AMI Blog

WANTED: DYNAMIC AND HARDWORKING MUSIC TEACHER (excellent accompanying skills would be an advantage)

I am still thinking about job advertisements for music teachers in South Africa, (which is where I live, and where AMI is). And since my recent, rather cheeky post about pianists, I have been thinking about them some more.

Take a look at the list of requirements in the latest ad to appear in my social media feed. It’s for a full time music teacher who can offer:

  • Drum kit, marimba band, percussion for the concert band
  • Trumpet, and piano accompaniment (an advantage)
  • Class music.

In the light of a previous blog, where I pointed out that the ongoing need for piano teachers suggests a lack of transformation in South African music education, I have to celebrate the fact that this job vacancy proves me wrong. Yet notice, if you will, the inclusion of ‘piano accompaniment’… It’s something that comes up again and again in jobs for music teachers in South Africa. It tells us something about the landscape of South African school music education. Reading between the lines, it reflects how our music education has the graded practical examination system at its core. Schools need accompanists for choirs and assemblies, (yes), but they really need accompanists if they are entering instrumentalists for music exams. The British examination boards have been in SA since the 1880s (Trinity in 1881 and ABRSM in the 1890s), and we have our home-grown version, UNISA. The model here is all about individuals developing instrumental skill. It is a successful model insofar as plenty of students enter exams every year, and hey, the boards have been in SA for over 100 years – something about the system must work, so long as we don’t look too hard at the dropout rate (for which, I imagine, there are few statistics). After all, the boards are businesses, their profits depend on kids being entered for exams and coming out with a piece of paper (and hopefully some skills). But I digress…

The interesting thing about musicians is that we all have really individual musical biographies. This means any job-seeking music teacher has a suite of skills that is fairly unique, and that is different to any other job seeker. Perhaps they studied voice at university and are really good at directing choirs, but they may play guitar in their church worship team. They might have had a few years of violin lessons when they were much younger. Or they could be part of a band in which they play keyboard. In other words, the school that is looking for a drummer/marimba player/percussionist/trumpeter/accompanist may just find their person!

I am generalising, but most often, if you find a competent accompanist (something that takes years of training and experience), that person is unlikely to have a large and diverse range of skills as suggested above. Becoming a skilled pianist takes up a great deal of time –  and this makes becoming a generalist less likely. Some South African school music departments won’t really mind this issue, as there is plenty to keep the piano teacher busy with private lessons, accompaniment, and class teaching. If you have a good pianist, you hang on to them! And judging from all those job ads, they are hard to find.

There are two issues here – first, musicians have unique musical biographies that give them an individual set of competencies. Second, instrumentalists in general, but pianists in particular, can be narrowly trained, deep rather than wide.  Both kinds of musicians then apply for jobs like the one mentioned above, where they are expected to be jacks of all trades. Class music, assemblies, choir, school musicals, individual lessons, school orchestras, chapel services, special occasions. I may be way off here, but from what I can see in South Africa, there is not a great deal of teacher education that prepares wannabe music teachers to do all this. There’s an unsaid belief that if you can do some music, you can do all of it.  

Music teachers have to straddle both the needs of their classroom and the musical and cultural needs of the wider school. And this is where the rubber hits the road. Whether they have a broad or narrow skill set, their school job will probably demand more than they have been trained for. I could launch off on a romantic tangent about how musicians are creative, and all of this just comes naturally. But that, unfortunately, is wishful thinking. Of course there are some individuals who are flexible enough to adapt and rise to the challenge, but not everyone will.

While plenty of schools have moved on from a ‘West is best’ focus on Eurocentric music, and many schools have diversified their programmes in various ways (not least with marimbas!), there is lots of work to be done. For instance, university departments should be taking music education seriously by offering well designed courses that teach students how to manage a curriculum as well as introducing them to the best pedagogical approaches. School principles and heads of music departments should be considering how they can support their staff by identifying where they need support, and offering them further training opportunities. Musicians who want to work as school teachers should be thinking about how best they can use their skills to create quality musical education, and where they need to upskill.

P.S. If you are a drummer/marimba player/percussionist/trumpeter/accompanist – there’s a job going that’s made for you.