20 May 2011
TELLING SToRIES, SINGING SoNGS
Stuart Stotts of Local 166 (Madison, WI) uses music to make a difference in the lives of children across the country. Third grader Stuart Stotts hurried down the stairs on Christmas morning delighted to spot a pawnshop guitar nestled under the tree. Soon after, Stotts and his friend began enthusiastically taking lessons from a local student. It wasn't long before the duo was performing publicly, playing at an Easter pancake breakfast, and other church gatherings. Having fallen in love with music at such a young age, Stotts went on to devote his life to instilling the same musical passion in children across the country. The Local 166 (Madison, WI) member really began to understand the important role that music played in his life while attending Evergreen College in Washington, where he studied piano and music theory and development. After graduation, Stotts moved to Wisconsin and found work at a farmhouse -living cheaply, and spending his days working outside, while devoting his nights to writing music and lyrics, and playing the guitar. He also began performing regularly, and at the suggestion of friends, took his first gig playing at a school. It was then that he realized that performing for kids, engaging with them through music, inspired and excited him enormously. "You can get a lot more energy from kids than you can get from the average symphony crowd," he laughs, explaining one of the effervescent joys of working with children. "Instead of just sitting there and applauding politely at the end, the kids are singing with you, they're laughing and dancing. It's great." Stotts' career has since flourished as the importance of musical experiences for children has become more apparent. Within the last 20 years, much has been learned about the way the brain works, and research relating early brain development and music have assured Stotts of the importance of his work. "One of the very best things that you can do with young children is to sing with them, expose them to music, and involve them in music making activities," Stotts says. "It's one of the best things that you can do for the brain that will have implications for the rest of a child's life." When Stott performs he also weaves storytelling into his musical routine, enthusiastically imparting ancient folktales or mysterious ghost stories that keep the children at the edge of their seats. Additionally, Stotts has expanded his musical mission to include, alongside his own work with children, showing teachers how to incorporate music into their classrooms on a regular basis. He's an educational troubadour trekking across the country: singing, strumming, telling, teaching, and inspiring. He has presented for schools, community events and conferences, spoken at many educational training sessions, and has been named a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. On top of all that, Stotts is an author. He has written a handful of books, many of which feature musical themes or connections. He recently won a 2011 ALA Notable Children's Book award for his book We Shall Overcome: A Song that Changed the World. Winning the award is one of his proudest achievements, and Stotts describes the book as a "biography of the song" that explores its long, interesting journey of evolvement, as well as the influence that it's had on human history. But whether he's writing books or music, Stotts says that one of the biggest challenges of working in his field is keeping his music creatively fresh. "To keep paying attention to learning new things," he says, "Experiencing new kinds of music, not just falling back on what you know-that's the challenge, and also the joy, of doing this kind of work." For this steady stream of creativity, Stotts often receives inspiration from the kids that he sings with. Watching their reactions and excitement has given him ideas for future songs, and motivates him to always strive for self-improvement. "I'm constantly reminded of the fact that music, at its heart, is supposed to be fun, and that we make music because we love it," he says. "That's what makes a great musician, someone who can connect to what's fun and good about music." Stotts first joined the AFM about 20 years ago, and has appreciated his union membership ever since. Besides the concrete benefits that he receives from the AFM's instrument insurance, Stotts says that the very idea of the union satisfies him as well. The fact that people are working collectively on behalf of those who are making music pleases Stotts because he believes that music is an integral part of life. "I just feel that everybody ought to have some way to experience making music on a regular basis, because it just makes us happier," he says. "People need that creative time to just let loose."