Strategies for Navigating the Music Education Major for Incoming and Transfer Students

By Phillip D. Payne, Natalie Steel Royston, Adrian D. Barnes, and Kate M. Bertelli-Wilinski

This article is adapted with permission from “Entering the Music Teaching Profession: Strategies for Navigating the Music Education Major for Incoming and Transfer Students,” published in the July 2021 issue of the Kansas Music Review. The adapted article was published in the January 2022 issue of Teaching Music. 

To help future music teachers make their way into the profession, offer strategies and resources early in the game.

As students from across the United States prepare to enter college, it is important that they understand the process from career planning to enrollment (see sidebar below, “Precollege and Freshman College Year Considerations”). Given the enormity of a student’s decision about which school to attend, the teacher’s task of providing advice for these students is almost as critical. Teachers who are more knowledgeable about admissions systems and processes for both universities and music programs may be better equipped to help their students prepare for and navigate the transition into a higher education institution. Currently, there is a general lack of resources that provide music teachers with details about the personal, social, and academic rigors that lie ahead for music education students. Additionally, few resources discuss the various school-related factors that music education students should consider when making decisions about their future career. Based on the findings of previous research, this article serves to fill a gap by providing two vital perspectives involved in making the decision to attend a specific school: the student and the college. The included resources address three areas that are most concerning for music education students, as well as three school-related factors that can impact a student once a choice to attend has been made.

College music education major

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Academic Considerations

Students’ concerns about moving to a new institution—be it a two- or a four-year institution—can be understood as academic, social, or personal issues. Struggles related to academic issues include difficulties with coursework, routines, or procedures of specific faculty as well as misunderstandings related to the music education curriculum. Many times, these issues result in increased course load and/or additional semesters that lead to elevated stress both socially and financially. Students also frequently express their frustration with the current system as they continue to be confused by their school’s requirements. These struggles suggest that continued guidance and support are essential at this pivotal moment in the transition process.

Given the high mobility rate of students and the increased popularity of Advanced Placement (AP) and dual-credit courses, having an easily accessible matrix of courses that are mutually accepted and applied toward college work could be an asset to freshmen and transfer students. While high school counselors and advisors serve as the initial point of contact, their advising often focuses on general college admission. A music educator can address topics related to majoring in music given their personal experiences and current contacts with collegiate music educators.

Social Considerations

The importance of the social aspect of starting at a new school cannot be overstated. Becoming a part of a new community can create a sense of belonging, comfort, and security. However, some new students have difficulty establishing a social circle in the college environment. Most students realize it takes time to establish these bonds but are often unsure of how to adequately navigate this new environment. This may be especially true for transfer students due to their age and year in school.

To help students connect with social circles, it may be worthwhile to encourage early on-campus visits as well as immediate participation in student groups and organizations. A primary contact at the university who can answer all music-related questions and moderate all conversations may also help acclimate students. Music education and college life allow for multiple opportunities to connect with others; music educators can play a pivotal role in bringing various options to a student’s attention.

Personal Considerations

Incoming students often face lost or empty credits because the higher education institution does not deem them applicable to their degree requirements. High school AP exams and dual-credit college courses may or may not aid the student. Institutions vary on their acceptance of AP exam results (some only use the results to determine course placement) and occasionally cap the number of credits accepted. Because these credits do not always meet specific degree requirements, students can be required to take other electives and accrue more credit hours when they arrive on a college campus, and they may discover that the classes and exams they took in high school do not save them time toward earning their degree. Transfer students (and occasionally new students) frequently experience issues with the transferability of courses and sequential course scheduling. These students are often surprised by how these factors can affect their graduation timeline and their personal affairs.

An unintended consequence of these extra, empty hours can be the student’s inability to receive financial aid. With federal financial aid rules, extra course credits applied to the degree can result in both a credit overage and loss of financial aid, usually just prior to degree completion. These financial aid rules may especially impact transfer students. With the rising costs of college tuition, the affordability of two-year institutions, and uncontrollable life changes, it is safe to assume that the pathway to the music education degree will not always be direct. Therefore, the ability to transfer credit has become one of the most important matters for some students, especially for those choosing to initially attend a community college.

To help the situation, students should first meet with a trusted university advisor to learn how the course evaluation process works, then thoroughly research the transferability of all courses and the degree-plan requirements before enrolling in courses. Involved parties could help students by reminding them to monitor institution requirements, transfer articulation agreements, and determine the value of AP courses and dual-credit courses. This knowledge is essential for ensuring a successful transition from one school to the next. Additionally, music teachers could create and maintain an index of music education faculty or advisors in their region who could serve as points of contact for prospective students.

Considerations for School Selection

Auditions. When considering enrollment in a higher education institution, students need to be aware that their decisions can be greatly impacted by the music department’s audition policies, curriculum, transparency, and networking ability. Particularly, the alignment of these considerations and student perspectives is critical (see sidebar, “College Pathway Timeline”). The primary focus for most new music students remains the audition. For many students, the thought of auditioning can cause anxiety and nervousness; they often question their ability to measure up to standards set by a collegiate music department. As a result, auditioning can immensely impact students’ social and personal standing before their first day as an official student. Before students prepare to attend an audition day at a university, every effort should be made to identify the specific audition criteria (i.e., prepared literature, scales, sight-reading, etc.); for whom and for what they are auditioning (admission, scholarships, etc.); and the level to which they are expected to perform. Students should reach out to their prospective schools to inquire about the day’s proceedings and other expectations beyond performing on their primary instrument, e.g., theory and piano placement exams, music education interviews, etc. High school music teachers can be central to preparing students musically, academically, and emotionally for audition day. By preparing and empowering the students to ask about these items prior to audition day, students will have a greater sense of readiness and lower their anxiety going into the audition. In addition to preparing students for a successful audition, directors can also reinforce the concept that the audition is just another step in reaching their music education goals.

Curriculum. Curriculum often comprises a large source of anxiety for first-time and transfer students. These stressors include understanding the frequency and rotation of course offerings as well as the specific requirements to attain the degree. To address this concern, colleges should provide current and future students with detailed, updated, and transparent degree plans with information about when and how often courses are offered, what exactly is required for the degree, allowable substitutions, and a proposed graduation date. Four-year institutions will often develop agreements with community colleges to ensure completion of a bachelor’s degree within 2 years (often longer for music education degrees). These documents are often referred to as articulation agreements or 2×2 agreements for short representing the 2 years at each institution. If high school music teachers and counselors can readily access this information, they will be better able to advise or provide these resources more efficiently to their own students.

The greatest help would come from maintaining a short list of contacts who will provide excellent advice in this momentous decision for these young, new, and naive music education majors. Sharing these contacts with students could add clarity, accessibility, and understanding to a very complex process. However, with the sheer number of variables and students to consider, public school or community college professors may consider it an onerous task to speak with each individual student. Therefore, we have designed a list of FAQs for students to take with them on campus visits that directly address these issues (see sidebar below, “Prospective Students FAQs”). This resource includes questions regarding classes, barriers, the audition, and transfer courses among others that will aid in providing additional transparency.

college planning

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Networking. Networking can assist students in successful pursuit and completion of collegiate degrees. A network is most beneficial when it includes all involved individuals and emerges from the focus on a student’s success in a given curriculum. As with all successful ventures, communication remains the primary component in ensuring a student’s success. One idea to address communication-based issues is for music teachers to invite college music representatives and other potentially involved people to visit prospective students and to share experiences, advice, and details for navigating the enrollment process.

Student Perspectives

Such a meeting could help students make critical decisions about course enrollment, by understanding the timing of their decisions and relevant details about the variables involved. This networking could ultimately save students multiple semesters of tuition and fees as well as contribute to their personal, academic, and social well-being. Given the multiple options available to future collegiate music students, the complexity of the process, and the importance of transparency, here is a comprehensive rating scale to assist students in determining their best fit (see sidebar, “Some Useful Checklists”).

Resources for the Journey

Considering the pressure on high schoolers for an early onset of their career paths, empowering students to chase their passion of studying music is a critical part of bolstering our profession. These students encounter numerous stressors beyond the audition process that extend into personal, social, and academic areas of their lives. Given the impact of music teachers on a student’s choice to pursue music teaching as a career, these individuals can help smooth the transition process by actively pursuing knowledge and resources related to institution enrollment.

The resources offered to potential music majors should enhance their ability to select a school that ensures their academic, social, and personal success. The earlier that mentors reach out to these prospective students, the higher will be their probability of success in the profession. By involved parties joining in the enrollment process, newly arriving students can better establish a sense of community and self-confidence as they choose their music education programs. Moreover, working more closely and developing strong relationships between colleges and PK–12 teachers can only strengthen our field. We hope that the strategies, resources, and checklists provided in this article can assist all music education students regardless of their path to the music classroom.

Precollege and Freshman College Year Considerations

Thinking about college?

Have you:

Sophomore Year in High School …

  • Met with a guidance counselor?
  • Found the best match?
  • Determined courses via availability and alignment?
  • Made an initial plan of study?

Junior Year in High School …

  • Met with representatives of various colleges of interest?
  • Finalized senior courses?
  • Made initial contact with advisors/admissions specialists?

Senior Year in High School …

  • Made official campus visits?
  • Set up a rough graduation plan?
  • Done a cost analysis?
  • Set up auditions?

First Year of College …

  • Met with advisor?
  • Confirmed plan of study?
  • Connected with student groups?
  • Extended your networking?
  • Taken time for yourself?

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Prospective Student FAQs

What should I ask when I meet with advisors?

  • What can I do now in high school to ensure I get the most value from all my classes?
  • Which AP/dual-credit classes transfer to your school?
  • Will the proposed courses count toward degree requirements?
  • Who will be my advisor?
  • With whom should I connect at my ultimate destination?
  • What service and social groups does my major provide to better make the transition to a new institution?
  • What are the audition expectations for my future degree?
  • Describe the music theory requirements and transfer policies.
  • Describe the music history requirements and transfer policies.
  • If I attend a community or junior college, will these courses also be accepted at my ultimate destination?
  • If I start at a 2-year college, what can I do to prepare to transfer?
  • Is there a transfer agreement or an articulation agreement at your institution?
  • What are the transfer policies for lessons and ensembles?

About the authors:

Phillip PaynePhillip D. Payne ( is an associate professor and chair of music education at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, specializing in instrumental music education. He also supervises student teachers and serves as lead advisor for music education majors.

Natalie RoystonNatalie Steele Royston ( is an associate professor and coordinator of music education at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Prior to this, Royston served with the Iowa State University bands as associate director of bands.

Adrian BarnesAdrian D. Barnes ( is an assistant professor and co-coordinator of music education at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He taught in a Title I school in Bradenton, Florida, as a band and orchestra director. Barnes has worked closely with students from historically marginalized communities and neurodivergent learners.

Kate Bertelli-WilinskiKate M. Bertelli-Wilinski ( is an independent researcher and a music educator with a background in choral and instrumental music. Over the years, she has taught students of a variety of age-groups in K–12 and higher education.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

May 26, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (

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