Teaching Music: Music Majors, Choose Education
By Brandon Kurzawa

Published in Tempo Magazine’s May 2007 Issue.
© 2007 Brandon Kurzawa. Reprinted with permission.
Email to bkurzawa@mac.com for information.

As we arrive towards the end of another school year, I am reminded of how important it is to assist our graduating seniors on the transition from high school into college. So many music students have the dream and desire to be a working and successful performing musician and the attraction of performing music for a living continues to be glamorous in the ever-changing music industry. Students should be informed of the reality of pursuing such a difficult career and understand the fragility of acquiring full-time performance work. The art of music goes well beyond becoming technically proficient on an instrument, knowing repertoire and performing regularly. Music teachers need to educate their students, not only in instrument performance, however on the lifestyle and realities of pursuing a performance career.

Let’s first agree musicians, regardless of natural talent and skill, face a difficult road ahead when it comes to surviving in the music industry and acquiring full-time work as a performing musician. Many musicians are of course successful and earn a comfortable living performing music. Nevertheless, club dates, wedding bands and small venue performances are often inadequate for musicians to sustain a comfortable living on alone. Unless a musician receives a lucky break, knows someone successful in the industry who can help forward a musician’s career, works with an artist that has commercial success, or performs well and is liked on an audition, that will substantially further one’s career, a musician seeking to earn a stable income as a working musician faces a challenging road of instability and inconsistent work.

Students who have the talent, motivation and work ethics to pursue music on a professional performance level, and venture off to college to study music as music majors, must be informed of the advantages to pursuing a music education degree versus a performance degree. This may seem like the obvious choice for some, but for many colleagues including myself, the performance major seemed like the right choice at the time. As a high school student, I was so passionate about studying and performing music I attended Berklee College of Music’s Summer Performance Program in Boston, MA during the summer before my senior year of high school. A great musical experience, and invaluable to me as a music student, my professors at Berklee were complimentary and encouraged me to pursue music professionally as a performer.

Students who major in music performance versus music education, at most colleges and universities, will experience subtle differences in the coursework as an undergraduate student. A significant difference between music education majors versus performance majors is education majors will be required to take necessary education courses to complete state teacher certification. They will also be required to take classes in other instruments, such as brass, woodwinds, percussion, and strings in addition to their primary instrument of study. Based upon the extra coursework and time, some music education degrees may take five years to complete. However, the student will graduate with further professional opportunities versus a performance major who only studies on his or her primary instrument, in addition to piano, and avoids completion of state teacher certification. More interestingly, a musician will never receive performance work because he or she has a performance degree, however if a musician seeks to teach music in a district that requires state certification and does not have an education degree the road ahead will become even more difficult.

Musicians will always practice their instrument, perform with ensembles and pursue personal instruction with sought after musicians. Musicians who strive for a performance career will also spend much of their time off campus rehearsing, networking, performing and recording with other musicians. In fact, it is my belief that what a music student does in college on a personal level, such as performing and recording, compliments the coursework and studying a music student completes on campus under the direction of professors and instructors. Musicians who pursue a music education degree, and graduate, will have the immediate chance to teach music in a public school or private institution that requires state certification. Since society currently places importance on producing great teachers via a process of certification, which uniquely doesn’t mean a person will be a great teacher, it only makes sense for musicians to pursue a music education degree and plan for a secondary career option as a music teacher. In the event the sought after performance career doesn’t come to fruition teaching music and exposing new generations to the wonderful art of music is a viable and rewarding alternative.

Uniquely, students who study music individually with a dedicated music teacher benefit from personalized instruction, which is hopefully within a curriculum that aligns specific goals and objectives with a student’s musical interests. School music programs present a social learning environment for students, which has been noticeably successful to certain degrees. Many students and parents seek additional music instruction in a private setting from specialized private music teachers and students benefit from specialized private music instruction. Ironically, music teachers benefit from being state certified and teaching in a school district where job stability, an arguably reasonable salary and personal benefits may outweigh the consistent searching for performance work in the ever changing music industry. Furthermore, many private music schools, which are in abundance, usually do not offer great working environments or professional benefits for the teachers that encourage employment longevity, professional growth and commitment towards excellence in music education. 

Students should study music individually with a degreed and professionally trained music teacher who specializes in specific instruments. Students frequently seek private lessons as supplemental instruction, to the education they receive at their school, because students often fail to receive enough instructional time and individual attention when it comes to music instruction.

Music education degrees yield further professional opportunities for musicians who want to survive in the music profession. Public school teaching positions offer more professional benefits, however may unfortunately not offer the students the most comprehensive music education, due to the lack of personal attention and available time. Teachers who teach in a private school can offer students a great education, in an individual and group classroom environment, however may not necessarily receive all the professional benefits a public school teacher receives.

Many musicians still continue to find steady work performing, recording and touring. The reality for many though is trying to find steady work in similar fields of music with the hopes of receiving their break into the performance or recording world.  Musicians who are certified to teach in the public schools can still perform on a part-time basis and maybe even tour throughout the summer months when school is not in session. Musicians need more options and collegiate music students need to understand the realities early so they can benefit from obtaining a music education degree, not a performance degree.

Brandon Kurzawa, music educator and performer in New Jersey, teaches music, specializing in percussion, piano and guitar, to students of all ages via Music Notes Academy, a music school he founded in 2000. A member of Percussive Arts Society (PAS), NJ Music Educator’s Association (NJMEA), The National Association for Music Education (MENC) and an educational contributor and endorsee for Vic Firth, Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of drumsticks and mallets, Mr. Kurzawa has a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance and a Masters of Arts in Education, specializing in Curriculum and Instruction, Computer Education. Brandon’s recent session work includes drums and percussion on John Sonntag’s critically acclaimed 2006 release, Chasing Stars, which was recently voted number four in NJ’s Top Ten Releases for 2006. Brandon has also worked with Amanda Avila, Ansel Matthews and Anthony Krizan. In 2007, Brandon was recognized by Metropolitan Who’s Who for outstanding leadership, achievement and excellence in music education. For more information visit www.musicnotesacademy.com and www.brandonkurzawa.com.