By Dawne Belloise
Those sweet notes or beats emanating from your child’s instrument very well could be the result of having Amanda Cook as their school music teacher. Amanda has been the maestro to young musicians at CBCS since she arrived in the valley in 2008 from San Francisco where she was a freelance percussionist. She came to Gunnison as a candidate for an adjunct percussion instructor position at Western State College (WSC, but now Western Colorado University). In the Bay Area, Amanda was playing part-time with the Santa Cruz Symphony while flying all over the country for auditions. And she notes that in the competitive world of music, men were always getting the jobs. “The union makes it a blind audition, women couldn’t wear high heels so the judges, who were behind a screen, couldn’t hear their high heels clicking on the floor,” Amanda explains. “There was a lot of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the time, we women tried to take it as a joke, but it eats away at you. It was definitely a man’s clique.”
Having played the Aspen Music Festival in both 2001 and 2004 and also with the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge in 2006, Amanda had fallen in love with Colorado. “I mean, you come out once and you’re like, I need to be here.” She was already driving to Tahoe from San Francisco any chance she got to go snowboarding. “My family did ski vacations to Devil’s Head, Wisconsin, from the time I was 10 years old. It was more like a bump than a mountain,” she laughs. Although Amanda confesses that she was a “naughty teenager,” she was completely focused on music and took every music class possible.
Amanda started playing piano at the age of three. She was playing drums by the time she was 10 because, in fifth grade she tells, “Everyone wanted to play drums so I chose trumpet, but one of the drummers was not understanding drums. I had been reading music for seven years having done Suzuki from the time I was 5. To audition, I had to play Twinkle Twinkle on the glockenspiel,” and she aced it, thereby passing that audition. But what really kicked it for her determination was when a young boy classmate declared to her that “girls don’t play drums.”
After high school graduation in 1998, Amanda attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and received her undergraduate degree in percussion performance, and then her masters in the same discipline from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2004. One day while freelancing in the Bay Area, she decided that the money was too unpredictable and San Francisco was too expensive. “I had married friends who were having to live with several roommates,” she says of the lack of affordability. “I knew someday I wanted to own a home and have kids and it didn’t seem like it was going to happen there, so I started looking for college jobs to teach percussion. I started my search in Colorado. I didn’t want to be on the Front Range, I wanted to be in a ski town. I knew that my experience could be utilized the most in a small town. I was also obsessed with the mountains. I’ve never been an ocean person. I just have to be near the mountains. There’s something freeing about them.”
She stumbled upon WSC, which was looking for an adjunct percussion instructor. She flew out from San Francisco in the spring of 2008, skied CB for the first time and accepted the part-time adjunct position. After seeing Crested Butte, she knew she wanted to live at the north end of the valley and chose CB South. As a second job, Amanda initially started working for Alpengardener in the summer of 2008. Then, three weeks before the school year began, she saw a “desperately-needed” ad for a half-time middle school band instructor at CBCS. “I had never taught band and I had never played the majority of those instruments,” she mused and added, “but they were desperate at that point.” She was able to work the schedules between WSC and CBCS, which totaled to a full-time job. “I took a clarinet, sax, flute and a trombone home to learn them in three weeks,” recalls Amanda. She got halfway through the method books on all of them before she had to start classes. “But I’ve always had an easy time at picking up a new instrument and learning it, and I’m still learning new instruments.” Her current new thing is electric bass guitar and she’s rocking out to the classics using an online program called Yousician. ”Sometimes it’s pop songs, sometimes it’s technical warm ups.” Amanda was also a member of the very popular local band Doctor Robert which performed Beatles cover tunes. She quit the band when she became pregnant.
Amanda married Peter Cook in 2011 and had their first son Henry that year. Their second son, Kieran, came along in 2014. She took several years off from teaching to be a full-time mom. The couple went their separate ways in 2018, but still coparent. Reflecting on her life back then, Amanda says she’ll be celebrating five years of sobriety this summer and is very active in the recovery community, “I take a lot of pride and joy in that.”
During those first six years off from teaching while raising her sons, Amanda played piano at UCC and taught private lessons. In 2020, she was hired to teach elementary general music at CBCS, which she’s still doing today. She loves kids and says, “Having been inspired by many teachers in my youth, I wanted to give that back.” Her own kids are, of course, musicians as well. “They both play piano. I can’t teach my own kids though, I’ve tried,” she laughs. “There’s that factor of they’re not going to work hard for a certain deadline for me. They also know more than I do. When they reached 6 years old they were telling me, ‘Mom I already know that.’” Luckily, Karen Janssen teaches Amanda’s sons.
These days, Amanda also teaches ukulele to fourth and fifth graders during the school year. She’s proud of her given moniker, “Cool T,” a nickname given to her by her secondary students and derived from her maiden name, Thompson.
In the summers, you can find Amanda behind the wheel of Dolly’s Shuttles, schlepping tourists and hikers around this paradise. “I really enjoy it because you get to meet new people, plus, I get to sit, as basic as that sounds, I’ve not been able to sit down very much,” she laughs. She’s also embarking on a new and exciting experience this summer as she kicks off her one-week music class called Miss Amanda’s School of Rock at the CB Center for the Arts. The workshops are July 24-28 with a morning session 9 a.m. to noon for upcoming grades 3 through 5. There are afternoon sessions from 1-4 p.m. for upcoming grades 6 though 9. “I’m giving instruction on guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and vocals. Ben Wright and Karen Janssen will be assisting for a couple of days.”
“I really have a lot of pride about our town, we’re special and unique and everybody knows it, but when you teach in the schools and get to know the children, the connection runs very deep,” she says. “I’m heavily invested in making my students well-rounded people and introducing them to new and difficult things.” Amanda feels strongly that there is no such thing as being bad at music. “People say to me that they’re just bad at music, but they never tried and they’ve never been given patience in instruction, where they’re given time and space to move at their own ability. I believe that early exposure to listening and dancing is important, like from the time they’re a toddler, however, anyone at any age can learn to play an instrument or sing.” She laughs that her vocal tone is nothing spectacular, but it does help kids to feel comfortable and take risks with music, which she encourages.
Most of all, Amanda is grateful for her two boys. “They keep me humble,” she smiles, even though her oldest son reminds her that, “You’re not just a regular mom, you’re a cool mom,” and she smiles, “He says it with a hint of sarcasm, like from the movie Mean Girls.”