It is often said not all heroes wear capes, and that certainly rings true for some students at Arvada West High School — 340 choir students to be exact.
Their hero comes in the form of Chris Maunu, the school’s longtime head choral director — tall, blond and sharing a passion for music.
Maunu is celebrating his 12th year at the Arvada high school, and the school is celebrating him for a prestigious, recent achievement.
Maunu was named one of 25 semi-finalists from across the country for the 2018 Grammy Music Educator Award. This award, courtesy of the Grammy in the Schools program, honors the idea that behind every musician who is handed a Grammy for their achievements in the industry stands a music teacher who helped them get there.
“What’s so cool about it is everybody on that stage (at the Grammy ceremony) was inspired by somebody along the lines. It’s so great that the Grammys brings music education to the national stage,” Maunu said.
Maunu is one of only two music teachers in this year’s lineup from Colorado. (The other Colorado nominee is Kate Margrave, who teaches at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs.) Nominees are selected from schools across the U.S., kindergarten to college, private and public.
Ten finalists will be selected in December, and the winner will be named in January. The grand prize includes $10,000 for the winning teacher’s school, $10,000 for personal use and a trip to New York to attend the 60th Grammy Awards ceremony. Each semi-finalist receives a $500 honorarium, and the other nine finalists will receive $1,000 each.
Staff members and students at Arvada West can’t think of any reason Maunu doesn’t deserve the grand prize.
“I can’t imagine anybody being better than this around the U.S. We’re just so lucky to have him,” said senior Victoria McCollum, who has been one of Maunu’s students since her freshman year. She spends as much time in the choir room as her schedule will allow, often seeing Maunu for a few classes a day.
Principal Robert Bishop said he realized just how gifted his choral director is after witnessing the school’s mixed ensemble vocal showcase choir perform in Minnesota this year at the national American Choral Directors Association showcase — which Maunu describes as the most prestigious choir event in the U.S. The students sang next to choirs from around the world, including Europe, Asia and South America.
“Directors would come up to him and say, ‘How are you getting your kids to do this? It was absolutely wonderful,'” Bishop said of attending the event. “I found out just how good our kids really are, and it’s because of Chris. So when he made top 25 (for the award) this year — no surprise at all.”
Bishop said Arvada West has made a name for itself in the performing arts. The 1,763-student school has the largest choir program in the Jefferson County School District and is among the largest in the state, Maunu said.
This is a source of pride for both Maunu and Bishop, who want students to be proud to be choir members.
“(When I was) in high school, the cool thing to do was play sports,” Maunu said. “So I felt pressure to play sports to be a part of the cool crowd. I did music, but I had to play sports to compensate for that. So when I joined (choir) in college and saw what a really good music program could be, I wanted to give that to young people and give high school students the experience that I did not have in high school.
“It’s really my goal to make sure my students are proud to be in choir — they don’t have to apologize for that.”
Maunu’s students say if that’s his goal, he’s achieved it.
“(Choir) changed my entire life around, because I was certain I was going to go (to college for) business or something, but I’m majoring in music theater now,” senior Ian Rowzee said. “Such a big part of high school is trying to figure out who you are, and he helps with that journey so much.”
When asked to describe his rapport with students, Maunu chose one word: vulnerability.
“A lot of what’s in my philosophy of teaching is being an authentic, vulnerable person — doing what I can every day to show them my most authentic self,” he said.
Staff and students used words like “humble” and “mild-mannered” to describe Maunu, and it’s easy to see why. When asked about his Grammy nomination, he said he simply feels honored to be listed among so many “awesome teachers.”
“Mr. Maunu has inspired me more than anybody else through the music he has given me, and if I were to remove that, I think I’d fall apart,” McCollum said of her choir director.
The whole school appears to have fingers crossed for Maunu’s success. But in Maunu’s eyes, it seems he’s already won.
“I’d be happy being right here for the next 30 years,” Maunu said. “It’s the best job I can possibly imagine.”