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Reaching All Kids Through Music: An Interview with Music Ed Alum Juliana Duenas

student conducting

Juliana conducting her peers at NYU.

Juliana Duenas Lopez, a Music Education alum, realized that she wanted to be a music teacher somewhere in between sixth and seventh grade. Her music teacher at the time was “extremely caring, motivating, and exciting,” said Duenas, and “it just made sense to become a music teacher,” she recalls. 

Duenas graduated with her bachelor’s degree last year and landed her dream job right out of college teaching at a public school in Newark, New Jersey. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, she is teaching completely remotely, a skill she practiced at NYU while student teaching in the spring. 

Duenas was born in Colombia and grew up in Northern New Jersey. Her parents, though not musical themselves, supported her music interests and played Colombian Pop/Rock, American Rock music from the 1960-1980s, and Disney music CDs at home on Sunday mornings. She and her older sister would throw mini-concerts for their parents, sharing a mini-keyboard, and singing into a fake microphone. Duenas and her sister joined their church children's choir and it was there that she became really invested in and excited about singing. 

Duenas learned to love music, especially singing, in her public schools where she took music every week and learned how to play the violin. “Without my school music programs, I don't think I would have fully realized my passion for music and for teaching music,” she remarked. 

Her sister’s college search clued her into NYU, and it soon became Duenas’ top choice. “Juliana was a star from the moment she entered our Music Education program,” noted Dr. Elise Sobol, director of the Music Education program. Duenas received both the Presser Award and Letha Hurd Morgan Awards for her academic excellence. Duenas complemented her Music Education major with a minor in Global and Urban Education in May 2020. In addition to maintaining a near-perfect GPA in her coursework, Duenas took advantage of the many opportunities NYU has to offer. “There really were endless opportunities to make the student experience what YOU wanted it to be,” she observed.

She met top music educators around New York City and was able to observe a variety of schools with different teaching philosophies around the city. Duenas was also on the board of two student clubs, the Student Music Educators of NYU and A Class Act, and she served as a peer mentor/orientation leader and resident assistant. During her sophomore year, Duenas studied abroad in Prague, calling this time in Europe the “highlight of my life.” 

On top of her education classes which taught her how to meet the needs of different learners, she took classes such as Music for Exceptional Children and participated in the Continuing Education in Music Program, where she learned how to work with a wide array of special populations through music. She was trained to help students of all ages with special needs and, as it happens, the school where she is now working has a large number of students with autism, so she is comfortable working with them. “I felt very lucky that I had these classes and could use these experiences to better support my students,” she reflected. 

In addition, Duenas has a special interest in working with English Language Learners (ELL) since she herself is a Spanish speaker who learned English as a child. She knew she wanted to teach at a Title 1 school and luckily was able to land a job at one with a large ELL population. 

In her free time, Duenas enjoys cooking, dancing, and keeping up with education policy, psychology, and sociology. She graciously took some time out of her busy teaching schedule to answer a few questions for us.

Why did you choose NYU’s program in Music Education?

I had my eyes set on NYU's music program since my older sister started visiting colleges. I've always been a pretty independent person, so the idea of actually living in NYC was so exciting to me. It felt like there were endless possibilities. When it came time to apply, I did have other schools I was interested in, but in the end, I knew that if I got into NYU, it would be very hard to convince me to go anywhere else. After being accepted, I attended Weekend on the Square and met the program director and other students who had gotten into NYU Music Ed. I felt such a strong connection to all of them and thought, "This is where I have to be." Well... the rest is history!

student holding guitar

Juliana with her remote teaching setup.

What do you think is special about NYU’s music education program?

The opportunities, for sure! As a student in NYU's Music Education program, you have access to so many things in NYC. One of my favorite things is that we were allowed to observe schools all across the five boroughs of NYC. This provided a unique experience to see a diverse set of classrooms— public, private, charter, magnet, etc. This also allowed us to make connections with some of the best music teachers in NYC and in the country. Another unique thing is that NYU allows you to find your "niche." You can take many classes outside of Music Education that can give you a totally new outlook. You can join many different ensembles, and if you don't like what you see at NYU, there are tons of ensembles you can join in NYC. In other words: you can be MORE and you will want to be more than a music educator.

Another unique aspect is having a study abroad program built into our 4 years. I had the opportunity to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic, and it was the highlight of my life, to be honest. Not only were the professors incredible, but also the experiences that took place outside of the classroom were like no other. I got to travel around Europe for the first time, learn new languages, explore music from many different countries, walk through many of the places we learned about in our Western Music History classes, take part in an internship where we taught English to Czech kids, and more. The best part was that we even had classes specific to Music Education available to us there, so it did not change or affect our four year plans negatively. It was really such a special and memorable experience!

NYU allows you to find your "niche." You can take many classes outside of Music Education that can give you a totally new outlook.

What was the community of music educators like?

Music Education is a family. I mean it! Upperclassmen will take underclassmen under their wing as soon as they step foot on campus. Dr. Sobol, our program director, is like everyone's second mother. It's the best!

How is Covid impacting your work now?

I am 100% remote and have been since September! Surprisingly, I actually feel very lucky that we are virtual. I am happy that I am safe, my students are safe, and that they can fully experience music class from their homes. If we were in person, music class would be very different— no singing, limited movement, no sharing instruments, etc. Instead, I am able to give my students a really worthwhile musical experience online. We get up and move a lot with my Pre-K-3s, and they enjoy a break from staring at their screens. My fourth and fifth graders are doing some awesome online projects where they explore different genres, and since they each have their own devices, they can do so much more in terms of research and exploration. My sixth through eighth graders are doing music production, which also wouldn't be possible if they didn't have access to the internet and their own laptops. I can't wait to be in the classroom when it is safe, but for now, this is my best-case scenario.

Student sitting on fence

Juliana in Prague for her semester abroad.

How can people continue to enjoy making music during these times? 

By doing what musicians usually do— get creative! I've seen some incredible music-making happening virtually on Facebook Live, on TV, and mainly on TikTok. At this time, where live music-making is very limited, it is so cool to see people embracing this change to continue making music. It goes to show that even on the darkest days, the arts are always there for us!

What tips do you have for parents to encourage their kids to study or simply enjoy music?

Expose your kids to a wide variety of music from a young age. Let them make their decisions on what music they connect to the most and want to explore more. Take advantage of music creation apps like Chrome Music Lab and Bandlab to get them excited. Start a conversation with your child's music teacher, or if you don't have one, ask their school administration if hiring a music teacher is possible. Finally, if you want them to study music privately, try to find a teacher who is caring and wants to cultivate that love for music in a child more than simply wanting them to be the best of the best!