Music Teachers Associations: Stages for Showcasing or Hospitals for Healing?

In 2012, I moved across the country and joined two different music teachers associations. One of these associations held certain education and experience requirements for joining, a foreign concept that disturbed and continues to disturb me. Not that I had any trouble joining – my qualifications are more than solid. And granted, the requirements for this particular organization are vague: applicants “shall present satisfactory qualifications” and shall have “proper training.” I suppose this gives board members the ability to approve those with no training at all since it all depends on what the working definitions of “proper” and “satisfactory” are on that day of the board meeting, and as I understand, the board apparently does work with very generous definitions of these words since they have never rejected a single applicant. Still, I find qualification prerequisites hugely bothersome, even if they are theoretical and never actually applied. If they are never applied, they should be disposed of for that reason alone, not to mention this wording probably does deter some teachers from applying in the first place. But even aside from that, this wording should be disposed of for a much bigger reason: Music teacher associations ought to be hospitals for teachers in need, not just stages for great teachers and their students to be showcased.

Pictured above: the entrance to EMTA, Elite Music Teachers Association. In order to walk up this staircase to reap the benefits of the association, you must first prove that your teaching is not in need of these benefits.

Pictured above: the theoretically-restricted entrance to EMTA (Elite Music Teachers Association). In order to walk up this staircase to reap the benefits of the association, you must first prove that your need for these benefits is sufficiently small. If you can’t, you will probably be allowed to walk up the staircase anyway.

Music teachers associations allow teachers to improve themselves in four major ways:

  1. They offer judged music festivals for students. These associations don’t typically allow any teachers to judge unless the teachers are decently respected for their teaching, and underqualified teachers benefit greatly by having their students adjudicated by these teachers.
  2. They offer presentations for teachers to attend, often given by renowned musicians and pedagogues (or when given by local figures, even the most mundane workshop will be of great value to underqualified teachers).
  3. They offer master classes. Sometimes the applications for these master classes require that students play at a certain level, but master classes can be opened up to any student of any level so that teachers can see what a great teacher does with more average, less polished students.
  4. They offer connections and friendships, which can lead to mentorship. These friendships also serve to make participation in nos. 1-3 above more likely.

What sums all of this up is that MTA membership encourages underqualified teachers to connect with the musical community. Musical isolation is exactly what a teacher will create when they are insecure about their teaching and afraid of losing their students to more qualified teachers. Some teachers already provide an unhealthy, isolated musical environment for their students, and music teachers associations shouldn’t make matters worse by giving them a valid excuse. In fact, music teachers associations are the single best remedy to this isolation phenomenon, because teachers who are growing as teachers and whose students are connected with other students through performance events are more likely to have motivated students.

Teachers who defend this qualification-before-membership MTA model may be tempted to draw an analogy to associations in other fields, such as medicine, car mechanics or contractor associations. While these analogies do effectively demonstrate why many music teachers ought to become more qualified (teaching involves responsibility, and responsibility necessitates qualifications), they do not serve to demonstrate why these music teachers should be denied access to do so.

I believe strongly in having standards. In fact, I even wrote an article about how important it is for music teachers to at least obtain MTNA Certification. Most teachers do not believe in standards as strongly as I do. But until the day when standards are actually enforced by real, tangible laws, we shouldn’t use music teachers associations solely as enforcement tools. It does not work. I have never, ever in my life, met a single teacher who obtained a music degree “because my local music teachers association wouldn’t let me join without one.” In fact, if we really want more teachers to get certification and/or degrees, we should allow the most needy teachers to surround themselves with teachers who have degrees. Certain associations are not doing nearly enough to take advantage of the great “power of association,” a power that is hugely emphasized in just about every success book written. Who we spend our time with can have a profound influence on what we do with our lives, and this will be true for under-qualified teachers just the same as it is true for everyone else.

There is also one crucial difference between U.S. music teachers and doctors, mechanics and contractors: any person can teach music without any license or degree without breaking the law, while one cannot legally become a doctor, mechanic or contractor without obtaining certain certifications and/or licenses. Given this reality, the more helpful analogy to draw would be comparing music teachers associations to other hobby associations, in which the only requirement to join is a mere interest in joining (groups such as Toastmasters, freestyle frisbee associations, sewing clubs, etc.). This may make uncomfortable some teachers who take their professional associations very seriously, but these teachers need to seriously consider what the purpose of their organization is, if not to help the teachers who need help the most. Is the organization a tool to effectively encourage standards in teaching, or a tool to ineffectively enforce standards in teaching?

What about the experience of more qualified teachers: does having underqualified teachers in an association drag down the quality of experience for everyone else? Absolutely not. In fact, I’ve never been a member of any music teachers association that wasn’t looking for more volunteers. It seems contradictory for associations to be in such need of volunteership and to also be so restrictive in membership applications. Underqualified music teachers can and do still make fantastic hospitality chairs, secretaries, treasurers, and yes, even presidents. (Likewise, sometimes very qualified teachers don’t do a good job with their volunteer positions. The skill sets for teaching vs. serving as a chair or board member are not the same.)

What about the underqualified teacher who only wants to join the MTA in order to be listed in the “find a teacher” directory and who has no desire to improve their teaching? Easy solution: in the organization’s online “find a teacher” page, don’t just list the teacher’s zip code and phone number. Allow teachers to list music degrees and any professional music certifications attained. Doing this still gives underqualified teachers more exposure and advertisement than they would normally get, but the general public would act as a natural, automatic and effective encouragement tool for teachers to obtain more qualifications.

We ought to push to remove all educational and experience requirements from applications to join music teachers associations, and instead of restricting access, these MTAs should be actively searching for the most unqualified teachers they can find and offer them (and any new member) their first year of membership free so that they will be encouraged to improve their teaching. The same elite teachers who complain about hideous transfer students over and over again are sometimes the same teachers who believe underqualified teachers should be offered the fewest chances to improve their teaching.

In order to obtain a loan from the bank, we must first prove that we don’t need one. It is time for some music teachers associations to stop behaving like banks, because unlike money, knowledge is a resource of unlimited supply. When we hand out knowledge, we are not deprived of it. In fact, the more knowledge is spread, the more new knowledge is created. Teaching carries great responsibility, just as with repairing pianos, constructing buildings or performing surgery. But restricting music teachers associations to sufficiently-qualified teachers only creates isolation for those who are most in need of these associations, which further prevents them from recognizing the gravity of responsibility they have to their students.

(c) 2014 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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2 responses to Music Teachers Associations: Stages for Showcasing or Hospitals for Healing?

  1. Great article as usual!

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