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Why Capstone Projects Are Crucial to Your Growth as a Music Educator

June 8, 2023

Plus, Four Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Capstone Experience

Music teacher engaged in virtual instruction in capstone courseThe capstone project is a grand finale to the University of Florida’s online Master of Music in Music Education (MMME). For UF Music Education graduate students, it represents the full arc of their work over the course of the degree and showcases their growth in areas such as pedagogy, research methods, creativity, and understanding of world and vernacular musics.

However, it is more than a reflection of the past — it is also something that can help students as they move forward. It is a tangible achievement that they can demonstrate to their current or prospective employers. Moreover, it can transform how they teach.

In this article, we provide a broad overview of the UF capstone project, how it fits into the online Master of Music in Music Education, and how it can match and support students’ career goals. We also share tips on how to get the most out of the project.

Megan Sheridan, an associate professor of music education at the University of Florida, shares insights and advice for students throughout the article. Dr. Sheridan serves as a faculty advisor who has helped many UF Music Education students shape their capstone project. In addition to her advisory role, Dr. Sheridan teaches a range of courses, including general music education, qualitative research, and sociology in music education. She also has extensive experience in elementary classrooms having taught general and choral music in public and private schools in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“The University of Florida has a fantastic online master’s program. I truly enjoy working with the students in this program.”

Megan Sheridan
Associate Professor of Music Education at the University of Florida

Dr. Sheridan’s research, teaching, and professional background mirror the guiding principles of the UF School of Music: her goal is to help students develop their knowledge and skills so that they can inspire the next generation of musicians.

She also believes that educators should meet students where they are, rather than adhering to a rigid set of techniques: “To inspire students, educators must strive to connect with them on their level rather than strictly adhering to a rigid set of techniques,” said Dr. Sheridan.

What Is the Capstone Project? A Brief Overview

“The capstone project is a culmination of a student’s learning and growth that has happened over the course of their master’s degree program,” explained Dr. Sheridan. “It demonstrates that you have put in the work to gain the knowledge and skills that place you at a master’s level and that you can speak intelligently about music education in a variety of ways.”

While students in the online Master of Music in Music Education do take a specific capstone course, “MUE6790: Capstone Project in Music Education,” the capstone shouldn’t be seen as a stand-alone product.

Instead, it serves as a companion to all work done in the program and, on an even larger scale, a complement to a student’s professional journey.

The Capstone Is Based On Your Interests

Students choose their own topic to pursue, with the help of a faculty advisor like Dr. Sheridan. That advisor then works with the student from start to finish.

“As an advisor, it’s my job to guide students through the capstone process. I help students identify their area of focus and then break the research and writing tasks into manageable steps,” said Dr. Sheridan. “With this approach, it doesn’t seem like an overwhelmingly large project.”

Not all students start the program with a topic in mind — and that’s okay. Dr. Sheridan said that she encourages students to choose a project that has a personal connection. If a student isn’t sure what they want to pursue, they’ll sit down and talk about any favorite courses or topics, or about a professional issue that they’d like to address.

For example, a student might choose a project related to music performance anxiety because they have experienced stage fright themselves and also want to help their classroom students overcome their fears so that they can enjoy music performance. Or, perhaps they’d like to help their K-12 students’ ability to sight read music, so they develop a research-based curriculum that will allow them to systematically teach this skill. These are just a couple of examples of capstone topics, which are limited only by the UF student’s interests and creativity.

The Capstone Can Broaden Your Perspective

While the capstone topic aligns with a student’s interests, it can also serve as a catalyst for them to step outside their comfort zone and broaden their perspective of music education. This matches one of the key goals of the UF School of Music’s approach to education.

“Students get to step outside the boxes they’ve initially put themselves in, where they’ve limited themselves by believing there are only certain prescribed ways to approach music teaching,” Dr. Sheridan said. “They learn there is not one single way to approach teaching.”

“For instance, some become interested in informal music-making or modern band,” she explained. “Or they start to focus more on ways to incorporate creativity, improvisation and composition in the ensemble setting. Through their coursework and highlighted by the capstone, they develop a more well-rounded approach to teaching music.”

How the Capstone Format Matches Your Career Goals

Students not only get to select the capstone topic, but they also get to determine the approach that best suits their requirements, with the guidance of a faculty advisor.

While some students might prefer researching a topic and presenting their findings in a paper, others may choose a practical approach that involves breaking down a teaching process and developing a new curriculum plan. Ultimately, the format is based on what is most useful for their future. Past students have undertaken projects such as:

  • Literature review or research study
    • Students who are interested in the “why” of a topic might choose to do a critical analysis of current knowledge or conduct original research. For students who want to go on to pursue a PhD or other post-graduate education, completing a research-based capstone preps them to undertake future academic projects like a dissertation.
  • Curriculum project
    • In this project, a student revises their own curriculum or unit plan; or designs a new curriculum or unit plan based around a learning goal or subject area. This is a great way to combine professional development with making a direct impact: “I’ve seen students use a curriculum project to revise their district’s music education curriculum,” said Dr. Sheridan. “In this way, the capstone can lead students to make a broad impact in their communities.”
  • E-portfolio
    • The e-portfolio capstone is a digital collection of examples that show a students’ best work, reflections on their learning experiences, and evidence of their growth throughout the degree. This platform is an excellent way for students to reflect on how the degree program impacted them as a teacher, scholar, and musician.

These are just some of the ways that MMME students structure their capstone projects. Keep in mind that this is not a definitive or official list; master’s students will work closely with a UF School of Music faculty advisor to develop their individualized capstone plan.

More Benefits: Professional Growth, Presentation Skills, and Networking

Even once a student puts the finishing touches on their capstone project, there are still more opportunities for professional growth. UF students have presented their projects at conferences and symposia, where they get to showcase their findings to a wide audience while building presentation and communication skills. You can see examples of these presentations on our student success stories page. Other students have had their capstone studies published in professional journals.

These events also provide a meaningful way to contribute to music education and a chance to network with other professionals in the field, potentially leading to future collaborations. By sharing their insights with wider audiences, UF’s music education students can help their fellow teachers find fresh and creative ways to inspire in their students a deep appreciation for music.

Four Tips for a Successful Capstone Project

Completing the MMME capstone project requires diligent planning, skill development, and dedicated effort, as it is a significant task to complete. To help ensure success, consider these tips:

  1. 1. Create a timeline and stick to it.

A timeline is crucial. It keeps you on track and prevents a last-minute rush to meet deadlines. A well-planned timeline can also reduce the “what should I be doing now?” moments. Plus, it can be a powerful motivator, as it’s a visual reminder of the progress you’re making.

Make sure to tell your advisor about your timeline and update them about any changes. Consistent communication is key: regular check-in moments can keep you accountable while ensuring that you and your advisor remain on the same page throughout the process. Plus, if you send smaller pieces of your project periodically, your advisor has more chances to give you quality feedback, and you have more time to improve your work in response.

“Students who do not let a week go by without working on their capstone tend to be the ones that develop really strong capstone projects,” Dr. Sheridan said. “They’re a lot less stressed because they can see they are making regular progress.”

  1. 2. Start thinking about your capstone when you start the music master’s program.

While you don’t need to start writing or researching on day one of your degree, you should start thinking about your capstone early on. Note what subjects or discussions interest you in your classes. Track the skills you are developing and highlight any that spark your enthusiasm. The more the capstone matches your interests, the more you are going to be excited about working on it.

“The capstone shouldn’t be viewed as a separate assignment, but as an outflow of the work you’ve done,” explained Dr. Sheridan. “A lot of students will take an idea they had in a class and expand it into a capstone project.”

She also noted that many students choose a topic that is personally relevant to them, in addition to being professionally important. “When you personally like what you’re doing, that makes it easier to stick with it,” she said.

  1. 3. Use the many resources provided by the University of Florida

The University of Florida libraries form the largest information resources system in the state of Florida. They offer a wealth of online resources to students, which includes large databases such as JSTOR and WorldCat and more targeted databases such as the Music Periodicals Database, the Performing Arts Periodicals Database, and RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. By the time students begin their capstone, they will be very familiar with accessing and navigating these databases thanks to their prior coursework.

Within the Master of Music in Music Education curriculum itself, two courses can serve as particularly helpful: “Psychology of Music” and “Research in Music Education.” These provide students with experience in conducting literature reviews, conducting research, and drawing conclusions from their own research and the work of others.

  1. 4. Observe other capstone defenses before starting your project.

Each semester, UF School of Music students present their capstone projects live via Zoom, and the online MMME community is invited to both support and actively participate in the presentations.

By watching and participating, newer students can get a sense of the scope of the project, as well as potentially find ideas and inspiration for their own work. Observing the capstone defenses can also provide insights into the expectations of the capstone and how it is assessed.

How a Capstone Elevates UF’s Music Education Program

The online Master of Music in Music Education has been thoughtfully designed so that every class, course, and curriculum step contributes to students’ growth as a musician, educator and scholar. We deliberately chose to include a capstone project so that students could have a rewarding experience that gives them the chance to dig into a topic that interests them and deepens skills that they’ll use throughout their careers.

The capstone is also an opportunity to connect with UF faculty like Dr. Sheridan. The connection you make with faculty during your capstone project — and throughout your time in the music education master’s program — can extend far beyond the capstone and even the completion of your degree. These professional relationships have the potential to become invaluable resources in your professional network, providing ongoing support and guidance as you navigate your career.

About the University of Florida’s Online Master of Music in Music Education

The University of Florida’s online Master of Music in Music Education program is designed to help music educators enhance their abilities as musicians, teachers, and passionate students of one of humanity’s most dynamic modes of creative expression. Exploring both practical and theoretical perspectives, the program, designed and taught by experts in the field, is perfect for current music educators looking to enhance their ability to encourage student engagement with music.

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