Advice on Building a Foundation for Strong Music Programs
As a college professor who works with music teachers-to-be, Charlene Ryan knows “one of the biggest challenges new teachers face is in reconciling what they have learned in their college training with the realities and expectations of the music teacher’s job.”
Ryan is assistant professor of music education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Her new book, Building Strong Music Programs: A Handbook for Preservice and Novice Music Teachers, is aimed at helping young teachers bridge that gap.
Charlene Ryan lays out a plan for new teachers.
Ryan explains that “most college programs focus on technical skills, for example playing new instruments, conducting, and arranging, and pedagogical knowledge ranging from theories of teaching and learning to the National Standards for Music Education.”
New music teachers graduate equipped with the skills needed to be both skilled musicians and music educators, she says. “Once they start their first job, however, they soon realize that being able to put together great lessons and having all the tools and knowledge with which to implement them is really only one, albeit important, component of the job. The first year comes with a very steep learning curve that can be very stressful and can ultimately result in some young and talented teachers abandoning the profession.”
Ryan has taught at all school levels from pre-kindergarten through secondary school, and specializes in elementary music education. She answered some additional questions about her book.
Q: What do you, as a college professor who works with music-teachers-to-be, think is the biggest challenge they face in translating academic training to a classroom setting?
One of the biggest challenges new teachers face is in reconciling what they have learned in their college training with the realities and expectations of the music teacher’s job. Most college programs focus on technical skills, for example playing new instruments, conducting, and arranging, and pedagogical knowledge ranging from theories of teaching and learning to the National Standards for Music Education. New music teachers graduate equipped with the skills needed to be both skilled musicians and music educators. Once they start their first job, however, they soon realize that being able to put together great lessons and having all the tools and knowledge with which to implement them is really only one, albeit important, component of the job. The first year comes with a very steep learning curve that can be very stressful and can ultimately result in some young and talented teachers abandoning the profession.
Q: Your book is subtitled “A Handbook for Preservice and Novice Teachers,” but would the tips you offer work for teachers who perhaps need a “refresher” or who are starting over at a new school?
Absolutely. The feedback I have received from experience educators indicates that there is plenty in this book for teachers at all stages in their career. While it may find a home in particular with those at the preservice and beginning stages, the book has a lot to offer those who may be starting over, building a new program, or looking for ways to rejuvenate an existing program. The book covers a lot of different areas with respect to program building – ideas for courses, students, performances, public awareness, and building support – that may be new even for teachers who have been working in the field for some time. I hope that some of these ideas will inspire both new and experienced teachers to think outside the box and perhaps find new ways of reaching out to students and the school community at large.
While most of the strategies would work for both novice and experienced teachers, there are also some that are put forth for new teachers to consider, keep in mind, and plan for, if not use immediately. These may then be introduced after a teacher has been in a school for a year or two.
Q: Are there differences in starting music programs, based on the type of school district (i.e., urban, rural or suburban) or grade levels? Or is there some type of commonality to issues music teachers face, no matter the circumstances?
Both. There are differences in developing music programs depending on the type of school district and the age and grade-level of the students, but there are also important commonalities. This book focuses on the things that are constant across districts and grades – people, courses, performances, and awareness. Obviously, there will be differences in each of these areas based on the population that the school serves and the funding available to the music program. However, the basic, underlying strategies for working with various groups within and outside the school community, developing successful course offerings, creating diverse performance opportunities, and bringing programs to the attention of the school and wider community, do not change. The ideas that I present in this book really are just that – ideas – that the individual teacher can take and mold to suit the particular needs of their school community. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, but rather suggestions and strategies that can easily be adopted or adapted according to the situation.
Q: What advice do you give students who are going to do their student teaching?
Student-teaching is such an important transition point into the profession. This is when students move from being a college student to a professional educator, usually over the span of a single semester. It is a golden opportunity for students to learn from seasoned professionals. At the forefront of student-teachers’ minds are typically issues pertaining to honing conducting skills, refining fingerings, planning sound lessons, developing classroom management skills, and a myriad of other essential teaching skills. I would encourage them to also pay close attention to the role of music education within their schools, the population of students that the program is serving (and the population that it is not serving), and the value that seems to be afforded to the music program by the school community – including other teachers, parents, students, and administrators. I encourage these new teachers to be observant of all the components that make up their cooperating teachers’ job that have little or nothing to do with actually making music or teaching. And I encourage them to ask plenty of questions. They will learn a lot from their cooperating teacher – not all of which needs to be reserved in their own programs. Maintaining an open, observant, curious, and analytical mind will ultimately serve them well.
Q: A basic question: what inspired you to write this book?
The impetus for this book came directly from my first years of college teaching. I was working with students who were very bright, exceptionally talented, and who were going through a very rigorous music teacher-training program. I began to notice, over a variety of courses and semesters, that in spite of the excellent training they were receiving, my upper-year students still had a lot of uncertainties and questions about the day-to-day job of a music teacher within a school setting — they seemed to soak up any bits of information that came up with respect to the implementation of practical aspects of school music programs. My book actually stemmed from discussions and handouts in these classes. As I took a closer look at the university curriculum, I began to realize that their training covered so many important pedagogical and skill areas, but did not really deal with many of the practical ones. And so the handouts and discussion notes began to morph into something bigger, which eventually resulted in this book.
Q: Describe your background — you have worked in early childhood, and taught at all levels.
Elementary music education has been my main focus, with an extension into early childhood. But as you note, I’ve worked pretty much in all areas and levels. My first jobs were actually at middle- through high-school levels. As most music teachers know, you may have your preferred area, but flexibility is an important asset in this field – you need to be able to teach in a variety of capacities because you never know where the jobs are going to be! I’ve taught band and choir from beginning level (fifth grade for band and third grade for choir) through middle and high school levels. I’ve taught general music in preschool through middle school. I developed a very successful community early childhood program in Montreal that worked hand-in-hand with my early childhood course – this provided my university students with the hands-on experience they needed to really put what we discussed in class into context on a much deeper level.
More recently, I’ve been working with a colleague at Berklee, Libby Allison, in developing a community early childhood program that has a somewhat more contemporary bent, as does the college itself. The drive, again, has been to provide a hands-on experience for our college students, while also giving back to the Boston community. The program, called “KidsJam @ Berklee”, has gained tremendous popularity in a very short amount of time and has been a great learning experience for our students – opening their eyes to many of the aspects of teaching that go beyond planning a good lesson.
Q: What would you like to tell teachers who considering purchasing the book?
I would, first of all, remind them that they have chosen a very special profession – one that allows them to do what they love (make music!) on a daily basis, while also instilling this love in generations of future musicians. I would assure them that their college training has, undoubtedly, prepared them for the musical and pedagogical components of the job they are about to undertake. And I would tell them that now they need to consider all of the other components of being a music teacher, all the ‘hats’ that music teachers must wear, and to reflect upon what it means to be a music teacher in these uncertain and changing times. Building a strong, valued, and respected music program that can withstand the tides of change is challenging. This book can help new teachers to understand the intricacies of the job, build relationships with those in positions to help, and provide strategies for many of the practical details that are so important for success in this profession..
Purchase this 102-page book at Rowman & Littlefield Education. MENC members receive a 25 percent discount off the list price of $65 for the hardback version and $21.95 for the paperback edition.
— Roz Fehr, March 26, 2009. © MENC: The National Association for Music Education