Monday, January 27, 2020

The Case for the Music Education Degree

Most college and university music programs offer a bachelor’s degree in music education. For many schools, it is their most popular music degree program. When high school students approach me and are interested in music as a major but aren’t sure of which path, I often first suggest the Bachelor of Music in Music Education degree.

Music education is a very stable and in-demand profession. Virtually every community in the United States has a need for multiple full-time music educators. My small hometown in the mountains of Virginia has less than 2,000 people, yet there are four full-time music educators employed there at elementary, middle, and high schools. In addition to full-time salaries, these positions offer medical/dental insurance benefits, as well as retirement packages. And let’s not forget that perk of the three-month summer vacation!

As a music educator myself, I must say that teaching is a wonderful profession and I am truly lucky to get to share music with young students for a living. If you want to be a music teacher at any level, from pre-K to university, a music education degree is a great choice. However, I think it’s rather self-evident that the music education degree is appropriate for future music educators. I’d rather take this week’s blog post in different direction…. What about students who are not sure they want to be music educators?  What about students with other interests inside and outside of the music field? Is there a value in them getting a music education degree?

What about students who know their first choice of career is composer, performer, church musician, conductor, or arts administrator? Or what about students who enjoy music but are thinking about careers in business, law, medicine, or other fields?  In many ways, a music education degree also cultivates skills that are useful in other areas.  For example:


If you want to be a composer, a music education degree will provide you with methods courses on all of the standard woodwind, brass, percussion, and string instruments. These courses will help you develop basic skills on all of these instruments and help you understand how to write appropriately for each of them. I work with composers a lot I can honestly say that many of the questions they ask me about my instrument would be answered in an undergraduate brass methods course. Music education coursework also usually includes some classes composition, instrumentation, and arranging.


If you want to be a performer, a music education degree is useful because the pedagogy, lesson planning, and methods courses will help you be a better teacher to yourself and others. It will help you develop a  systematic pedagogical approach on your instrument. If you become a full-time performer, students will seek you out for private lessons, and universities and festivals may seek you out as a guest clinician. Also, many performers are interested in college teaching positions, and an undergraduate degree in music education not only prepares them to be a teacher, but often prepares them to teach courses like brass methods, and therefore makes them more attractive to search committees. Moreover, a music education degree also usually includes a rigorous applied music component as well as a senior performance recital at the end of your studies.  Also, the experience of being a beginner again, via methods courses on every instrument in the band and orchestra, will help you re-evaluate and develop your own musical fundamentals on your primary instrument.

Church Musician

Church musicians have many musical challenges: They must bring together trained and non-trained musicians toward a common goal; They must bridge the traditions of vocal and instrumental music; They must be familiar with orchestration and arranging, as well as the transpositions of all the various instruments. Many of us have been a guest musician for a church service where we have experienced the frustration of having instrumental parts in the wrong keys or wrong transpositions and the chaos that inevitably ensues.  Often this is because the music leadership only understands their own instrument. Often  church musicians have as their primary instrument organ, piano, voice, or guitar -- all of course non-transposing instruments who read at concert pitch.  If prospective church musicians pursue a music education degree, they will receiving training on many other instruments and will have the skills to avoid these problems. In addition, musical leadership in sacred settings requires many forms of teaching, and a music education degree would obviously prepare them to be better teachers. In many ways, the music education curriculum provides for an ideal background to meet all of these challenges.


If you want to be a conductor, a music education degree is useful because in most cases this degree has more conducting courses than other undergraduate music degrees, and, the instrumental methods courses will provide you with hands-on experience and empirical knowledge of all of instruments that you will be expected to lead.

Arts Administration

If you want to be an arts administrator, a music education degree will provide you with a background in a variety of music areas in which your career as an administrator will intersect. You will learn to appreciate the larger role of music in society and how it affects students, teachers, parents, performers, and community members alike.

Fields Outside of Music

What if you enjoy music, but aren't quite sure if you want to pursue it as a career? What if you foresee your future vocation in another field, such as business, go to law school, or be a medical doctor?  I think the music education degree – with skills you cultivate in time management, performing, planning, self-discipline, creativity, self-expression, communication, and bringing people together to achieve a common goal – is even an appropriate undergraduate degree for these and other fields outside of music. I personally know several software engineers, lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, and even clergy in the Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian traditions who earned their bachelor’s degree in music education.


My undergraduate degree is in music education, and while I initially pursued it for the purposes of being a high school band director, this degree has also proven itself useful in my career as a university trumpet professor, as well as in other areas of my life and career. The robust skill set you develop in the music education curriculum applies not only to teaching careers, but also to many other areas inside and outside of music. I strongly encourage young musicians to seriously consider the bachelor’s degree in music education as a wonderful path with many possible outcomes.

In continuing the theme of complementary perspectives... Next week’s blog topic: The Case for the Music Performance Degree

Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

How to Practice

Private, focused, consistent daily practice is vital to your development as a musician. However, I often find many problems with students' practice habits. On one hand, some students simply do not know how to practice and feel defeated every time they enter the practice room. On the other hand, other students suffer burnout, injury, or guilt from feeling they are never practicing enough. 

You may have seen this meme (below) that has been widely circulated on social media: 
The goal of this meme is of course to guilt us into practicing.  If you see the conclusion of each this meme's the paths, they all with things like "keep practicing" and "don't stop." Let us be clear here:  THIS IS NOT HEALTHY. We cannot live like this. While I agree that we should have a passion for practicing every day, I do not believe it is healthy to go through life with the constant mindset of "I should be practicing right now." 

How Much Should You Practice? 

So how much should you practice? First, let me say that the quality of your practice is much more important than the quantity of your practice. Look for ways to be focused, efficient, and goal-oriented in the practice room, but more on that in just a moment. 

For a very unscientific generalization, I will say a lot of teachers and university syllabi recommend around two hours of practice per day as a general rule of thumb. I think this is a reasonable place to begin our conversation, and honestly, in my present life, this is about how much I practice most days. For ambitious students, up to three or four hours per day is not unreasonable, especially for performance majors, graduate students, and/or students who want to earn their living playing their instrument.  In my opinion, we need to be very careful if we plan to practice more than four hours in a single day, as this may be excessive or even injurious for some people. When I was in graduate school, I usually practiced four hours per day, but when I exceeded this, I sometimes felt pain in my lips. Musicians need to be mindful of their health and wellness, to allow their body to recover and to avoid burnout. (For other ways of developing your craft, see my previous blog post: How to Not Practice.)   

I highly recommend keeping a practice journal, writing down when you practice, what you practice, and how long you spend on each item. Write down goals and reflections about your work and progress. A practice journal can both challenge and encourage you. It will challenge you because you can see clearly all the areas you need to work on and what you have neglected. However, it can also encourage you. If you are feeling particularly unproductive in a practice session, pick up your practice journal, and flip back through a few pages. You'll see written out in front of you exactly how much work you have done in preceding days and weeks, and how much progress you have made. It can help you see the larger picture of what your are trying to accomplish and help you not get too frustrated by a single practice session. 

I recommend dividing your practice into multiple sessions, which can be divided into "fundamentals" and "repertoire" sessions. 


I recommend a 30-60 minute “fundamentals” session in the morning “before the day begins.”  I encourage my students to schedule this session immediately before their first class begins. For myself, I do my fundamentals session between 6:45am-7:45a.m. every morning before I start teaching at 8am. My fundamentals session is not a “warm-up” (I tell students to make their first notes of the day their most beautiful) but rather a series of physical and technical skills that I am trying to improve every day. My morning fundamentals routine consists of: 

Breathing exercises with a 6L breathing bag 
Cichowicz -style long tones  (from my teacher James Kluesner) More exercises with a 6L breathing bag 
Scales to full range of instrument 
More exercises with a 6L breathing bag 
Articulation More exercises with a 6L breathing bag 
Accuracy/Interval/Dynamic studies from Richard Schuebrek’s Graded Lip Trainers 
Hebert L. Clarke Technical Studies 

I usually take 45 to 60 minutes to do this full routine, but I should emphasize that there is plenty of rest scattered amongst the exercises. 

This morning fundamentals routine is aimed at setting the player up for success for the rest of the day. As Vincent Cichowicz said, “We must build our house every day.” 


When you devote your morning session to fundamentals, later practice sessions can be devoted to repertoire: Etudes, solos, chamber music, large ensemble music, etc. For me, this usually happens on my lunch hour, when I work on the upcoming repertoire I have to prepare for solo recitals, orchestral engagements, chamber music, etc. For students, this will be similar, and your teacher probably is assigning you a regular regimen of repertoire for these later practice sessions. If your goal is to practice two hours per day,  you may practice repertoire in a single hour session or in two shorter sessions. More ambitious students may want to have repertoire practice sessions for longer periods of time, so long as ample rest is taken. (Let's say it again: Musicians need to be mindful of their health and wellness, to allow their body to recover and to avoid burnout.) 

One strategy I like to employ for these later “repertoire” practice sessions is to be goal-oriented rather than time-oriented. In other words, rather than say “Ok, now I’m going to go practice for an hour,” I think more in terms of, “Ok, now I’m going to go work out the transposition for the last movement of this piece” or “I’m going to practice until I figure out the rhythms on the first page of this new brass quintet piece.” I find that when I’m goal-oriented I’m usually much more efficient and finish early. I enjoy the satisfaction of achieving a goal and then go take a break. 

When to Practice 

I've already mentioned the idea of fundamentals in the morning and repertoire later on, but here are some other suggestions about when to practice: 

If you are taking private lessons, the very best time to practice is right after your lesson. At this point all of your teacher's ideas are fresh in your mind and you can put them into action immediately. Perhaps the worst time to practice is right before your lesson; Yes you should warm up before your lesson, but don't try to cram in neglected material in the final hours leading up to your lesson. 

Let me say this, especially to young students: The time you spend in ensemble rehearsals does not count toward your practice time. Rehearsing = playing your instrument with others; Practicing = playing your instrument by yourself. You need to schedule practice time in addition to the time you are playing in ensembles. That being said, students do need to factor in the amount of time they are playing in ensembles into when and how much they practice. Days when you have a heavy schedule of ensemble rehearsals may not be the best days for long hours of private practice.  

The last thing I’ll say about “when” to practice is this: Plan and protect your practice time. Build it into your schedule just like a meal or an academic class. (Since the audience of this blog is musicians, let me also emphasize the importance of going to class and eating three meals a day!) I’ve already mentioned that I do a lot of my practice before 8 a.m., and then the rest of it usually happens on my lunch hour. A secondary benefit of scheduling your practice time: Guilt-free living! What I mean is, if you have your practice time scheduled, you can use your unscheduled time however you please, without the guilt of “I should be practicing now.” (It's a real drag to be at the movies with friends with the lingering guilt of "Oh no, I didn't practice today!") Unlike the message of the meme above, you do not need to keep practicing endlessly, and you SHOULD stop and do something else. At the end of the teaching day, if I don’t have an evening performance engagement, I usually leave my instruments at school, and am free to go home, enjoy the evening off with my family rather than feel the guilt of needing to spend more time on the instrument. 

Quality Practice 

Now that we’ve sort of addressed the “how much," "what," and “when” questions, let’s talk about some brief “how” practice strategies. As I said before, quality of practice time is more important than quantity. For me, the two overarching goals I have for all of my practice sessions are: 
  1. 1) As efficiently as possible 
  1. 2) As beautifully as possible 

For me, efficiency is everything. I play a lot of solo and chamber music recitals that place a lot of demands upon my endurance. (And endurance never came naturally for me.) If I’m practicing and it “feels hard” and there is tension in my playing, and it doesn't sound beautiful, I immediately put the horn down and go to the breathing bag. For me, healthy breathing is the best antidote to tension (more on that in a future blog entry). I also find that, for me personally, when I’m playing inefficiently, I’m usually using too large of an aperture. To remedy this, I focus my lips gently together with the letter “M” (See Keith Johnson's books The Art of Trumpet Playing and Brass Performance and Pedagogy for some advice in this area. This could be another blog post entirely.Usually for me, if I get my breathing relaxed and lips focused, my playing is much more efficient. If these efforts at relaxing don't work, I usually put the horn back in the case and just come back later. I see no purpose in repeating a bad sound with tension. Which is a good segue to what I think is the most important aspect of quality practice – repetition. 

Healthy Repetition 

I tell students that trumpet playing is neither hard nor easy – rather, it’s simple. And the key to developing our trumpet playing to a high level is correctly repeating simple fundamentals at a high level. 

I find that students’ practice sessions often go something like this: 

  1. 1) Lousy initial attempt at a passage. 
  1. 2) Second attempt that’s a bit more accurate, still with many errors. 
  1. 3) Third attempt that’s better yet, but still lots of physical tension and musical instability. 
  1. 4) Fourth attempt that’s the best yet, and maybe 80-90% correct in terms of the notes and rhythms. 
  1. 5) Move on to something else. 

The problem with the above repetition regimen is that THERE ARE NO CORRECT REPETITIONS. Practice doesn’t make perfect – practice makes permanent, and the student who practices in the above manner has merely repeated errors, reinforcing them as a "permanent" part of how they play. 

One saying that I have with regard to repetition is: 

 “Practicing begins when we get it right.”  In other words, all of the “bad” attempts are merely front matter that precede a correct version that is both musically and technically correct. Once we “get it right,” then we repeat it.   And repeat it.  Then slow it down.  And then repeat it again. Then play it even slower. Then repeat it again. By repeating it in a simple and fundamental way, we can learn to repeat it over and over at a high level.   

Said another way: 
Thoughtful, correct repetitions = high quality practice.  Mindless, incorrect repetitions = low quality practice.  

Here are some other suggestions for quality practice time: 

  1. 1) Play slowly.  Slow practice is a time-tested, proven way of learning that nearly all teachers agree upon. Slow it down so you can score some thoughtful, correct repetitions. 
  1. 2) Vary the rhythm. I don’t mean deliberately play sloppy rhythms. I mean vary the rhythm in a way that makes the practice interesting and stimulating, such as taking a long 4-measure chain of 16th notes and playing them as dotted rhythms, triplets, or varied rhythms. 
  1. 3) Utilize Cichowicz/Jacobs “wind patterns.” I define wind patterns as playing without the instrument, simply blowing the air, while using the articulation syllables and air compression similar to what you would use on the instrument. I find this particularly helpful when working with passages that pose articulation and agility challenges. 
  1. 4) Sing the music. Often we play badly simply because we can’t hear it. Usually, if you can sing it, you can play it. 
  1. 5) Play the passage with the correct printed rhythms and articulation, but all on a single repeated pitch. 
  1. 6) Play the passage with the correct pitches and rhythms, but slurring every note. 
  1. 7) Play down the octave. (When this is possible) 
  1. 8) Play the instrument using your left hand to press the valves down.  The idea behind this "trick" is that, since the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body, this connects the artistic, creative part of your brain to the mechanical fingers of your left hand. 
  1. 9) Play the music on the a different instrument. (If you're a trumpet player, play the passage on the piano.) 
  1. 10) Consider more contemporary concepts of practice, such as Ryan Beach's new "Powerlifting"-inspired approach 

There are many, many other practice strategies, and these are merely a few that I like to employ with my students and in my own private practice. 

Staying Motivated 

The last thing I will say about how to practice -- find ways to stay motivated and keep the passion alive. Progress on a musical instrument can be slow.  Practice sessions can be maddening! Here are some suggestions for keeping the passion and energy in your practice sessions:
  1. 1) Take physical breaks. Take a walk around the music building or your house. Jog up or down the stairs to the next floor and back to your practice room. Do some jumping jacks, push-ups, and/or sit-ups. Walk outside and get some fresh air. 
  1. 2) Take mental breaks. Find something you enjoy doing, or need to do, and make it a regular routine to break up your practice with these activitiesPlaying a word in Words with Friends, answering email, calling your parents, studying music theory, etc. 
  1. 3) Document your progress by writing in your books. Clarke studies may seem awfully frustrating until you notice the pencil markings that reveal you've progressed 50 metronome clicks in the past two weeks. 
  1. 4) Practice with friendsReading orchestral excerpts, improvising with Aebersold or iReal Pro backing tracks, etc. (Also see Wiff Rudd's  Collaborative Practice book) 
  1. 5) Limit your the length of an individual practice sessions to period of time that you can stay focused and engaged. 
  1. 6) On a regular basis, introduce something new into your practice. (Without introducing too many new things at once.) 
  1. 7) Be sure there are some things on your music stand that you enjoy playing. Yes, there are things you are obligated to learn for school or gigs, and some of those might be frustrating, so have some things on the stand that you look forward to playing. 
  1. 8) Intersperse listening sessions into your practice, so that you are inspired by great artists. 

A healthy cycle of practice and improvement goes something like this: We practice, therefore we get better, and therefore playing our instrument becomes more enjoyable. We then have more fun and want to play more. So we practice more. Then we get even better. Then we have even more fun! (And then we go take a break, enjoying the self-confidence we earned from our progress.) 

After many years of trumpet playing, I still have fun practicing!  I hope the ideas in this blog post help you enjoy many years of growth and enjoyment on your instrument.  

Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).