This entry is part 9 of 29 in the series Fall - 2016


by Tony Phifer

As a child, Denise Favela Apodaca might have been voted “student least likely to become a teacher.” Her teachers were anything but kind, calling her “dumb” and labeling her as special needs.

To say she proved them wrong would be a colossal understatement.

“Spanish was my first language, and when I got to grade school I spoke my own language – a combination of Spanish and English,” she said. “My teachers were very cruel, and thought I was on the autism scale. I became very withdrawn – until I found my voice in music.”

A gifted pianist, Apodaca began performing at age 6 at community events and festivals near her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and in Mexico, where she spent summers with her father’s relatives. She blossomed musically, academically, and socially.

“I wanted to prove I wasn’t dumb,” she said. “It was a very different time. Today, we figure out why kids struggle, but not then.”

Apodaca started teaching piano at age 15 and quickly discovered that her passion for connecting with students was even greater than her love of the keyboard. She went on to earn a bachelor of arts in piano performance from UC-Santa Barbara and two master’s degrees in piano from Northwestern University.

“It is a great honor and privilege to teach,” she said. “I never want to forget that.”

Apodaca was honored this spring by the CSU Alumni Association as one of six “Best Teachers” at the University. Her commitment to establishing a personal connection with each of her students – Apodaca teaches music appreciation to three classes of 200-plus students each semester – endears her to students, who receive regular personal e-mails from her.

“I truly love teaching and getting to know these beautiful students,” she said. “I have a connection with every aspect of their lives at this University – from the first day of class, when everything is huge and overwhelming, to the end of the semester when everything is smaller and more connected.”

This spring, Apodaca also learned that she has been named a quarterfinalist for the 2017 Music Educator Award presented by The Recording Academy and GRAMMY Foundation. More than 3,300 teachers across the country, from kindergarten to college, were nominated, and she is one of 290 still in the running for the award. She’ll learn this fall if she advances to the next stage.

“No matter what happens, I can always say I am a GRAMMY nominee,” she said, smiling.

Not bad for someone who, considering her early educational experience, has no logical reason to be a teacher. Who’s the “dumb” one now?