Jen Kessler

Jen Kessler

In preparation for the launch of our new Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s – a music for social change initiative inspired by El Sistema—the Community & Education department of Orchestra of St. Luke’s was looking for a team to teach string instruments to a group of 10 year olds, to shape the students’ leadership, focus, and collaborative skills, and to help build a sense of community among OSL and participating families.

This was a tall order, but we were optimistic. After all, we worked in New York City, where extraordinary music teachers abound. But as we finished the job description, we were stuck: Is this a Music Teacher position, or a Teaching Artist position?

First, we considered the various definitions of a Teaching Artist, and our assumptions about their skills and where they typically work. In our experience, TAs were professional artists who generally worked in schools to connect the arts  with existing classroom curricula. A TA might do an arts project throughout the year with the students to draw them deeply into that art form. The skills of a TA included the ability to manage groups of students, partner with classroom teachers, scaffold lessons, and embrace the qualities that Eric Booth describes here.

On the one hand, “social change,” or youth development through musical learning requires many of the skills of teaching artists, including, as Booth describes, “group management skills to actively engage creative participation and focus it on specific learning objectives; a joyful attitude of open inclusivity.”

On the other hand, would we be excluding potential applicants who are excellent and inspiring string teachers who may not consider themselves teaching artists?

Ultimately we chose “Music Teacher” for the title of the position, but I felt a little guilty for betraying the “Teaching Artist” term. Perhaps I didn’t fully trust that potentially excellent candidates – the stellar public school music teacher, the musician teaching in a community music school – would self-identify as teaching artists. We assumed that a teaching artist would apply for a music teacher position, but not necessarily the other way around.

I had a chance to test-drive this assumption at the Take a Stand Symposium on El Sistema-inspired programs this February. I asked several people in the field: “Do you consider yourself a teaching artist or a music teacher? Why?” The answers were myriad, including:

I use both interchangeably. I received a music education degree, but I think both an extraordinary music educator and teaching artist need to effectively draw people into learning in creative ways that connect the arts to other areas of life.

I’m not yet a teaching artist. That requires artistry, getting into the mind of a child, and connecting the learning to other aspects of life, and I have a long way to go. I consider my private violin teacher a teaching artist.

I consider myself a teaching artist. I didn’t get a degree in music education, but I’ve worked in many classroom and community environments where I’ve had to engage groups of students in musical learning.

I’m a music educator; I got a degree in music education and know about standards. However I’ve also worked as a teaching artist for an orchestra and it was a very different experience. Much more open and liberal to the approach of engaging students, without set standards to follow.

Unsurprisingly, several people connected a degree in music education with being a music educator. But it’s the last response that intrigued me. She felt strongly about her experience as a music educator, but acknowledged a distinction between the way she was trained and what was expected of her in a teaching artist’s role. This sounded to me like the perfect cocktail for success in a music for social-change program: experience in educational practice with a flexible approach toward engaging students (and it perhaps goes without saying that this is what great classroom music teachers have been doing all along).

As our program got started, I started to see more of what we needed in a teacher: a person whose teaching philosophy was guided by questions, and who provided multiple opportunities for the students to reflect on their learning, to learn from their peers, and to receive positive support through a fun learning environment.

In the end, however we define ourselves is ineffective if the students aren’t highly engaged. But as for OSL’s future job descriptions, we will no longer shy away from seeking Teaching Artists, people who see themselves possessing the skills necessary to engage groups of students both in the technique of their instruments as well as in a more global understanding of being a musical (and non-musical) compatriot.

So embrace the expression “Teaching Artist!” If you’re interested in inviting people into your art and its connections to life, make that loud and clear in your applications, and be honest about the areas you’d like to grow. Celebrating your experience in artistry and having the curiosity to teach in diverse environments will be attractive traits that will help distinguish you as a thoughtful, innovative leader to potential employers.

One Response to “Getting Hired: Teaching Artist or Music Teacher?”

  1. Thank you for sharing this journey. It’s a struggle, promoting a profession that is so loosely defined and not always publicly recognized. As we embrace this title and advocate for teaching artists we lift up all artists working to pass on their discipline.

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