Music seems to have woven its way through every stage of Jennifer Wickland’s life.
From weekly hour-long trips to Calgary for piano lessons as a child to teaching piano now at North Valley Music School — it’s a dream come true.
“I’m surrounded by music, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
Wickland and the rest of the North Valley Music School staff are celebrating the school’s 20th anniversary this week.
Growing up in Longview, Alberta, music was a driving force in the home. Her mother, Betty Lou Wambeke, was a pianist and taught private lessons when she wasn’t teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. Every weekend, Wambeke got the kids together, four of them at the time, to make their usual 65-mile trip to Calgary for private lessons. Wickland studied piano while her brothers studied piano and violin. She also studying singing, guitar and flute in high school.
Wambeke moved to Whitefish after having her fifth child, a relocation that would plant the seeds for the music school.
A chance encounter between Wambeke and Betsy Kohnstamm at the post office in 1997 helped both women act on their dreams of starting a nonprofit music school.
“I think that was a lifelong dream for her, to start a community music school,” Wickland said.
Wambeke and Kohnstamm got the school off and running in the basement of the old United Methodist Church, which would later become the Whitefish Independent High School before it moved into the main high school building. The earliest iteration of the school had roughly 75 students and offered private lessons in piano, violin and cello.
From there the school moved to the Presbyterian Church before the board purchased the current building on Spokane Avenue to house the school.
After Wambeke moved to Whitefish, Wickland stayed behind in Edmonton, Alberta to finish her education before studying to become certified as a Suzuki method teacher at Mount Royal Conservatory in Calgary. She also traveled the United States and South Korea playing flute in the Continental Orchestra in 1993.
After a stroke in 2001 left Wambeke unable to continue playing and teaching, Wickland stepped in to take on her mother’s students. Since then she’s worked as a teacher and office manager at the school.
As a teacher, Wickland said her philosophy is about offering an example of how to approach learning or studying anything, not just music.
Every lesson features a warm up, the review of an older piece, work on a new piece and instructions on what to work on in the time until the next lesson.
“It’s like there’s real structure to the lesson, and I feel like the student can bring that home and structure their practice time that way as well. That can bleed into whatever it is they’re doing,” she said. “Anything that you spend 10 minutes to one hour doing every single day, you’re going to improve.”
It’s also fun to watch students progress from the very beginning, she said.
“I see the kids I’ve gotten to teach from Music Together, to graduating and going to college and seeing that whole process, it’s amazing. You get to be that common thread throughout their whole lives and watch them become successful, amazing citizens,” she said.
The school has grown to 300 students.
The school’s success wouldn’t be possible without the strong community involvement it’s seen over the years, Wickland said.
“We’ve gotten along many millions of miles on volunteer hours,” she said. “This community is amazing. There’s no where I’d rather be, as far as being a citizen, teacher, mother, student, friend. I’m excited to be a part of something that I think will be here for the next 50 to 100 years.”
Not unlike the home she grew up in, music is everywhere in her house now, she said. Her husband, Ryan, is a musician, and both her sons, Liam and Nolan, have been learning their instruments since they were 5-years-old.
Just like her mother shuttled Wickland and her brothers back and forth from their lessons, she now too gets to share music with her children in the same way.
“I never wanted to be like my mom,” she said with a laugh, “and now she’s my hero.”