School celebrates 20 years of making music

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  • North Valley Music School is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Sol Holmquist and Nolan Wickland practice at North Valley Music School.

  • North Valley Music School is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Sol Holmquist and Nolan Wickland practice at North Valley Music School.

Quiet and then bursts of music.

A day at North Valley Music School is a full day of learning and exploring music. During the morning, the preschool music class fills the school with sounds of toddlers experiencing music with song and instruments. By afternoon, the school is brimming with students for a full schedule of lessons for piano, violin, guitar, banjo, harp, flute and more, as well as voice lessons and jam sessions.

“There is constant noise,” Deidre Corson, executive director of the school, says. “There’s kids and parents coming and going — it’s loud.”

But for Corson it’s the sounds of students learning music, which means the school is fulfilling its mission to “enrich the community through music education, appreciation, and performance.”

What began as a conversation between Betty Lou Wambeke and Betsy Kohnstamm has grown into an established nonprofit music school that now operates from a remodeled house on Spokane Avenue. North Valley Music School is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. It will host the Montana Music Event on June 16 as a fundraiser and celebration of the milestone.

The two women with a passion for music formed a partnership and gathered some students together for the first chamber music concerts by fall of 1997. They created a nonprofit renting space in the United Methodist Church at Seventh Avenue and Pine Street before eventually moving to space at the Presbyterian Church downtown.

The school continued to grow and in the summer of 2001, due to a donor, the school purchased the home on Spokane Avenue. Donations poured in to upgrade the property and volunteers spent many hours preparing the house for music lessons. The program has continued to expand and add summer music opportunities, early childhood music classes, a children’s choir, expanded guitar and string opportunities and more.

Wambeke’s daughter Jennifer Wickland serves as the school’s office manager and is also a teacher. Wickland, who was in her 20s when the school started, said it’s amazing to look back on the journey that began with a conversation in the U.S. Post Office.

“I had no idea that their vision would become this — or the vision to go on to the next 50 or 100 years,” she said. “The dream that those two women had — I didn’t know what that meant and now I understand the value of what they started — it was a beautiful dream.”

In that first year, because Wambeke brought many of the students she was already teaching with her, the school had 75 students. Today, the school has about 300 students and a waiting list for lessons, and employees 13 faculty members and two administrative staff.

Over the last 20 years, there has been roughly 4,000 students, 14,000 lessons given and more than 600 recitals or community performances as part of the school.

Corson said it’s awesome to think about how many lives have been touched by the music school. She points to several examples including a few students who have returned to serve on the board of directors or as teachers, some who have brought their own children back for lessons, and one famous alumnus Ethan Thompson, who is part of the band Ocean Park Standoff and the single “Good News.”

The school serves students of all ages — about 10 percent of students are adults — through private lessons, group classes and summer camps. Many genres are taught including folk, classical, rock, jazz, bluegrass and Celtic music. The level of instruction ranges from toddlers first exposures to music, to beginning lessons and all the way to students preparing to enter college, or even those looking to learn for the first time or take up an instrument again as an adult.

Terry Nelson joined the school’s board after beginning guitar lessons at the school four years ago. Nelson is a retired educator and executive secretary at Whitefish Lake Golf Club and when he stopped giving golf lessons he was looking to fill his time with something new.

“I think you should always be learning,” Nelson said. “I wanted to challenge my brain and use my hands.”

He said the school’s ability to provide music lessons to students through scholarships is what makes it special. The school has had tremendous growth in the last year, he noted, and hopes to keep growing.

“Twenty years later it’s not only viable, but it’s thriving,” he said.

Corson said the school is truly about enjoying music and the process of learning. Students make mistakes in performances and that’s OK, she notes, because it’s about having a desire to learn, get better and feeling a connection to the music.

“Not everybody wants to do a recital or be a professional musician, but they feel good when they take a piece of music then they learn that,” she said. “It should be about enjoying the music and the process.”

North Valley Music School is supported by the Montana Arts Council, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Whitefish Soroptimist club, Blake Reese Memorial Fund, Cadeau Foundation, and participates in the Great Fish Community Challenge through the Whitefish Community Foundation.

Some of that funding goes toward scholarships for students. Corson said the school is at a point where it doesn’t have to turn away students who can’t pay tuition.

In addition, corporate partners, private donors and volunteers keep the doors open, according to the school.

“There’s endless amounts of volunteers that have helped,” Wickland says.

North Valley Music School will hold the second annual Montana Music Event Friday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at the O’Shaughnessy Center.

The event will look back at the history of the music school, and students, faculty, and alumni will perform along with guest tenor Mike Eldred. Those performing include Griffin and Cindy Browne, Dan Kohnstamm, Don Rees, Donny Rifkin, Deidre Corson, Simone Craft, Marty Anderson, Allie Shors, Addie Woody, Fiona Bryant and Sienna Pearl Corson. Photographers will share their work of Montana’s beauty on the big screen during the performances. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door and available at the school or online at www.northvalleymusicschool.org or by calling 862-8074.

The school is also holding a raffle for a Gibson SJ-200 Special Heritage Cherry Sunburst limited edition guitar valued at $6,000. The guitar was hand-built in Bozeman with only 50 units worldwide. Tickets are $100 and are being sold through October, unless they are sold before the Montana Music Event and then the drawing will take place that night.

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