Masters of Music Education

Last month, I finished my third and final summer at VanderCook College of Music, earning my Masters of Music Education! I have been meaning to write and reflect a bit on my last summer, but band camp started the Monday after graduation. Things have been a bit hectic (and warm) trying to gather my thoughts. Here are the biggies:

Master's Project

As part of their MMEd program, VanderCook requires a Master's Project:

The Master’s Project should represent a serious, scholarly effort to create a product of benefit to some segment of the music teaching profession, and should be applicable to some aspect of the candidate’s life and work. All projects are expected to meet standards of graduate-level scholarship and musicianship.

The Master’s Project may take one of several forms:

  • A traditional scholarly paper;

  • An experiment;

  • A curriculum or teaching manual;

  • A review of music or educational resources in a particular area;

  • An original arrangement, composition or method book;

  • A computer-assisted instructional program in an area of interest.

My Master's Prject was entitled: The Tuesday Night Club: Incorporating Small Combos into the Large Jazz Ensemble Rehearsal. I split our top jazz ensemble (and a few other volunteers) into combos as a means of differentiating improvisation instruction. Students were put into combos based on their comfort level with specific improvisation skills: melodic paraphrase, scale alterations, identification of chord tones from jazz chord symbols, construction of bass lines using digital patterns, improvisation over basic chord progressions, and the ability to function as a combo member. These were not combos in the traditional sense with a standard rhythm section and a few melodic instruments. Instead, students were grouped solely on their responses to a Google Form:

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Each combo was assigned a tune out of Jamey Aebersold's Volume 54: Maiden Voyage that aligned with their comfort level using the different improvisation skills from the survey. As they developed each skill, students were responsible for building a mini-arrangement of their tune. Each student was responsible for at least one chorus of each of the following:

  • Statement of Melody (or harmonized statement)

  • Bass Line from a Digital Pattern

  • Improvisation

Over the course of the jazz season (October-April), all of the students reported an increase in comfort level using the identified improvisation skills. Anecdotally, I also noticed an increase in the quality of all of the students' improvisation.

Professional Teaching Portfolio

VanderCook also requires one of two forms of an exit exam. We could choose between taking Comprehensive Exams or creating a Professional Teaching Portfolio. Here is VanderCook's description of the Comprehensive Exams:

The Comprehensive Written Exam is administered on the second Saturday in July from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. during the candidate’s final residency summer. This essay-style exam consists of:

  • Foundations (music education philosophy, research processes, current issues)

  • Major area (band, chorus, orchestra, general music)

  • Two secondary areas

    • Brass

    • Choral music

    • Conducting (band, choral or orchestral)

    • Curriculum and Administration

    • Elementary General Music

    • General music

    • Music technology

    • Percussion

    • Secondary General Music

    • Strings

    • Vocal Mechanism

    • Woodwinds

And the description of the Professional Teaching Portfolio:

The Professional Teaching Portfolio may be submitted in either physical or electronic format. It must be organized around the Professional Teaching Standards and VanderCook’s Conceptual Framework, and should contain the following elements appropriately placed within each relevant section:

  • Representative work samples, reflection papers, self-assessments, programs, repertoire, arrangements, lesson plans, curricula, and similar items derived from coursework studied while completing the master’s degree;

  • A Master’s Project; and

  • Work samples such as videos of lessons, concert programs, assessments, and similar items related to a candidate’s growth as a teacher during the academic year between summer sessions.)

The Professional Teaching Portfolio is to be submitted during the candidate’s final summer and reviewed by faculty. Each section of the final portfolio should begin with a brief essay in which the candidate describes his or her growth within the standard or framework. Portfolio requirements are available on VanderCook’s website.

I chose to complete a Professional Teaching Portfolio in the form of a Google Site. It includes a very cheesy headshot, a synopsis of my teaching philosophy, a reflection on VanderCook's Conceptual Framework, my resume, links to my Master's Project and poster, and reflections on each Iowa Teaching Standard with work samples from VanderCook and my own teaching.


VanderCook's Master of Music Education program requires three semesters of work. Two of those semesters are scripted summers based on your enrolled track (band, choral, general music, string). The third semester involves 12 credits from their continuing education program (MECA). I enrolled in a few different MECA courses beginning the Summer of 2014 (Developing the Successful Jazz Ensemble, Teaching Music in a Common Core World, Sound Reinforcement and Recording Techniques, Band Arranging, and Finale Music Notation Software). In Summer 2015, I completed the first of the two scripted summers. This summer, I completed the second of the two scripted summers and earned my Masters!

American Music History

All graduate students are required to take a music history elective. I chose to take American Music History, which looked at how music developed in America from the colonial era to the present day. The professor, Mike Becker, is one of the most passionate teachers I have ever had. We had two "quizzes" and one exam. Each quiz occurred after a three week period, and involved a 2 page essay on one of several topics covered in that period. We could replace one of the quizzes with an in-class performance of a piece of music from an era we were studying. I played piano in a dixieland group, incorporating some skills from my applied study in jazz piano this summer.

Woodwind Methods

In the band track, graduate students are required to take Brass Methods, Woodwind Methods, and Percussion Methods, courses designed to help us better teach the instruments within those families. Techniques classes (Flute/Clarinet, Double Reeds, High Brass, Low Brass, Percussion) are offered as electives on alternating summers.

For Woodwind Methods, we used a great deal of the Frederick Westphal Guide to Teaching Woodwinds and our professor's (Ruth Rhodes) lectures. We would take a pre-test prior to each instrument's unit. This would include short-answer questions about hand position, embouchure formation, intonation tendencies, vibrato, and idiomatic problems. It would also include a chromatic fingering test. Each unit lasted approximately one week. As a group of four, we would electronically submit answers to 22 questions for each instrument. At the conclusion of each unit, we would take a written chromatic fingering test and an online short-answer test based off the pre-test.

I learned a great deal about similarities and differences between playing brass and woodwind instruments. I also discovered some philosophical differences with this course in my own teaching and playing, as well as in the teaching of the colleagues in my PLC. It is great to work with experts on so many different instruments!

Band Conducting

In the band conducting class, we worked on expanding our gestural vocabulary using the work of Rudolf Laban, James Jordan, Eugene Corporon, Alan McMurray, and many others. We conducted H.E. Nutt's etude as well as a few pieces selected by our professor, Stacey Larson-Dolan. The final was creating a Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance project on a piece we wished to do with our band in the coming year. I did mine on the second movement of Bert Appermont's Ivanhoe.

Jazz Band Methods

This was my favorite class this summer. We worked with Professor Tony Kidonakis on a wide variety of things including improvisation, bass lines, piano/guitar voicings, setup, rehearsal strategies, and literature. As he pointed out in the class, we have all of these "classical" courses (conducting, individual methods/techniques classes, theory, history, etc.) that typically gets lumped into one course for jazz. This made our coverage of these topics pretty shallow, but I was able to augment it with my applied work in jazz piano and trombone with him, as well as our work together on my Masters Project.

My two biggest take-aways were 1) his simplification of improvisation, and 2) his incorporation of dance from his teacher, Ron Carter.

Tony simplified improvisation down into three main ideas:

  1. Melody

  2. Key Center

  3. Chord Changes

We first looked at being able to paraphrase the melody (similar to the work of Steinel). He then synthesized a bunch of different sources to help us use different chords to determine key center of passages. A lot of this work revolved around major and minor pentatonic scales evolving into blues scales. The final step was being able to play chord tones or other digital patterns over chord changes. This view was a simplified version of what I did in my Masters Project with different improvisation skills.

Tony studied with Ron Carter at Northern Illinois University. VanderCook was lucky enough to have Professor Carter teach a MECA this summer entitled Teaching Jazz Improvisation in a Large Group Setting. While I didn't get to attend this MECA, Ron Carter did come work with the graduate jazz band during one of our Jazz Band Methods courses. A lot of the work he did with us revolves around the inclusion of dance and vocabulary into the rehearsal. You can read about it in his chapters in Teaching Music Through Performance in Jazz Volume 1, Volume 2, and for Beginning Ensembles.

Applied Jazz

Last summer, I took Applied Jazz Trombone with Tony, looking to improve my improvisation and better inform my Masters Project. This summer, I studied jazz piano, working on improving my comping skills so I can better teach my rhythm section students. We worked on building 2-, 3-, and 4-note voicings in both hands, voicing in my left hand while playing the melody or improvising in my right, walking a bass line in my left hand while comping with my right, and extending into 5-, 6-, and 7- note voicings with both hands. I learned a great deal and played a lot better than I thought I ever would on piano!

Brass Methods

As I mentioned above, graduate students are required to take Brass Methods, Woodwind Methods, and Percussion Methods as part of the band track. Brass Methods was a great deal different than Woodwind Methods. We did reading from the works of Arnold Jacobs, Edward Kleinhammer, and Philip Farkas. Our textbook was Teaching Brass. Our professor was Dr. Leah Schuman, whose primary instrument is trumpet. She also brought in guest lecturers on horn (Peter Jirousek), trombone (Kevin Schoenbach), and tuba/euphonium (Matthew Gaunt). This class further solidified my philosophies around breathing, buzzing, and tone production on brass instruments.

Symphonic Band and Jazz Band

Every graduate student is required to be a member of two ensembles, one of which occurs within their track. The available ensembles are Symphonic Band, Jazz Band, Philharmonic Strings, Concert Choir, and Chorale (advanced choir). My first summer, I took Symphonic Band and Concert Choir while auditing Jazz Band. This summer, I took Symphonic Band and Jazz Band.

The Symphonic Band's scheduled performance at the Clarke House was rained out. As such, are only two performances were on Poster Night and at Commencement. We studied a wide variety of literature, but only ended up performing a few pieces. Because of a MECA entitled The Art of Wind Band Teaching and Conducting, the Symphonic Band served as a lab band for several conductors working with Craig Kirchoff (University of Minnesota, retired), Bud Beyer (Northwestern University, emeritus), and Dr. Charlie Menghini (VanderCook College of Music, President and Director of Bands).

The Jazz Band performed two concerts: the Graduate Fundraiser Boat Cruise and a concert in Palmisano Park. Last year, we played a lot of Basie and Sinatra literature. This year, we saw a lot of Basie and Ellington literature with some Stevie Wonder tunes in the mix. As I mentioned above, Ron Carter came and worked with the jazz band during the Jazz Band Methods class, working to apply concepts of dance and vocalization into our teaching and playing. He also played and sang with us on our boat cruise!


This Masters program has meant a great deal to me, changing quite a bit about how I teach. It has made a huge impact on how I approach improvisation and has filled in the gaps for the pedagogy I should have been paying attention to in my undergraduate program. My comments from the podium and in lessons will be much more informed and thought out as a result of the methods and techniques classes from VanderCook. I also have a much better appreciation for what it is like to be a student in a class and in rehearsal, especially in this new technology-driven, standards-based classroom. I can't wait to begin applying it all!


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.