Jenni Sonstroem


Jenni Sonstroem

School & School System Where You Work

Apex Friendship Elementary School, Wake County Public Schools

Number of Years Teaching


Teaching Area(s)

Chorus & Elementary Music

Grade Level

Elementary School

What do you love most about teaching music?

One of the things I love most about teaching elementary music is learning about my students’ interests and abilities and watching their faces light up when they are making music with their peers – whether it’s singing, playing an instrument, small group work or composing. Their joy brings me joy!

Who inspired you to be a music educator and how did they inspire you?

I have had many inspiring arts teachers – starting from dance as a preschooler to piano at age six, band and visual art in middle and high school, college at UNCG and master’s in jazz piano at ECU. The arts are so interconnected. Each of my teachers made an impact and gave me a well-rounded understanding of what it is to be an arts educator. I learned about passion and discipline, opportunities for travel, self-expression, and the power of working collaboratively with others. John Phillips, Eleanor Nesbitt, Constance Kotis, Gina Hill, Brad Sparks, John Brown, Thomas Taylor, Dr. John Salmon, Dr. Eric Charry, Dr. Cullen Strawn, Sandy Blocker, Beverly Botsford, Drissa Kone, Keletigui Diabate, Carroll Dashiell, Beth Ulffers, Sharon Allen, and Barney Barker have been the most influential in my life. This year, I helped open the new Apex Friendship Elementary School. My sister, Dr. Heather Duvall, is the middle school band director at Apex Friendship Middle School. She has been an inspiration and a mentor to me throughout my life.

What did you need the most when you started teaching?

I started out teaching at a private school in Asheville, NC. I did not have my teaching certification at that time so I became self-taught and worked with other educators in other subject areas to create a curriculum. It was a highly collaborative school. Years later, in public school, I continued to seek out excellent mentors and resources to build my music program. I was fortunate to have fantastic mentors. So I dug right into writing grants, seeking funding and creating resources and opportunities for students.

Describe the biggest challenge to teaching music education and how you have worked to overcome this challenge?

(The lack of) resources was one of the biggest challenges when I started teaching general music in public schools. My classroom was in a mobile unit at a middle school in eastern North Carolina that had outdated textbooks and a box of broken instruments. I soon started bucket drumming with my students and wrote grants for more resources. I made a partnership with Ed Jacobs, ECU composition professor, to establish the “Composers in Schools” program. When I opened Laurel Park Elementary School in Wake County in 2008, we worked for several years to be able to purchase a Yamaha Music In Education piano keyboard lab worth over $30,000 for all K-5 students. Over the years, I have received many grants. I recently received a second Bright Ideas grant for ukuleles and tubanos for my new classroom.

How do you advocate for your program?

I am a vocal advocate of arts education because I’ve seen the incredibly positive impact participation in the arts has on quality of life starting at birth. Music is a universal language that is spoken all over the world. It connects us to each other. It aids memory, coordination, cognitive abilities, emotional expression, and overall well-being. I have studied music in Mali, West Africa, and I have traveled to 5 continents, in part because of the opportunities music has given me. My experiences have led me to fully witness the power of music in so many lives. During a time of potential cuts to arts programming in our state, I wrote op-eds, went to the North Carolina General Assembly, met with representatives, and was interviewed by a local TV station. I continue to be involved with the North Carolina Symphony Education Concert programs, having been an author/presenter twice. UNC-TV featured our music classroom a few years ago, giving students a starring role in demonstrating their knowledge and excitement for this annual 4th-grade field trip. They got to play their recorders in Meymandi Hall! I work with our PTA to plan an All Arts Night at our school. Each year, I have worked with the United Arts Council to bring in local artists in residence to provide a variety of hands-on professional experiences for my students. In 2014, we became a Quaver Music pilot school. During the 2020 pandemic, I worked closely with Quaver Ed and Wake County Arts Coordinators to help adopt the Quaver Music curriculum for our district, which we still use today. I was interviewed for a “Teacher’s Voices” article for Quaver Ed in 2021. My chorus has sung for community events, including being invited by our mayor to sing at a Town Hall meeting. I am currently serving as an Elementary Music Staff Development co-chair for Wake County Public Schools.

What is one piece of advice you would give to beginning teachers?

I would advise a beginning teacher to seek out as much help as you need. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It is ok not to know. You have to start somewhere. It takes at least five years to really begin to understand what works best for your students. One of the joys of teaching is that you are always learning. And keep going – it gets easier over time and your confidence will grow. National Board certification is a career-builder.

How do you build relationships with students and parents?

I build relationships with my students and their families by always welcoming them into my classroom space, starting at the beginning of the year. My classroom is nurturing, warm, fun, and engaging. I encourage my students with positive reinforcement and create a growth mindset environment where it is ok to make mistakes. Effort is most important and if you haven’t learned it yet, keep trying. I give out individual recognitions. My hope is that students carry that joy of music-making home and share what they are learning with their families. I keep my website up-to-date and communicate via our school newsletter. I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone if there’s a question. I find reaching out and being available for a chat works well to maintain a healthy relationship and positive interactions.