HIGH NOTE: Local school voted best in nation by industry group

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CENTENNIAL | Just nine days after moving into a new building, the Colorado Music Institute celebrated another milestone — being named national music school of the year.

The award was given by the Music Academy Success System, a trade association for music academies across North America that currently has around 300 members. 

Wendy Cottingham, owner and managing director of the institute, said it was an honor to bring the award home to the Denver area.

“Music for us is all about joy,” she said Wednesday at an award ceremony and ribbon cutting.

Originally opened as the Colorado Drum Institute in 1996, the school gradually increased the number of instruments it taught over the years, most recently adding a woodwind and brass section. In 2012 it was purchased by the Cottingham family, and has continued to grow.

The school has moved locations several times, and was most recently in the Southfield Center off of East Arapahoe Road and South Peoria Street. At the end of November it moved just a mile down the road to an office park on East Caley Avenue. 

The new building is more than twice the size of its last space, and has allowed the school to increase from 17 teaching rooms to 24 individual teaching rooms, three group rooms and a recital space.

Even with the bigger space, the institute’s spots are already entirely full on Mondays.

“Our motto is, what a wonderful problem to have,” said manager Emily Wangler.

Each room has a video camera that records onto a monitor in the school’s lobby, so that parents can watch their students’ lessons while still giving them some space. The school also has a recording studio that can plug in to any teaching room in the building.

Along with hosting the school’s own events, the recital space is being used by the Arapahoe Philharmonic for its practices. The group rooms include one room lined wall-to-wall with electronic keyboards for group piano lessons and another room used for a preschool music class.

“It’s a great option for people who call and say ‘my three year old loves music, can he play the trumpet?’” Wangler said.

The school has grown dramatically in the past few years. In March 2020 it had 450 students, and around 100 left once the pandemic started. It built its way back since then, and is currently just shy of 1,000 students.

Wangler credited the school’s growth to its inclusive and friendly atmosphere and the talent of its teachers, some of whom have been with the school for over a decade.

“Everyone has an influential teacher in their lives and I think we have some of those here,” she said.

Marty Fort, CEO of the Music Academy Success System, said the award is in its 15th year and is chosen by the organization’s members, who this year gathered at Graceland to hear presentations from the finalists and vote on a winner. He said that Cottingham’s passion is what made her stand out.

“Wendy has a high standard for excellence,” he said.

At the ceremony, a brass quintet performed a rendition of “America the Beautiful” in observance of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. Fort then presented the school with a check for $1,000 and a trophy. Centennial mayor Stephanie Piko and Alejandra Garza, a representative from the office of Congressman Jason Crow (D-Centennial) congratulated the school on their contributions to the community.

Garza read a declaration that Crow delivered in Washington, D.C. on the floor of the house commending the school, and spoke about how important learning music can be for young people, who in today’s tech-saturated world have fewer opportunities to create things with their own hands. 

“There is nothing like it coming from a place in your heart,” she said.

Jackson Kastens, 17, has been playing the piano for about 12 years and became a student at the institute in the winter of 2019. He also composes music for multiple instruments, and said that since coming to the institute he’s seen both his piano and his composing skills improve.

“I’ve really seen this school grow,” he said. “It’s really cool.”

His teacher, Kerry Cottingham, has been with the school since the 2000s. In 2012 she and her family purchased the school when the former owner, a friend, expressed a desire to move out of state and asked if they were interested. It’s been incredible to watch the school’s growth in the ensuing decade, she said.

“I just walk around with my mouth open” looking at the new space, she said. “It’s amazing.”

One of her students, however, she visits at home. Earlier this year the school was contacted by Wish of a Lifetime, an organization that works to grant wishes of senior citizens. A local woman in her 90s used to play piano. She was recovering from a stroke and could only partially move her left hand, but it was her dream to take another lesson.

Cottingham volunteered to give her a lesson and now donates her time to teach her every other week. One week, the woman was discouraged because she couldn’t play a piece with the limited motion in her left hand. Cottingham rewrote the sheet music so she could play with only nine fingers and she was so excited.

“That’s why I teach,” she said.

Bill Travis, who teaches drums, has been with the school for 20 years. Some of his students started taking lessons with him when they were just four or five years old and continued until they went away to college. A few have even gone on to pursue music as a career.

“I want to be their roadie,” he said with a laugh.

The school had some rough patches in the years after the recession and during the pandemic, but he said he currently has more students than ever. In a place as expensive as the Denver area is becoming, he said it’s “amazing” to be able to make a living as a music teacher.

James Nelson, who teaches drums, guitar and bass and runs the school’s recording studio, has been with CMI for 18 years. He described the school as “a place you want to keep working at” and is excited about the opportunities the new building offers.

“It really hasn’t sunk in how much greater the potential will be to do what we do,” he said.

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