Why college music education majors need applied study

Most of my university students are music education majors, with plans to become public school band directors. Their academic schedules are absolutely packed full with core music theory and musicology classes, keyboard proficiency, teaching methods, ensembles, and of course general education requirements. There isn’t room for anything extra. And yet they are required to take “applied” private lessons on their major instrument every semester in residence (on paper, that’s seven semesters, with the eighth being a student teaching assignment; for many students it turns into more semesters than that). At my school, I think the requirements for the music education applied sequence are pretty typical: weekly 1-hour lessons, 12 or more hours of practice per week (that’s my studio requirement for music education students), a scale/arpeggio exam, juried playing exams each semester, and a small juried recital. That’s a pretty serious multi-year commitment for a student who is already swimming in term papers, exams, rehearsals, and probably a part-time job.

Photo, peffs

And it’s likely that many of them, once settled into jobs, won’t have much time to spend with their instruments anymore—they will be consumed with the endless details and crises of running a public school band program, and the ensemble itself will become their primary “instrument” for musical expression. Few of them will ever again perform solo repertoire.

So why put so much emphasis on applied study for music education undergraduates? Is it possible or wise to reduce the individual instrumental study burden? I don’t think so.

Much of what I am trying to accomplish with my students isn’t really about their fingers or their embouchures or their reeds; it’s about their ears. I want them to learn to notice the notes that respond sluggishly or are a little out of tune or have inferior tone, the phrases that aren’t smooth and coherent, the tempi that are uneven. I want them to listen on a detailed level, and then create and execute a plan for improving the way they sound. In a few short years, that is what they will need to do with a whole room full of young instrumentalists. If my students can’t make it happen on their own single instruments, how are they going to pull it off with a group?

A factor that seems to be brought up often is the need for future band directors to “model” good playing for their students. I agree that this is a lovely thought, but it’s ultimately a pipe dream that band directors will be able to convincingly model every instrument in the band. (Students in my woodwind methods class get a one-semester crash course in all five woodwinds). However, as a very young saxophonist I was particularly inspired when a change of band directors at my junior high school brought in a musician, a trumpet player, who was an active performer in the community—something that hadn’t, before then, really occurred to me as a future career opportunity. I don’t recall him ever making any attempt to model playing of my instrument, but his level of achievement and his performance calendar were eye-openers for me, and I think that example was key in my decision to pursue music seriously.

College music education majors need to be able to take individual responsibility for musicianship, able to translate a printed page into a meaningful musical performance. They need to show their students by example what it is to be a musician. And that doesn’t start at the podium—it starts in the practice room.


30 responses to “Why college music education majors need applied study”

  1. Bravo. This is one of the most clearly articulated arguments for applied music lessons as a major component of the BME that I’ve ever read.

  2. Bravo indeed. I find this post inspiring as a teacher – sometimes I can forget the outcome goal as we work from recital to jury and method book to method book. This is clear and perfectly makes the point. Thanks for posting!

  3. Steven Hugley Avatar
    Steven Hugley

    Yes! Best article yet, Bret. I could not agree more! Thank you I will be sharing this!

  4. Tom Seddon Avatar
    Tom Seddon

    This is excellent. Without the ability to perform and express themselves through their primary instrument they really can’t effectively teach anyone music. All students should reach some of the major literature for the instrument!

  5. Dan Belongia Avatar
    Dan Belongia

    Yes! Thank you!

  6. Christa Garvey Avatar
    Christa Garvey

    Excellent post, Bret, and spot on! Too often I see BME students who think that good teaching is developed in education classes and that their musical skills are secondary. But the tail doesnt wag the dog. BME students need to achieve the highest artistic levels possible in order to fuel fine teaching and have something TO teach.

  7. Brendan Hartz Avatar
    Brendan Hartz

    Excellent article! I was fortunate to have several elementary and junior high Instrumental teachers who were very active with their performing on their instruments in class, in the community, and at the professional level. They were a real inspiration and role model! Then I had a senior high Instrumental director who apparently had played a variety of woodwinds somewhere in his distant past. However, nobody had ever heard him do so. A totally ( and uninspiring ) atmosphere!

    Yes, the Music Ed. majors should indeed hold forth in Applied Study. As teachers, they will be the role models for their students, regarding performing standards, self-discipline to practice, and inspiration for their students. To say nothing about setting examples for musicality!

  8. Donna Vojcsik Avatar
    Donna Vojcsik

    As a long time music educator who also owned and operated a performing arts academy for nine years, I know that music ed majors are looked down upon by the studio community as not being “real” musicians. The other studio teachers (BAs) were astounded that as a BS in music ed, I was required to do a senior recital and they were amazed at what I was able to perform. Seek out a quality music school that will force you to be a MUSIC educator. I am proud to be a West Chester University alumni! And I am also happy to be back in a music classroom where I can educate all students, not just the talented, hand-picked few.

    1. As a fellow West Chester grad I felt the program was lacking in the fact that our lessons were only 30 minutes. I needed to get another teacher outside of school in order to really learn how to play because who can learn anything In depth in 30 minutes?

  9. I agree with every thought. Thanks for this well-considered article.

  10. Andre Granjo Avatar
    Andre Granjo

    If you ever read Herman Scerchen’s book about conducting you will see that one of his requirements in becoming a good conductor is to be able to play an instrument at a professional level because only then can you go beyond technique and be able to experience true musicality!

  11. Charles West Avatar
    Charles West

    A well-articulated argument with solid reasoning. My compliments.

  12. Christi Amonson Avatar
    Christi Amonson

    Yes. Yes. And yes!

  13. Robert Halseth Avatar
    Robert Halseth

    Totally in agreement. My own teaching was greatly enhanced by the fact that I played bass trombone professionally during my first 40 years of teaching. I wasn’t much at the other instruments, but my ability on trombone got my ear right. Occasionally, I’d play for, or along with, my students. But that wasn’t the point. Listening was the point.

    A colleague who chaired a neighboring music department earned my highest respect when he fired a part-time applied instructor after she said, at a jury, “That’s pretty good for a music ed major.”

    It’s not the case that “those who can’t do teach.” Instead, it’s “those who can do teach better.”

    1. Karen Trefzger Avatar
      Karen Trefzger

      Amen! “Those who can do teach better.” True for my mentor and inspiration, and I hope true for me as well.

  14. Donovan Avatar

    I whole heartedly disagree. I wanted to be a choir director but I do not have a solo voice. That should not have kept me from my dream.

    1. I don’t think you quite got the point. Having a solo voice is not needed, but in private voice lessons you learn through experience and individual coaching many things about voice production, and maybe some things about what choral singers need to do differently from solo singers. Also the tutor student relationship is one of the most valuable relationships I have had in my musical life.

      1. Ginny, I think you’re missing Donovan’s point. He wasn’t even able to get to that point because of a perceived lack of initial proficiency / talent. He probably would have greatly benefited from all of the things that you and this article point out (and I do agree with them mostly) but he was never even given the chance.

  15. Brilliant ideas. When teaching I made it a point to learn some kind of physical discipline each Summer, something totally outside my capability (and don’t even ask about my comfort zone) like juggling 5 balls – or worse, 4 – walking backwards on a rail, slack-rope walking, African dance (not the drumming). Something that would make me feel completely stupid and hopeless. Only then did I think myself ready to face a smash of kids that I going to ask to learn how to be meticulously right, be totally themselves and deeply committed to putting themselves out there through the medium of sound. Notes are easy. Expression is work. Knowing yourself well enough to have something to say is terrifying.

    So are good roller coasters. Just try not to throw up…..

    best – Jim

  16. Jeffrey Carwile Avatar
    Jeffrey Carwile

    This is so true. Bravo.

  17. Jose Rivas Avatar
    Jose Rivas

    Great article I am a former middle school band director, I taught for 7 years and I had a large and very successful program, several of my former students played in high school, college and some are now teachers or studio musicians.
    Also most of my student are now successful and productive men and women in the community.
    I never played an instrument, I was a voice major and I only took woodwind, brass and percussion techniques, piano for music teachers and I taught myself to play bass while in college.
    Most of my students didn’t have music class in elementary school, and private lessons were completed out of the question for them.
    We used to play Beethiven, Tchaikovsky, Copland, John Williams, Ray Charles, Rick Ross, DMX, 360 Mafia and Eminem among others.
    My students love to play and they never realized that after a year or two they were better players at than me.
    I haven’t play my bass in many years, and I haven’t sung in a long time. By the way I never did a recital.
    Music is music, knowing theory, dynamics, breathing techniques, posture, tempo and articulationa are the basics, and the most important things when teaching or rehearsing, but we can’t forget the other values that we need to teach like team work, cooperating or collaborating with other section members, to blend, follow and lead and to contribute to the community.

  18. Thank you for the blog post. So sad to hear any music student would want to short change their musical development by not taking applied lessons. It’s also not too much to expect them to be able to demonstrate each instrument proficiently to a 2-3 year student’s level at a minimum. In my undergrad we were required to demonstrate all band and string instruments and took playing tests in our technique classes. When we did our practicums and student teaching we were expected to model and demonstrate for elementary band classes on all band and string instruments. We were constantly evaluated in our demonstration/performance skills either on the spot or in real classrooms—video recorded and critiqued by our professors or cooperating teachers. We needed to know and play the instruments we were teaching because how can you teach it otherwise? I think the expectations that are set are followed. If colleges expect the teachers they degree to be proficient instrumental teachers—then they will be. A real life living picture of a proficient player is a way more effective teaching model for a young student than just words. After all, we are talking elementary to middle school level—we aren’t talking necessarily pro-level when we talk about demonstration. And after years of teaching, having all those instruments in your hands everyday for years, it also gets easy—but if you start out with the idea that that is asking too much of a college student, well it may never happen for the professional teacher.
    BM, MM Peabody conservatory performance and education, 12 years public school band director. Freelance bassoonist.

  19. Judy Phillips Avatar
    Judy Phillips

    Thanks for the excellent article. As a music major in the ’70’s I saw another side of the story- those who were amazing players on their principal instruments, but blew off all of the secondary instrument classes as unnecessary. We were required to take separate classes in various woodwinds, brass and percussion, as well as a mixed string class. I enjoyed those classes a lot, worked hard in them, and found them very valuable once I got out in the field. Most of the students who did not take them seriously did not last long as teachers. I recently retired after 40 years of teaching music. And yes, I still perform on my principal instrument, and double on a few others as well. My BM degree from Western Michigan University has served me well!

    1. Rudy Tichy Avatar
      Rudy Tichy

      This original post is true… but… Yes, music ed majors need to attain the highest level of competency on their primary instrument that is possible. Agreed fully. No argument here. Anything less is irresponsible. However, my experience is that the real problem is that there are too many “teachers” that have no clue about anything on their secondary instruments. Many of them are great on their primary – having intended to have a performing career – classical or jazz – but it just never happened. They only went into teaching as a back up, and it shows in the quality of their teaching. There is no excuse for a competent music teacher (band director) to not be able to demonstrate every instrument in the band at a basic level. No, I’m not saying they should be able to play them all at an advanced level, but they should without fail be able to demonstrate them all for the first several years of study.

  20. Jim Warrick Avatar
    Jim Warrick

    I’m not sure I could disagree more. I know almost no employed applied music majors IN THE PERFORMANCE FIELD OF STUDY that I went to school with. On the other hand, I know of very few music Ed. majors who are not employed in the music industry…teaching in specific. The article sounds like it is propaganda composed and embraced by applied study individuals who could be great teachers of their instrument, but times have changed.

    1. Carlos Sáenz Avatar
      Carlos Sáenz


      I think the point of the article was to extol the importance of critical listening, which is a skill most closely honed through practice.

      “Applied Music” is the course title for what many music majors more commonly call “private lessons”. In many schools of music across the country, the undergraduate degree plan for Music Education majors is being amended to reflect a decrease in requisite Applied Music or “private lesson” courses.

      This article asserts the importance of private instruction to the music educator. It does not, inversely, assert that a degree in Music Performance is somehow any more lucrative than that of a Music Education. To assume as much betrays missing the point.

      That said, I am currently working on my DMA in Performance and my wife holds a DMA in Performance. Both she and I have held jobs in Music in the past and she is currently a middle school choir director. Furthermore, while performance IS a competitive career path, we both have several friends who sing at the Met, Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and several regional houses here in the states. I, myself, have sung, most recently, with Nevada Opera and my wife was under management when we lived in NYC. Neither of us looks down on an individual who holds a degree in Music Education, nor do we regret our decision to study Performance.

  21. Keith Pettway Avatar
    Keith Pettway

    Fortunately things have not changed. My philosophy was “you learn the fundamentals of music in the classroom, you learn to be a musician in the private studio.”

    Keith Pettway
    Professor Emeritus, Delta State University

  22. David Coe Avatar
    David Coe

    Very well put. I totally agree.

  23. Karla Philipp Avatar
    Karla Philipp

    While I agree with the points of this article I also believe that music students regardless of their emphasis should be the best performers that they can be. Also I firmly believe that we as teachers must make time to perform during the years that we teach. I was an orchestra teacher grades 5-12 for 30 years. I played professionally the entire time I taught. Obviously I didn’t have a career in the New York Philharmonic, but I did play in the Memphis and Jackson Symphonies for 35 years. I think this kept me interested in the music I was teaching. Not only did I teach students to love performing, but I kept myself challenged. Let’s not forget that we chose to be music educators because we love to make music on our instruments.

  24. Sophia Moe Avatar
    Sophia Moe

    When in college, in music methods and techniques courses, I’m going to play clarinet, double bass, oboe, bassoon, trombone, trumpet, flute, baritone horn, tuba, French horn, percussion, harp, harpsichord, and organ. I am studying piano and voice in applied music to become a choral music teacher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.