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Will has surpassed ALL expectations of a first-year teacher. From day one Will was prepared to take on the demands required to sustain and grow a quality band program!”

A new and innovative master’s program at Valdosta (Georgia) State University has already proven of significant value to the future of music education. Perhaps this comment from John Savelle, the band director at Lee County High School in Leesburg, Georgia, sums this up.

This article started out as a “Go Get a Job!” project exploring how today’s music majors get their very first teaching position. The impetus came from my own, non-music, experience when my parent’s reaction to my announced plans to seek an advanced degree were met with, “why don’t you go get a job like everyone else!” I also was aware that my Miami Senior High School band drum major, armed with his master’s in music education, wound up taking a temporary position in a small South Georgia town because he “needed a job, any job!.” He ultimately became the band director at our alma mater following in the footsteps of director legends Al G. Wright and Otto Kraushaar.

Initial research for this article discovered a brand-new master’s degree program at Valdosta State University (VSU) in South Georgia. The program was described as unique and had just graduated its very first class of five. All five had almost immediately gotten excellent teaching positions!

The first noticeable difference in this program, described as the “VSYOU Difference” is that this is a one-year master’s program, not the usual two years. Each of these graduates was enthusiastic about their experience in the new program.

This enthusiasm is borne out by the responses from this pioneering first graduating class of five. Profiles of “the guinea pigs” or “the first cohorts,” nicknames on campus since they were almost constantly together, give a picture of the adventuresome group.

Corey Hopson moved from New Jersey to Madison, Georgia as a preschooler. Madison is a cultural suburban community near Atlanta with an active cultural center that serves the entire Greater Atlanta area. With chorus in elementary school and trombone in middle and high school, music was always a focus. Corey earned his bachelor’s in music at VSU and originally planned to teach “for a few years” before attending a larger school for a master’s in music education. The new MAT program changed his plans.

Kathleen Dennison, from Lilburn (Atlanta area), was homeschooled but was active in church choir and added piano and flute during elementary school. She joined Joyful Noise Homeschool Band for high school and began giving private music lessons to younger beginners on both piano and flute. Kathleen’s Bachelor’s degree is from VSU, and having been the Drum Major of Joyful Noise, was already intent on becoming a high school band director.

Rickie Limoges relocated with his family to Valdosta from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. He was a percussionist in middle school, high school and VSU, earning his bachelor’s in art – Music at VSU. In addition to performing in a variety of university music organizations he performs with the community symphony.

Phillip Wood is currently Director of Choral Activities and Winter Guard Instructor at the Robert Anderson Middle School in Anderson, South Carolina. He was the only out-of-state MAT graduate. His musical journey began in choir during fourth grade. With middle school came saxophone and band.

He became his high school’s woodwind instructor while at Erskine College earning his BA in vocal and saxophone performance. Phillip became aware of the VSU MAT program at a VSU booth at SCMEA during his senior year at Erskine.

William Smith, lifelong Ware County (Waycross) resident grew up in a musical family. His father, a professional musician with a VSU music education degree, plays in big bands around the south. William performs as a percussionist across a wide range of musical groups and formats.

Like Will, most have some family background in music. Corey’s parents both played instruments in school. Kathleen’s entire family are in church choir and “several play instruments.” Rickie’s father was a drummer in his high school band. Asked about their goals upon starting the MAT program Corey “wanted a teaching job somewhere close to home and eventually be a high school band director.” As one of two band directors in Douglas, Georgia, he’s already part way home on both goals. Kathleen intends to be a high school band director and also to begin a high school band for homeschooled students. William’s goal is to be an Assistant Band Director and a Director of Percussion. He is currently the Assistant Director at Lee County High School where he works with the percussion program. This on his very first job! Rickie Limoges shared a similar plan and has accomplished it right out of school.

What does all this mean to the broader music education community? First of all, what you do, day in and day out, does change lives and careers. These young graduates developed their life’s ambitions through their own experiences in various school music organizations. Even more important is that their interest and direction towards a career in music education occurred very early in school. Every one of these new school band teachers mentioned their elementary school music experiences.

Questioned about how well the VSU MAT program prepared them for their actual work received comments like, “despite its rigor, the material was usually directly applicable to the careers we were anticipating.” “I use 90% of the information and skills I learned on a near daily basis as a band director.”

“The classes coupled with GREAT practicum and student teaching…. helped me become better at my craft.” This graduate is now serving as the middle school band director, assistant to the high school band director, music instructor to the elementary (K-2) students and director of a county-wide indoor drumline. He added, “my ability to do my job has improved dramatically as a result of this program!”

All commented about the extensive workload. Beginning with a “Maymester” which crams an entire semesters workload into a single month, followed by a semester where “the workload rarely decreased.” The final semester combined methods instruction, primary instrument proficiency instruction, and student teaching. Rigorous workload and time commitment were mentioned by all five in describing their experience in this program.

What was the motivation and the effort for VSU to create this new MAT program? Music Education at VSU offers three career routes: music, music performance and music education. The goal of each is a lifelong career as musician, performer or other professional, or music educator. All three routes, Master of Music in Performance, Master of Music in Education and the Master of Arts in Teaching, include active assigned participation in an appropriate performing group.

The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in Music Education is a full-time fifth year program in which candidates earn a MAT degree and become eligible for initial certification in music education, passing the GACE (Georgia Assessments for the Certification of Educators), and passing the edTPA (education Teacher Performance Assessment). It is a shortened, more intense path to a working career.

This program was designed to produce graduates with exceptional knowledge and pedagogical expertise to immediately perform effectively as teachers in the P-12 education environment and includes a full semester of clinical practice in a public school. The MAT program provides a shortened path to the very best music education P-12 job opportunities including band, orchestra or chorus director!

Two concerns were addressed in the development of MAT. The first was the usual six-year path to a master’s and the second was some shortcomings in the graduate’s in-class capability, particularly at the outset of their employment. Solutions addressing the time to earn the master’s required adjustments in the prerequisite bachelor’s program and the need for a full calendar year master’s curriculum.

“Initial analysis of graduates over the last ten years showed less than a quarter of the Bachelor of Music in Education students completed our 132-hour curriculum in four years”, stated Dr. Doug Farwell, Department Head and Professor of Music. “And that frequently included summer semester work,” he added. “Our new, 120-hour bachelor program focuses students on their musical training and moves all teacher training and pedagogy to the MAT year.” The undergraduate education track now includes all required education courses for PSC certification, arranging, conducting and additional piano instruction.

The MAT program starts immediately after the undergraduate study in Summer with Fall/Spring/Summer semesters following. The Fall semester is structured so that students spend multiple full days in public school classrooms. Generally, this includes half days each in elementary and secondary schools providing a full semester in observing the mechanics of class formation in both settings. One result of this increased and timely field experience is that these graduates are better prepared for student teaching in the following Spring semester.

Under this new model, students develop musicianship skills in the undergraduate program and their development as professional educators during the MAT program. There are also significant financial benefits for the graduates with this five-year approach. Graduates have one less year of student expense, one year earlier professional earnings, and one-year earlier retirement. In Georgia, our MAT graduates also receive a higher initial certification which brings higher initial earnings.

The second MAT class has already begun with a new group of Masters’ candidates planning to make a difference in music education!

Have the years of effort culminating with the new VSU MAT program made any significant difference in music education? Well, if the comments from the schools that hired Will Smith and his other four “guinea pig” classmates are any indication, music education has, and will, see improvement from innovative programs like these!

Isn’t that what we’re all about…improvement?



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