NU Declassified: The melody of the music education major

Erica Schmitt, Reporter



Whether a student is in elementary school or high school, music teachers can transform kids’ lives. This episode of NU Declassified takes a dive into what the Bienen School of Music’s music education major is all about and the opportunities it presents for future music educators.

[music, Violin Concerto Vo. 2 in d minor by Henryk Wieniawski, performed by by Felix Garkisch on violin]

FELIX GARKISCH: People get this stereotype of a music major. It’s like, “Oh, they don’t have to do much. All they have to do is practice their instrument or they don’t have to do real work,” which I think is just — that’s totally, completely not true.

ERICA SCHMITT: That was Felix Garkisch, a freshman enrolled in Bienen School of Music’s music education program. Felix’s primary instrument is the violin.

[music, Violin Concerto Vo. 2 in d minor by Henryk Wieniawski, performed by by Felix Garkisch on violin]

ERICA SCHMITT: While some Bienen students plan on playing their instrument professionally, others, like Felix, are working toward becoming teachers themselves.

ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. I don’t know a lot about Bienen, but I always thought music was a really cool field to study in college. So in this episode, I talked to students and faculty in the music education program about the unique opportunities and challenges in the major. Felix said the music education major is slightly different from other Bienen majors.

FELIX GARKISCH: We have a lot of classes that we’re required to take by the time that we graduate for not only our student teaching, but also to get our teaching license. So it’s just like all the other music majors. I would say our classes are more academically focused, generally speaking. There’s definitely some more hands-on or performance-based classes, like the different methods classes that I’m having to take.

ERICA SCHMITT: Risha Hussain is a first-year student pursuing a dual-degree in music education and chemistry. One of the first classes she took in the music education program was Music Education 260-0, or intro to music education.

RISHA HUSSAIN: We go and visit a lot of middle and high schools and elementary schools in Chicago, and we get to observe teachers and their different styles. Teachers that are more hands on, teachers that let kids take the lead more, and we write a lot of observation reports and we discuss in class.

ERICA SCHMITT: Risha said she learned a lot about different teaching styles in her class.

RISHA HUSSAIN: In terms of teaching, we talk a lot about what kinds of teachers there are, so we’ll play around with being teachers that let students do absolutely whatever they want. We call it a musical playground. So like, you don’t leave anything off limits, like you sit on the floor with your kids, if they’re sitting on a rug instead of like, standing above them. Like body language is something we talked a lot about.

ERICA SCHMITT: Felix said he likes the small class sizes in the music education program.

FELIX GARKISCH: Most of my professors are really, really, really approachable. And it also means that even during class time, they’re able to see what your progress is like, so even if you’re behind or something they can really, really, really easily help you out.

ERICA SCHMITT: For Risha, the small program size creates a sense of community and consistency.

RISHA HUSSAIN: I feel like my professors actually know me, which I guess you could say is a little bit more like high school, at least for the standard high school experience where you have these consistent professors. Like, if I’m taking theory for two years, and it’s like I have this little tight-knit group of people because you usually take the same time. And it’s like you’re just kind of with the same group. And so you kind of get to make a friend, and you get comfortable around everyone. And then you don’t feel weird asking questions and stuff like that. It’s really nice to settle into that.

ERICA SCHMITT: In these classes, students have to learn a lot of different instruments as well as voice and music composition in order to prepare themselves for the teaching environment. But on top of that, students also specialize in a specific instrument — or in voice.

RISHA HUSSAIN: So we have to take classes like percussion and strings and woodwinds to accustom ourselves to music that could be taught in an elementary school. And then you get into your concentration later.

ERICA SCHMITT: The music education program also has three different curriculum paths that students choose from: general music education, instrumental music education, and choral music education. Felix said the general track prepares students for —

FELIX GARKISCH: Going into like an elementary or a middle school classroom (and) teaching a music class.

ERICA SCHMITT: Felix is pursuing the instrumental music track.

FELIX GARKISH: That typically involves band or orchestra, but it can also expand to other things. Like, I know, some music teachers who lead guitar classes or like music production classes, too. So it’s not just like the traditional stuff. There’s just so much, it’s so open ended. And it’s really like, I can shape that however I see fit, which I think is really cool.

ERICA SCHMITT: Risha is on the choral track.

RISHA HUSSAIN: The biggest person that had the impact on me was my choral director. And just kind of watching her watch all these kids grow up and teach and using music as a vehicle to talk not only about you know, music is pretty, but it can be a vehicle to inform a lot of wider audiences about things like social justice, and it can bring awareness to a lot of things.

ERICA SCHMITT: Like Risha, Felix said he —

FELIX GARKISCH: Really, really looked up to my high school music teacher. And the experience that I had in that class made me think, “Okay, I want to be able to give this to students of my own someday.” So, music education seems like the right choice for me.


ERICA SCHMITT: All music education majors have to participate in a student teaching program, where they often work with teachers who graduated from Northwestern. Each student works with two mentors during their student teaching. To hear more about that, I chatted with Prof. Stevi Marks, the coordinator of student teachers and assessment at Bienen.

STEVI MARKS: So in order to be licensed in the state of Illinois, you have to have pre-service training across the grade levels. So that means that let’s say, Erica, you came to me and said, “Boy, I’m really interested, I want a high school experience. But I love elementary kids, I’d love to be, you know, running an elementary program where I first introduced the instruments to the kids, and then maybe rehearse them in junior high, and then have a high school experience.” So I would look for something like that.

ERICA SCHMITT: Mentor teachers guide education majors through the teaching process in a hands-on environment. Marks said she matches students with mentors based on a variety of factors, asking questions like —

STEVI MARKS: Who can we match you up with that’s going to work well for you? And do you have a car or are you relying on public transportation? What kind of experiences do you want? Do you want a marching band? Do you want a mariachi? Do you want to work with a show choir or do you want to help direct the musical? We try to match our students with a position that’s going to be beneficial, and really, really move them to another level as a teacher.

ERICA SCHMITT: Felix said he had a student teacher for the band program at his high school.

FELIX GARKISCH: I remember she was a Northwestern music education student, and she was a phenomenal teacher.

ERICA SCHMITT: While the music education program is full of opportunities, it can be an intense workload. For some dual degree students, the program can take five years.

RISHA HUSSAIN: I think mine’s a little heavier, cuz I have a four-year plan instead of a five-year but I’m, I was at 5.8 units right now. And the rest of my plan is about 6.3 to 6.8 units every quarter. And most of it is Bienen.

ERICA SCHMITT: Marks said the program has made some changes to their curriculum in the past few years in order to ease students’ workloads.

STEVI MARKS: We know that music ed students have to take more credits than anybody, I think, almost, across the University. So we were looking for ways to consolidate some of that coursework. And so I rolled some of the technical things about singing into my coursework in choral methods one, that all the students have to take.

ERICA SCHMITT: I asked Felix about his experience with the workload in music education classes.

FELIX GARKISCH: I mean, I love them. But they’re designed to be challenging. And I appreciate that. It’s not like you can kind of just coast through them all, you have to put in an effort to get a quality product out of it.

ERICA SCHMITT: Marks said ultimately, her goal is to motivate students to remain passionate about teaching students the way she has always been.

STEVI MARKS: Music education provides an opportunity for every single child to express themself in a way they won’t find in any other discipline. And so it is the most worthwhile pursuit. And we need great music educators and I’m proud to be able to serve in that capacity. It scares the crap out of me, Erica, it’s a high responsibility. These fabulous young adults are going to go out, and they’re going to have a classroom of their own. And God willing, they’re going to make a difference like somebody did in their life, a positive difference. And that’s what I get to think about every time I go into class.


ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU: Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Will Clark, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.


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Twitter: @eschmitt318

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