To Teach or Not to Teach: Is This Really the Right Question?

In teaching college trumpet, I find that the following question arises often: “Should I major in music education?”

Coming from my college students, this question usually means one of two things. The first is the topic of this post: “Should I major in music education?” (as opposed to performance or composition–somehow this question always comes from those who are already enrolled in the music ed curriculum). The second scenario, “Should I major in music education?” (as opposed to education in general) is better addressed elsewhere. But in either case, the issue boils down to the following question: how badly do you want to teach?

Let me start by stating that I have three degrees in music, and all three are in performance. Let me follow that statement by voicing the firm opinion that teaching is not, and never should be, a backup plan for someone whose planned career in performance took a turn for the worse. Are there good teachers who fell into teaching without meaning to? Absolutely. But our field also includes some very bitter would-be performers for whom teaching feels like a consolation prize. I have made it something of a mission to avoid perpetuating this problem.

How many of us have heard it said of a fine teacher that he “could have been a player”? The assumption is that only the top performers are able to “make it” full-time–which is more or less true, except when an artist’s mediocre performances are counterbalanced by some serious talent in marketing and promotion. But there is another set of assumptions here as well: the assumption, for instance, that an outstanding musician would rather make a living as a performer; that his ability to play is of greater importance than his ability to teach; that anyone can “make it” as an educator; and that “making it” as an educator does not also demand outstanding performance. I certainly have never heard anyone talking about how someone “could have been a teacher if he had gone for it.”

We must distinguish between the music education major who wants to run a band program and the music performance major (who is sometimes masquerading as an ed major) who is thinking of teaching private lessons. Anyone who wants to teach band or orchestra understands that a music education degree is the sine qua non for that field. The problems arise for the student who does not want to run a band, who really wants to find a way to play his instrument, and who has doubts about how to make that happen. These are the students who take up an education degree because their parents prefer it; because they doubt their own abilities as would-be performers or composers; because a particular band director was an inspirational mentor; etc.

For these students, the real question is not so much about whether to major in education, but about what to do as a backup plan if something else doesn’t work out. To this end, I would highly recommend David Cutler’s excellent book and blog, The Savvy Musician, which offers all kinds of advice to help 21st-century performers craft realistic and meaningful career goals. Mr. Cutler mentions teaching in his book, which is appropriate–but only, I would argue, for those for whom teaching is attractive to begin with.

To determine if you are such a person, perhaps the best advice I can give is as follows:

Think about the teachers who have most inspired you. Think about the passion they brought to their craft. Can you imagine one of them telling you that teaching you was only second best, compared to the life s/he wanted to lead? Imagine how different your life would be if you had been taught by an individual who did not truly believe in his or her calling as an educator; or imagine the difference it would have made if all of your teachers had been infused with great passion. Now imagine that I asked this same question of your future students, and tell me whether they would do well to study under your tutelage. 

Enough said.