Mike Lawson • July 2003 • July 1, 2003

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It’s the first day of school for the 22-year-old music director, and it’s also his first day on the job. This small town has but one high school and he is the only music educator in the building – teaching band, orchestra and chorus. The empty music hall that awaits him seems large and unwelcoming as his solitary footsteps echo throughout the concrete room. The nearest high school is 15 miles away in the neighboring school district. Not surprisingly, the new director feels very alone – but not unprepared.


His undergraduate courses have trained him well for the tasks at hand. His lesson plans are in order, his grade book organized with all the names of his new music students. The director has selected, researched and memorized every piece of music each ensemble will be playing this term. He’s even survived the week-long marching band camp – although a few unexpected situations had arisen, and at the time he had looked around for someone to help him, to answer his questions…only to realize that the solutions must come from him alone.

For many music directors – new and experienced – this scenario may sound strikingly familiar. During their first few years teaching, music educators may feel somewhat isolated in their environments since they are often one of two or three music teachers in a building – and sometimes the only one. All around them are teachers of English, math, sciences, foreign languages and history, but often there are very few other music teachers in sight.

This is a common dilemma, notes Joe Acciani, a retired director who taught for 35 years in Southern California. “There are rarely more than two – often just one – music director in the school. That individual is kind of by him or herself. Any contact is really helpful. It certainly was for me,” he states.

In a worst-case scenario, this sense of isolation can sometimes lead to frustration and potentially the end of a career in music education, points out David Branson, an instrumental music teacher at Archie Clayton Middle School in Reno, Nev.

“We lose so many teachers in the first five years of teaching. I think mentoring would make a tremendous difference,” says Branson, who has been teaching music for 24 years. “In all educational fields, if we as a society don’t get actively involved in a formalized mentoring program, we’re going to continue to lose teachers. We lose a lot in music, but we lose a lot of teachers in every field in those first four or five years.”

Dorothy Straub, who retired last year after 38 years teaching orchestra and serving as a district music coordinator, agrees.

“I think that teachers who have someone to mentor them, either formally or informally, are apt to have a greater sense of satisfaction. That’s one of the challenges in our profession – keeping teachers teaching and in the profession,” she explains. “Mentoring is a big help for that.”

The Importance of Mentorship

For these music educators, who have both experienced the guidance of a mentor and shared their own expertise with newer teachers, the benefits of mentorship in music education are boundless.

Ed Duling, assistant professor in the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Toledo in Ohio, points out that mentorship is essential for new teachers because they still have so much to learn after spending four years in college.

“Mentorship is really important because in music education we’re doing two things in a college of music: we’re trying to make a musician, and we’re trying to make a teacher,” he explains. “The European system is you go get a music degree, like a performance degree, and then you go back for a year or so and get your pedagogical training. But in the United States, that’s why we’re frustrated a lot of times, trying to get through in four years, because you’re making a musician and a teacher at the same time. Mentorship is doubly important in music because we’re doing those two things.”

Branson agrees that the complexities of a job in music education are so numerous that a new teacher needs a mentor’s support and advice to succeed.

“If you were to take down all the tasks you have as a music teacher and all the responsibilities and all the different jobs you have, it would be pretty overwhelming. There’s so much involved, other than just teaching the music itself. There’s the business end of it and the logistical end of it and the people skills part of it and learning how to motivate kids and understanding learning styles,” he says. “What happens is that undergraduate schools do a really good job trying to train young teachers but they just simply can’t cover everything. There’s not enough time – you couldn’t keep people in school that long. Without mentorships in place and an experienced person who’s gone through some of the experiences to help new teachers, our retention rate is just not very good.”

Straub, who did not have the benefit of a mentor until the middle of her career, recognizes how valuable a mentorship experience would have been for her in her early days of teaching.

“Experienced teachers have a tremendous value as far as skills and knowledge and it is much more efficient for them to share that experience with the newer teachers,” she relates. “It’s a lot quicker route to success and satisfaction if you have a sense of how you’re doing and if you have a sense of where you can change or what you should be doing to adjust the way that you’re teaching. I think one of the big challenges for teachers is ‘How am I doing?’ If there’s someone there you can rely on to give you some immediate and regular feedback, that’s a tremendous value.”

While teaching undergraduates for a year at San Diego State University, Acciani came to realize how vital mentoring has been in his own career.

“I found that there are so many things that needed to be taught and the students seemed to be exposed to so much more than the universities have time to give them. The 40 units or so that are required to graduate from college don’t even cover half of what you really need to know,” he points out. “So where do you get this? You get it from colleagues. That was an eye-opener to me to realize that most of what I’d learned, I learned from colleagues.”

Mentoring Styles

Mentoring styles are typically as different as the mentors themselves. Oftentimes, a mentor’s style will influence the style of his or her prot

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