During Grad School, Kelly and I used to spend hours in a cute, little, French Cafe near our campus. We would order ham and brie sandwiches, hot tea, and a chocolate mousse to share. We would talk about school, our classes, our careers, and life in general. Kelly was an aspiring opera singer, and I was an aspiring collegiate professor. Fast forward four years and we're now both full-time music teachers. We wish we could chat over a steaming pot of tea, but alas, we live in different states! Yet, we still keep in touch and text each other frequently. So that gave me an idea for a recurring blog topic - "Conversations with real music teachers."
I think there is so much that we can learn by just "talking shop" with other teachers. For our first installment of this series, we are talking about the often-times long journey it takes to find your niche as a musician and teacher. We share our stories and experiences with each other, and realize our stories have a lot in common. Both of our careers took (and are still taking) a few twists and turns along the way. We hope this post is encouraging and helpful for those of you who are considering a career in teaching music, or maybe even those of you who are considering leaving teaching!
We hope you enjoy this new type of post, and if you have ideas for future discussion topics, please leave us a comment below!
Kelly and I live on opposite sides of the country, so we decided to use Google Chat to facilitate this conversation. We've copied and pasted the text into this post. Bold text is Julie and regular text is Kelly.
Ok so I thought we could start it like an interview. I could ask you some questions and then we just see where the convo goes around the theme of "careers in music."
So let's start with saying what we currently teach and what kind of school.
I currently teach 7th-12th grade Drama and Chorus at a Private Independent School. In previous years I also taught 5th and 5th grade Chorus, as well as a 6th grade World Languages Class.
I currently teach 2 levels of choir, Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, and AP Music Theory at a public high school (9th-12th grades).
Is that a full time job?
It definitely is, lol. Plus I vocal direct and conduct the musical every year, and next fall we'll be starting a marching band
Oh yeah I forgot to mention that I also directed the past 3 musicals we've done at our school.
That's a huge job.
Yeah it really is.
But when you started college in Undergrad, were you intending to be a music teacher? Or were you wanting to focus on a performing career?
(P.S. what I meant by "is that a full-time job" is - do they hire you as a FT teacher, or does the district consider it PT?)
I'm considered full time. I started as part time with only three classes, added a fourth halfway through last year, and got up to five this year, which is considered FT.
Oh that's good
In college I was really more focused on performing. When I started undergrad, I wanted to teach, but my school didn't have separate tracks for music ed vs. performance, so everyone just sort of *did* performance. Around the beginning of my junior year I started to lean more toward wanting to perform, but I knew I also might want to teach someday. My advisor wisely told me that it was worth taking a year out of my life to get my teaching credential, which I'm glad I did, but even then I was still much more performance oriented.
And you did teach for one year before getting your Master's in performance...
What was that like?
In a word, horrible. Lol! I was teaching K-5 general music in a tiny district, and I hated it. Some people are fantastic with that age group, but I am not one of those people. Of course, I thought I just hated teaching in general.
Yeah that's the thing, right? It's all about finding the right age fit.
Definitely. I didn't know it at the time though.
I wonder how many people have quit teaching forever but all they needed to do was switch grades.
That's a great question. They say most teachers who leave, leave within the first five years.
I was feeling that last year... when I had 5th and 6th grade. I wanted to quit teaching forever. But I switched to only Upper School and now I'm so much happier. I still think I'd do even better with even older students. Maybe 9th-12th only, or even college.
I love teaching high school. I can be much more real with them and it's way more about making music and not so much about babysitting.
And can you believe 15% of new teachers quit before the first year is even over! (I read that somewhere.. I'll have to find a source...)
So then you got your Master's in performance and pursued opera for a little while...
That's right. After my first year teaching K-5, the district cut my position... which I should have seen coming, since I was a brand new music teacher at .4 FTE (where 1.0 FTE is considered full time, so I was working less than half time). Basically that was three strikes. I was also in my first year of grad school to get my masters in performance, so I honestly wasn't that bummed about my job getting cut. I finished my masters degree a year later and started auditioning for everything, while also having a few random day jobs in order to contribute something financially to my brand new marriage.
Well it was a blessing in disguise.
My journey was a little different... I always wanted to teach, so I got my Bachelor's in Music Education. But I held off on the teaching credential because my school was about to offer a Master's in Music Ed with a teaching credential, combined program, if I waited one more year. In the meantime, while I was waiting and working an office job to save money, I got offered the opportunity to get my Master's with Dr. Archibeque... I couldn't turn that down... So I skipped the teaching credential and went straight to the Master's.*
(*Master's in Conducting)
How do you think things would be different for you if you had waited the extra year to get the credential?
Oh man, so much would be different. I'd probably be married to a different person, or not married at all, honestly. It took moving for the Master's as a catalyst to break up with my long-term boyfriend... and that first year of the Master's I was miserable. I was so miserable. I had broken up with said boyfriend, friends were being fickle, and I was sooo lonely. So that led me to online dating, which led me to my now-husband! And I took a year off after that first year. I needed a year to reevaluate if I wanted to continue that program... if that's what I wanted to do with my life...
So in the meantime I had a degree in Music Ed, a half-finished Master's in conducting... and no real teaching experience...
What did you do during that year off?
Well I was also going through some health issues... mysterious symptoms that no one could figure out. I saw a lot of doctors. I rested. I tried to reduce stress. And I continued my long-distance relationship with my now-husband. So it wasn't a waste!
Meanwhile, while I was taking a year off of grad school, you were starting grad school.
How was that first year for you? Did you feel like it was your life's destiny to be an opera star?
Ha! To be honest, while it was something I desperately wanted, it never felt like quite the right fit. I always knew my voice wasn't nearly as good as many other singers I knew, that my acting wasn't as developed, and that my personality wasn't totally in line with the lifestyle of a singer. I think it was this last one that always nagged at the back of my mind the most.
The personality thing?
Well I thought your voice and acting were amazing.
Ha, well thanks ☺
And your personality too lol
I think it was that I had a lot of other things in my life that were just as important or more important to me than singing. For most of the successful singers I knew, that wasn't necessarily the case. I had a husband and a family and friends and other time commitments that I cared about, and it was always hard for me to choose singing over those things, even though I often felt like I had to.
Yeah I know what you mean...
Professional singers have late nights, long weekends, and very busy lives.
Very much so. The schedule alone was really difficult to manage with the rest of my life
So what made you decide to apply for this job you currently have when it came open? You had been traveling around the world for opera, and then you just decided you'd rather stay home?
More or less. A couple of years after getting my masters degree, I started to struggle with whether or not I even wanted to continue trying to make it in the opera world. I was auditioning for a lot and getting offered very little, and meanwhile I was getting involved in other things that felt like more valuable uses of my time, like doing youth ministry at our church. Around that time I went to a summer opera program in Germany and absolutely hated it, and after that I knew I was done.
So around that time, when you were going to Germany and figuring all this out, I had started teaching here at my job. So I was essentially starting my teaching career - FINALLY.
That sounds about right. You had left Brazil a couple of months before that.
Right. Brazil was awesome, and I was able to teach private students, but this job here was my first "real" teaching job. And I struggled. I didn't like it for two years. Like I said earlier, I wanted to quit. Meanwhile, you started and you loved it right away!
I don't know about loving it right away, but it absolutely felt right to me. Everything I had felt was missing from singing, I found when I started teaching.
I spent my whole life (more or less) wanting to teach, and then when I was finally able to, I didn't enjoy it. And you spent a good portion of your life not wanting to teach, and then when you finally did it, you liked it.
But you know, I don't think I hate teaching. I think I might just be teaching the wrong age-fit for me, or even the wrong subject (more on that, soon)...
So now what does the future look like? Do you think you'll keep teaching forever?
I think I'll be in education forever, and teaching for the foreseeable future. At some point I might want to move into administration, or maybe higher ed, but right now I love the high school level. We can really focus on their musical skills and development as artists, and it's so much fun to see them grow from children (as freshmen) all the way up to graduating seniors and basically adults.
I actually love teaching. But I don't think I love teaching choirs. I like making music. But a majority of my time is spent teaching notes and rhythms to very beginners. So I think I would enjoy it more if I were teaching more advanced students. I always thought I'd get a DMA and become a choir professor... but I think that dream is shifting a bit now.
What are you thinking now?
When I was in undergrad I was obsessed with music history. My music history professor tried to convince me to get my master's and doctorate in musicology and become a music history professor. But my conducting professor and choir directors were telling me I HAD to do conducting. So conducting won out. But over the years I've still had a deep love for music history. So I think if I get a Doctorate I will probably choose musicology over conducting! I still want to teach, I still want to be a professor, but I think I want to teach music history instead of choirs.
The fact is, I love the *art* of conducting. I love score study, even. But I don't love the time consuming, pounding out parts, day-by-day aspect of it.
It's really hard to stop listening to what other people think you should do, isn't it? That's one reason I stuck with singing for so long... there were a lot of people saying, "But you're so good and you've put in so much time!" I guess both were true, but I clearly wasn't good enough to get regular work, plus I knew deep down that I wasn't happy doing it.
Yes...same thing for me... I felt guilty because I had put so much time and money into my master's. I still feel guilty now, even thinking about switching
I felt guilty about quitting singing for a while afterwards for that reason, but then I started my teaching job and get paid extra for my masters degree!
But when I imagine myself being a Director of Choral Activities at a University, I feel overwhelmed and tired. But when I imagine myself being a Music History Professor, I feel excited and can't wait!
That's a good sign, and one I think you should listen to
I don't think I'll quit teaching Secondary quite yet. I enjoy it enough to continue for the time being... plus we need the income. But I think I just now have a different end-goal than I used to.
Nothing wrong with that.
So if you could go back to 18-year-old-Kelly, who's just starting out as a music major, what would you tell her? Would you tell her to do anything differently?
Honestly, as hard as this would be, I might tell her to pick a different school. I loved my time at Cal Poly, but I feel like the fact that my track options were so limited (or non-existent) ultimately did me a disservice.
Oh yeah that's so true
You could have started with Music Ed right away!
You should have come to APU! We could have been besties.
We are besties now 😀
But seriously, I would have benefitted from having more hands-on experience with teaching various levels before getting my first job. It would probably have helped me realize it wasn't teaching that wasn't for me, it was teaching elementary school.
Yes that's so important.
Well I don't regret my time at APU or my Music Ed degree. I really did love it. And I can't regret my Master's, because without it I never would have met my husband, or you, or Dr. Benson!
The three most important people in your life, obviously 😉
Sometimes I think if I didn't have so many health problems, maybe I'd love teaching choirs and conducting enough to get my DMA in it. It's just a very high-energy and time-consuming job, and my body just can't keep up with it. I wish I could BE Dr. Benson.
It definitely requires a ton of energy. I'm always exhausted by the end of the day.
Other teachers don't realize... they think I'm crazy for being so exhausted all the time.
Yep. The thing is, music teachers are “on” ALL the time.
During musical season it's easy to work 12-14 hours every day for months on end.
And rehearsals are a group effort most of the time. There's not a lot of individual work time.
Yes, so true.
Well do you have any more thoughts about musical careers or changing careers?
I'm still wrestling with guilt for wanting to change careers. But at least I'm keeping it within music, so it's not a waste.
I think my advice to someone in a similar position would be to go with your gut. If something feels wrong or off to you, pay attention to that feeling. It doesn't mean you're completely in the wrong profession, but that maybe you just need to find a different path within music.
Yes that's great advice.
Music is so enriching and can bring so much happiness to so many people. It's worth it. You just might need to find your niche.
Thanks for reading We Teach Music! As music teachers, our goal is to instill a passion for music in our students and help them discover what it means to each of them personally. We hope that this blog will inspire other music teachers to do the same and provide ideas for doing so.
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