtain employment faster, and qualify for a greater range of employment opportunities, such as higher-paying positions at prestigious universities.

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