What You Need To Be A Great Music Teacher

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Summer is a perfect time to reflect.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about what qualities you need to have to be a great music teacher.  This allows me to focus on what I need to do in order to be a better teacher next year than I was this year.

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Obviously there are certain givens – proficiency on your major instrument and also the instruments used and taught in the classroom, an ability to manage a classroom full of noise-makers, an ability to design and implement appropriate instruction and assessment for all learners; basically all the things that should have been learned in a good MusEd program and a few years of on-the-job experience.

But what are the other skills that a good music teacher needs?  What other skills should we possess that maybe weren’t covered in the MusEd degree, or which flew by so fast we barely had time to notice them.

1.  Enthusiasm – The number one trait of outstanding music teachers is their enthusiasm in the classroom.  Music teachers already enjoy music (that’s why they do what they do) but that joy for your subject must spill over into every moment in the music room.  Children should know that you love to make music, listen to music, go to concerts, compose, improvise.  If it exists in your curriculum, then you have to show the children that you love it, and they will pick up on that.  You can’t blah-blah your way through a recorder unit or guitar unit just because you yourself can’t wait to get the World drumming unit underway.

2.  Patience – Musical proficiency requires repetition, so every music teacher has already learned to be patient with themselves while learning to master their craft.  Children can take a long time to learn skills, so patience is key.  You must be patient with every single member of a class.  Each student learns at different speeds, and they all deserve to learn things at their own pace.  Try learning a new instrument yourself some time, just to remember how that feels again – it’s a great way to remember how important patience is.

3.  An ability to diagnose problems quickly – Great teachers possess an uncanny knack for noticing a problem with a student’s approach to music or to the instrument, and being able to figure out what problem may be getting in the way of progression or learning.  This does not mean that we should be noticing what’s wrong, or what’s different from the orthodox, and insisting that the only approach is “my way or the highway”.  Rather, we should find ways to help and encourage each individual student by assessing every problem and finding the best solution to keep them moving forward.  Devising fun and interesting exercises and drills is part of the same skill.

4.  Love for all music – You cannot expect your students to be open minded about music if you yourself are closed minded about any styles or genres of music.  All music exists as an expression of somebody’s likes and emotions.  Always look for the positive in any music you listen to.  If a student wants you to listen to something that she finds exciting, listen attentively, and find something positive to say about what you hear.  Nothing is worse than a teacher who insists that Classical music or Jazz is the only true art form, and pans everything else.  Learn about new music, go outside your comfort zone, enjoy the shock of the new – there’s too much great music out there that you’ll miss if you never come out of your own box.

5.  Desire to learn – Chances are you’ve already got that in spades if you’re reading mustech.net, and you’ve got this far in this post.  Great musicians learn from their masters, great teachers learn from each other.  The undisputed joy of our subject is that it is ever changing – new music and new musicians seem to hit the airwaves daily.  How could you possibly teach the same way at the end of a 30-year career as you taught at the beginning of that career?  Watch other teachers teach, particularly those who are new to the field, and those who are veterans.  Have other teachers watch you and talk about  all the good (and maybe bad) things you’re doing.  Reach out to other teachers through social media such as twitter (#mused, #musedchat) or facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/musicpln/).  Read.  Study.  Listen.  Compose. Perform.  Never be happy with what you know already, but just look on that as a springboard for learning more.

Richard McCready is a composer, musician, and the Director of Music Technology at River Hill High School in Columbia, Maryland.  He was born in Northern Ireland and studied tuba performance, piano, and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England.  Since emigrating to the US in 1992, he has held teaching positions at The Park School of Baltimore, Towson University, and Mayfield Woods Middle School, Elkridge, MD; he has also played professionally with the Monumental Brass Quintet, the Lexington Brass Quintet, and the Denhard/McCready Duo.  He has earned two Masters degrees from Towson University, one in tuba performance and one in vocal performance.  He plays many musical instruments, but the focus of his teaching is Music Technology in which he is widely regarded as one of the outstanding innovators in the US.  His book, Making Music with GarageBand and Mixcraft, was published in 2010. Richard was awarded the TI:ME 2013 Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year Award and also the Howard County 2013 Music Educator of the Year.
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