Phuong Nguyen has built a classroom culture around high standards and making music fun

Dai-Phuong Nguyen (B.M.E. '01, M.M.E. '08) is a perfectionist as a performer of multiple instruments and genres and a music educator. He has created a classroom environment that balances high standards, curiosity, and interactive play.

His range of musical interests is comparable to his many life interests and the multiple majors he had in his undergraduate degree, making him the well-rounded person he is now.

Dia-Phuong Nguyen CMEA
Dia-Phuong Nguyen directs Boltz Middle School Jazz Band at the 2024 CMEA Clinic Conference.

As a student who went from a natural sciences major to a philosophy major to semiconductor manufacturing, he realized at 21 that he was meant to study music education at Colorado State University.

"Because I was older, I had a different and wiser perspective," Nguyen said. "And it made me want to be successful at music because I wasn't successful at the other things, and I didn't like any of them. And so, by the time I got to music, I was like, this is it. You know, this is where I need to firmly finish."

Immersed in the process

If you have ever talked to Nguyen about learning a new instrument, he is a proponent of putting in thousands of hours of practice and playing in an ensemble. He believes complete immersion is the best way to push your expertise, like learning a language by moving to another country. This is rooted in his experiences of fluently learning brass and woodwind instruments.

While in the CSU Marching Band, a classmate recruited him into the mellophone section, even though he had never previously touched a brass instrument.

"I'm one of those people who have real serious anxiety about people hearing me play and it not sounding good," Nguyen said. "So, I practiced that whole week. And by the end, I was like, I think I can do this. I had the fundamentals down and it was enough to get me started. The next semester, I asked if I could play trumpet, so I switched, and I mean, the rest is history. That's why my brass chops are just about as strong as my woodwind chops – because I immersed myself."

This work ethic does not come without giving grace. Nguyen realizes that teachers must start somewhere, especially with unfamiliar genres. He believes that teachers can pursue new or different ensembles like mariachi or modern band by applying the same important pillars they would use to produce any ensemble that sounds good. Again, he recommends another type of immersive experience: on-the-job training.

"My high school band director is why I teach band today," said Nguyen about his beloved teacher, who has since passed away. "He was also my jazz band teacher, and he didn't know anything about jazz; he had no idea, and yet we would go to jazz festivals and win them. He didn't know how to teach jazz, but he knew how to teach band. He knew how to make kids sound good. So regardless, we would sound good walking in there because we knew our fundamentals. We could play the music. We could do the articulations. We could play the dynamics. And it sounded great regardless."

From the garage to the stage to the classroom

Nguyen's program at Boltz Middle School includes jazz, modern, and concert bands. Jazz and classical were familiar territory because of his exposure throughout high school and college, but his experience in modern band started independently.

"When I was a kid in high school, we put a band together...you know, a bunch of friends and I hung out in his garage. Of course it was in a garage because it was the 80s," he laughed! "And in Austin too, you know, the live music capital of the world."

12 Cents for Marvin at FoCoMX
12 Cents for Marvin at FoCoMX

Nguyen plays in Fort Collins Wind Symphony, 12 Cents for Marvin, Choice City Seven, and Fort Collins Jazz Friends. These groups keep him maintaining a high level of musical product as a professional musician.

In 2024, Nguyen's jazz ensemble performed at the annual Colorado Music Educators Association conference, and he presented on "How to Have Fun and Still Get Work Done." His biggest pet peeve is showing movies during class, even when there is a substitute, or on 'fun days.' Instead, Nguyen has musical games where he tricks students into learning. This includes anything from Scale Olympics, Musical Jeopardy, rhythm games, and guessing soundtracks.

Along with making music fun, Nguyen teaches excellence by building a student culture of high standards and showing his genuine enthusiasm and character, which he says is crucial to student motivation.

"I think I'm effective as a teacher because I show a lot of my personality with the kids," Nguyen said. "And I need to tell you, man, the best programs I've seen in this state are ones where the kids really buy into the teacher. They know the teacher, they love the teacher, they get into the teacher's vibe."

A belief in CSU

Nguyen says he owes much of his success as a director to his time at CSU and suggests that any students who want to pursue a music career apply to the university.

Nguyen walks the talk, giving back by assisting his alma mater in two 300-level music education courses through the Boltz Music Lab. The lab provides aspiring teachers a hands-on opportunity to work and learn in with Nguyen, choir director and fellow CSU alum Chris Thompson (B.M.E. ’01), and orchestra director Melissa Claeys.

"I think one of the reasons why I'm so proud and got such a good education from CSU is because I always felt welcome. I always felt like I could be successful at CSU, and I never felt the pressure that maybe some of the other schools instill in their culture. CSU was never like that for me. I learned from some great professors and some great human beings.

Whenever kids come and talk to me and say, Mr. Nguyen, I'm thinking about studying music someday, I always tell them to go to CSU. Yeah, it's the best school in the state. It really is."