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For music education students, the intensive major is their forte

It is easy to overlook UMBC’s music education program, considering most of the university’s chemistry courses contain more students than there are music education majors in total. But despite being relatively unknown, the program is rigorous, requiring students to complete a total of 115 credits for the major: core music classes, music education classes and education certificate classes. For reference, a B.S. in mechanical engineering includes 102 credits. Take into account that many music classes are worth only one or two credits (meaning that an 18 credit semester could mean taking eight or nine classes), and it becomes clear that students have to B sharp to survive the music education program at UMBC.

Nathan Plaza is a junior choral music education major. He began his degree as a music performance major but soon switched to music education when he realized that, even though he loves performing, he was more concerned with graduating with a degree that he knew would be practically useful — and would offer him lots of job prospects with steady income.

“With music performance, you’re kind of jumping from paycheck to paycheck,” Plaza said. He stresses that even if being a music teacher is not a student’s end goal, it can still be worthwhile to get a degree that can help them support themselves while they consider other options.

UMBC’s music education program offers a well-rounded curriculum, with classes that expand beyond a student’s chosen discipline — either vocal or instrumental ensembles. Music education students study advanced theory, guitar, music history, composition, keyboard, conducting and more; they also perform in ensembles and take private lessons.

On top of this already-heavy course load, they must also take the classes required to graduate with an education certificate. Plaza wishes that these classes, which focus mostly on teacher-student interactions and are geared towards educating students from a variety of majors, gave music education majors more individualized insight. “A lot of this stuff just applies to general education, but I’m a special case,” he says. “I’m a music educator. What kind of problems would I encounter that a normal teacher wouldn’t face?”

As a junior, Plaza has yet to actually work in a classroom environment. Vocal music education majors do not begin their internships until they reach their senior year. However, instrumental music education students complete a service-learning internship during their first two years in the program. Then, during senior year, both vocal and instrumental students work at local schools, beginning by observing music teachers and eventually growing into a full-time internship by their last semester.

Kristen Lair, a graduate of the choral education program, feels as though waiting until a student’s last semester to throw them into a classroom environment at full force does not adequately prepare them to be a full-time music teacher. “Until my last year as a music [education] major, my experience teaching was practicing lessons on my classmates,” Lair says. “While it was informative in some ways, you can’t quite equate the experience of teaching college-level students to the experience of teaching middle schoolers.” When it finally came time for her to work with younger students in a formal classroom setting for the first time, she did not feel adequately prepared.

Lair now works as a preschool teacher; after graduation, she “did some real soul searching” and realized her piano and conducting skills were not as advanced as they needed to be for her to begin working as a choir director. But as a preschool teacher, she does utilize much of what she learned in her general education classes, and, though she is not formally teaching music to her students, she does sing songs with her preschoolers every day. “I still believe that I am inspiring a love for music through what I do in the classroom,” she says.

In contrast, Plaza feels as though his education is adequately helping him work towards his internship and an eventual career as a music educator; though he came to UMBC with a musical background that included years of chorus, theory classes and guitar lessons, he says he had no idea how much he still had yet to learn.

Now, though, he feels he has almost all of the tools necessary to start his career. “If someone were to put me on the spot right now and tell me to conduct an orchestral ensemble I don’t think I’d be too helpless,” he says, emphasizing that, at most schools, music teachers are expected to be able to wear many hats. They must conduct several ensembles, run theatre programs and teach courses like theory, guitar and keyboard.

Lair acknowledges that the program is unusually intense. First semester of her freshman year was the only semester in which she did not have to apply to exceed the 19.5 credit maximum, and during her most intensive semester, she took 23 credits. “The problem here is that music education is almost like having a double major,” she says. “You have music requirements, education requirements and combined music education requirements.” She notes that some professors are planning to lower the credit count of their classes to try to alleviate this issue, but wonders if doing so will actually change the time and work commitments required by these classes.

But despite the intensity, Plaza is glad he chose to change his major to music education. He warns that it is a difficult program, and that students with little prior music experience may face more challenges than he has, but believes that anyone can succeed as a music education major as long as they put in the time and effort. “It just takes a lot of perseverance and dedication. They really have to be practicing every day and they have to study very hard,” Plaza says. “It’s got to be something they really want to do.”