How to pass the Music CSET
Updated: Jan 7, 2021
Over the years, many friends and colleagues have asked me why, as someone with a background in music and experience in the music industry, I was teaching English and not Music.
My usual answer was, "well, I wasn't a music major." But then again, I wasn't an English major, either. And not being a History major didn't stop me from earning a Social Science credential last year. Once I jumped through all the preliminary credential hoops (and there are many), I realized that I could teach any subject I wanted to, so long as I passed the corresponding CSET and completed a "methods course."
(The thing is, there are plenty of teachers out there who are interested in and capable of earning credentials in more than one subject. Unfortunately, in most public school systems, there's little incentive to do so. And for teachers who are already crazy-busy and barely scraping by, it can be a time-consuming and expensive process, further discouraging them from even considering it.)
So, what was holding me back from the Music credential?
I think one problem was that I was taking too seriously the comments from various music teachers I had met over the years, many of whom had said that the Music CSET was "really tough," and "a killer." One even advised me that the most practical route to a music credential was to avoid the Music CSET altogether (including the dreaded instrument proficiency performance portion) by doing undergraduate work in music education. But that was never going to happen, especially since I already have an undergraduate degree (and a life).
A moment of clarity occurred late one night as I, bored out of mind, slogged through a Khan Academy LSAT test-prep video. Wouldn't I rather be studying for the Music CSET, a subject I actually love and to which I'm more naturally inclined? Yes!
The next day I checked out the test information and sample questions. It really didn't seem too bad. I could answer many of the sample questions correctly and give decent, educated guesses to the difficult ones.
Bottom line: nothing about the test seemed insurmountable. It was really just a matter of getting up to speed on the areas where I was rusty (like dictation of four-part harmony!) and honing the skills in the areas I felt most confident in (aural skills, piano, and writing about music).
So, whether you're considering adding a Music Subject Authorization to your existing credential or working on your first credential, here are a few tips on preparing for and passing the Music CSET:
1. Take advantage of study guides:
The CSET website has preparation materials for each test. Don't ignore these! I suggest answering the sample questions as a diagnostic. Take note of which sections are easier or more difficult for you.
My go-to CSET study guide series is published by Mometrix. I recommend ordering a hard copy, so you can write in the book and take notes. Many test-prep books are also available at the public library.
2. Brush up on your music theory and ear-training
Yes, there will be questions about augmented triads, half-diminished sevenths, inversions, and natural minor versus harmonic minor, etc. Don't freak out. You don't have to get every question right. But you should be able to know enough not to totally bomb. Besides, if you're going to teach these concepts, you should probably understand them.
Music Fundamentals: A Balanced Approach by Sumy Takesue is a great resource and, while it can be pricey, it's a worthwhile investment.
Of course, there's no substitute for a lifetime of active, repeated, and passionate listening to a wide variety of music genres. If you've been doing this while engaging in actual music-making—whether practicing an instrument, singing in a choir, songwriting, or composing—then you've probably already got pretty well-developed aural skills.
One way to sharpen your ear in relation to written music, however, is to take a sight-singing course. Many community college music departments offer them. You'll learn to translate the notes you see on the page to a tune you can sing out loud—or in your head.
A great app is Complete Ear Trainer, available on both Android and Apple. There are a ton of terrific exercises: recognizing interval, chords, scales, and everything else.
3. Learn about music education
If you're already in a music education program, this is probably not your most pressing concern. But for the rest of us, there's a whole history of music pedagogy and a whole exciting world of cutting-edge practices that you should at least be familiar with.
The study guide I mentioned above will give you a comprehensive overview of myriad theories and techniques for teaching music to students of all levels, including English learners and special-needs students. Don't ignore these critical sections.
To prepare for these test questions, I took notes on each music education method and then looked for examples on Youtube. For example, Daniel Bergman is an incredible elementary music instructor who utilizes the Kodaly Method like a pro.
4. Read about music
You will be required to write short, focused essays on various musical topics. For example, you will have to listen to a piece of music, and, in addition to describing its musical elements, you'll need to describe the historical context of the music. Can you say something about the social and political environment that influenced Billie Holiday? Can you explain why a student might choose not to use pedal while playing a Baroque piece on the piano?
I recommend reading music reviews, especially those by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times. Also, read obituaries of notable musicians of all genres. Well-researched obituaries will describe the creative evolution of the artist and serve as a model of efficient, balanced writing.
5. Practice your instrument and plan ahead for the video submission
Subtest II of the Music CSET requires you to make a video of yourself playing (or singing) a piece of music determined by Pearson. No, you don't have to be a virtuoso, but you will be playing something a little more complicated than "Chopsticks" or singing something a little more demanding than "Happy Birthday."
The most difficult thing about this is that you won't know what you have to play until you register for this Subtest. However, to get a sense of the overall level of difficulty of the piece you might be assigned, check out pages 12-21 of the CSET Preparation Materials. I started practicing the first piano piece (Debussy's "La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin") on the off chance that I would be assigned it, but also to get used to learning a piece I had never learned before and in a relatively short time. As it turned out, I was assigned the second piece, the second movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 14 op. 27 ("Moonlight"), which I had already learned years before, so how lucky is that?
In addition to your instrument or vocal performance video, a second video to demonstrate basic piano proficiency is required. The score for this assignment will be sent to you along with your instrument/vocal assignment. As you might expect, the piano proficiency music is fairly simple, the most challenging part being that you'll be required to improvise the appropriate chords and then play the piece in a couple of different keys. Again, this is much easier than it sounds, and it can be practiced! Basically, the evaluators want to see that you can play simple triads and in the left hand and a simple melody in the right hand.
Be aware: you won't be able to use an electronic keyboard or electric piano for your piano proficiency video (or your instrument video, if you're going to play the piano). I found a super-affordable practice space in Los Angeles called Bedrock. Since I had rehearsed my pieces at home on my Roland stage piano, I needed to book only a couple of hours at the rehearsal space. The piano wasn't great, but it was playable, and the room was quiet and private. And you don't have to memorize the piece, so don't freak out.
If you are enrolled in music courses at a community college such as SMC, you'll have access to the piano practice rooms. Take advantage of this fantastic resource!
One more thing about Subtest II: there is a short multiple-choice section that you'll have to complete at an approved testing site. Many of the questions are about conducting. I highly recommend these two Youtube channels: Leonard Slatkin and Teton Music. Learn the basic conducting patterns outlined in these videos.
6. Space out your tests
If you thrive on stress, ignore this advice. If, on the other hand, you prefer to tackle a project in manageable chunks, then give yourself some space between tests.
I saved Subtest II for last because I wanted to be able to give my complete and undivided attention to rehearsing and making the video within the allotted time. The one moment of stress I had was when I encountered a few challenging questions on the multiple-choice section of Subtest II and imagined having to resubmit my performance video due to missing too many questions on the multiple-choice section. There was no need to worry, though. I did fine. But all the more reason to study, practice, and be over-prepared.
In the end, the preparation for the Music CSET will make you a more competent music teacher. When it comes down to it, studying for tests does expand your existing knowledge and sharpen your existing skills. This is true for both students and teachers. And don't we want our teachers to be as knowledgeable and competent as possible? I think we do!