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My road to certification.

I graduated with a degree in medical technology and a minor in chemistry. After working as a toxicologist for a couple years, I left the profession to raise my family. (I now have four sons, ages 3-13.) I had taught piano lessons during high school under the tutelage of my piano teacher, Virginia Hawley Buhn, NCTM, and knew teaching piano would work well with my family responsibilities and was a career I already found both enjoyable and fulfilling. I have benefited greatly from the Northern Virginia Music Teachers Association since joining in 1991.

Recently, I decided it was time to become certified. I would like to share the steps I took in hopes it will inspire others who might be on a similar nontraditional track to certification with MTNA.

It took me about two years to go through the process of becoming a nationally certified teacher of music. Here are some hints for your endeavor to become certified.

* Financial assistance is available. I was fortunate to receive a grant from Jordan Kitt's Music Store that helped cover my tuition for lessons as I prepared for my solo recital. Sometimes local music organizations have Professional Development Funds from which you can borrow money if needed. Grants may be available at the local or state level. See for a list of grants offered at the national level.

* Participate in events sponsored by your local organization--now. Keep records of your studio participation in festivals, contests and local events to ease documentation. I have participated in several local festivals (contemporary music, baroque and theory testing). These events help me motivate my students to obtain a higher level of musicianship.

* Attend local meetings and become friends with the teachers. Volunteer to work with them and help at meetings and events. The associations are valuable to all. Attend master classes, participate in local pedagogy programs and have lunch with your colleagues. The only way to obtain recommendations is to get to know other teachers.

* In preparation for my solo recital, I chose my program carefully using the repertoire guide provided by MTNA. I used several pieces I already knew and learned some new pieces. I selected an excellent teacher, Nancy O'Neill Breth, who provided wonderful suggestions. It was so enjoyable to me to take lessons again. She was kind enough to teach early morning lessons so I could fit them into my family life.

* Use studio class lessons to reinforce music history. Play games; use Internet sites. The preparation truly will benefit you. Some recommended sites for music history and theory are 15413/history/music-history.htm and

I reviewed music history sites the night before my proficiency exam. It was very helpful to have those concepts fresh in my mind.

* Make a thorough self-evaluation of your studio, exploring all areas. What could you do better? What do you do to teach sight reading, technique, theory, music history, composition, rhythm and so forth? What are some new ways to teach these concepts to your students? How do you introduce a new piece? (This evaluation is valuable on a regular basis, even after becoming certified.)

* Review the repertoire you currently are teaching. What are the hard parts in each piece? Where do students stumble? How can you creatively help them master those sections?

* Finally, budget your time wisely as you take the certification exam. Spend a couple minutes looking through the entire test, choose the questions you will answer and then budget your time for each section. Give more time to questions worth more points. Some people have suggested doing the analysis piece first so there is plenty of time to work through it thoroughly. I took a few minutes at the beginning and wrote down what time I would begin each new question. I stayed on schedule and was able to finish all the parts of the test.

The process of becoming certified has refined my skills, increased my expectations of my students, clarified my approaches to teaching music, made my studio more professional as a business and made me more responsible to the organization that has given me a professional status.

The road to certification is not easy, but it is worthwhile and obtainable. If it were easy, it would not provide the distinction that the title NCTM carries with it.

I am grateful to have NCTM after my name. As I maintain my certification, I anticipate even more professional growth in the years to come and look forward to sharing the value of certification with my colleagues and the community.

Rene Wolthuis Johnson, NCTM, maintains a piano studio in Arlington, Virginia, for all ages and abilities. She participates actively in Northern Virginia MTA and is co-chair of the NVMTA Theory Mastery Day. She accompanies many musicians and participates in a local orchestra.


For a listing of books Rene Johnson found helpful while studying for the Certification Proficiency Exams, go to, click on "American Music Teacher" and "Tell Me More About ... Bonus Bytes."
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Title Annotation:Professional Certification
Author:Johnson, Rene Wolthuis
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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