100 Colorado Creatives: Michael Stanwood

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It might be the oldest news around, but public schools are really broke. Denver Public Schools alone is facing $332 million in budget cuts this year -- which means that already watered-down 'nonessential' programs will be further starved of funding or cut altogether. The arts, as usual, die first.

Michael Stanwood identifies his work as compensation for this. When education is stripped of the classes that foster creative thinking, Stanwood believes, it is incomplete. "It's the arts," he says, "that make it an integrated learning process." So, Stanwood teaches music and songwriting workshops in collaboration with Think360 Arts, a nonprofit devoted to supplementing art-related classes in underfunded schools.

Think360 Arts was the product of a merger between two other nonprofits, Young Audiences of Colorado and the Colorado Alliance for Arts Education. Counting his work with Young Audiences, Stanwood has been involved in this community in some capacity for more than twenty years. "The idea is basically incorporating the arts, even the senses, into learning," he says. "My main focus has always been to write songs, to put into music what students are studying. I was a songwriter and love empowering kids through music. We learn our ABCs growing up with a melody. I know I often remember things by singing them."

So music, as Stanwood sees it, doesn't just promote the independent thought processes essential to critical thinking; it can also reinforce education in other areas. He applies songwriting to literature, to history, even to the cold, no-nonsense wasteland of the maths and sciences. "If they're taking a subject matter like geometry," he explains, "I'll have them explore different ways of saying the word, or use different sounds in the classroom to get a rhythm or a beat, and then we start brainstorming, thinking about geometry, I'll ask them where do you see geometry in your life. It's personalizing the subject matter, but as well as that, it's totally involved with the melody and the rhythm that come out of the school environment."

In that sense, it's also about play. Kids learn more, after all, when they're also having fun.

Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why? Stanwood: I don't know why I say this, but the first thing that came to my mind was Ben Franklin. We actually wrote a song in a class I taught ten or fifteen years ago about Ben Franklin's inventions. He was an incredible harmonics and glass creator; he could play whole orchestral pieces on glasses. He was into everything from streetlights to daylight saving time. His mind was all over the place.

Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why? I think anyone who's trying to bring people together, either through music or through politics, conducting communication, talk. I'm a great Obama fan. I'd love to be able to serve and help him in any way, through music, through however.

What's one art trend you want to see die this year? It's most the acknowledgement and the respect of the role of the arts in education, and how they can serve, rather than taking away money based on test scores and things. There are studies out there that schools that have the arts have higher scores. It's a tough tough time all over the world right now, financially. Maybe we've just got to get through this to get to the other side. I would say just being able to honor and to value to importance of the arts in education. I hate the idea that studies are based on testing.

A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it? I would be traveling around the world, playing music in every culture I could find. I used to travel with the state department -- I was a musical goodwill ambassador -- and I saw a lot of different music, a lot of different instruments. I like to expose kids to different styles of music, different instruments from around the world.

What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could better do to help the arts? Money, money, money. I think respect, for one thing, for what Think360 is trying to do, and their message. It's the money cutbacks that make things difficult. But there are parents out there that know the value of the arts; often its parent/teacher associations that bring the arts back into education.

What's your favorite way to waste time? Oh, I love playing music, and I love baseball games. I love watching baseball. I love to read. Any of those things. I also do a lot of photography. My thing lately has been shooting clouds.

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