Notable Tunes at a Non-Profit

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – The seafoam green house on Spokane Avenue seems unremarkable enough; that is, until you notice the steady stream of middle school aged students coming in and out of the building, many hauling music cases more than half their size.

One step inside and a visitor is greeted with a symphony of jumbled sounds: Notes from a piano and harp intermingle on the main level, while guitars, violins and an instructor’s coaxing directions compete upstairs.

The 1930s house is in fact quite remarkable. It’s the home of North Valley Music School, Montana’s only non-profit, community music school. A rarity in much larger cities, an institution like North Valley is unexpected in Whitefish, a town of only around 7,500 people.

Johnny Nix, 2, rocks out on a candy cane drum during a Music Together class at North Valley Music School.

George Miller, of Lakeside, appreciates the high caliber teaching at the school, so much so that she makes a weekly trek to Whitefish to bring her 7-year-old daughter Noa for lessons. A former resident of large cities like New York and Denver, Miller was impressed to find a place with “awesome teachers” that was willing to take on a young student.

“When we were moving here, people were like, ‘What are you going to find? A guy with missing teeth and a fiddle?’” she said. “Instead, we found this amazing place.”

North Valley began small, the product of a conversation in the Whitefish Post Office in the fall of 1987 between Betty Lou Wambeke, a Whitefish piano teacher, and Betsy Kohnstamm, a Glacier Symphony cellist with non-profit experience whose own children needed music lessons. The first music concert was held that fall and by spring the school had non-profit status, a rented home in what was then Whitefish’s United Methodist Church, five teachers and approximately 100 students.

At the time, Whitefish’s environment was the perfect host for a non-profit school: a lack of music education coupled with interested individuals willing to offer time and money.

Now, in its 10th year, the school is thriving, along with music education in Whitefish. It boasts two staff members and 12 teachers, almost all with degrees in the subject they teach and all of who have impressive professional music experience. This year, 282 students are signed up for private lessons in piano, violin, viola, guitar, cello, bass, voice, mandolin, banjo, harp or flute. Another 300 people take advantage of group lessons and community programs, such as the Whitefish Community Orchestra and summer workshops.

Marisa van Lawick, center, directs the class in a song about a jack-in-the-box during a Music Together class at North Valley Music School. The school is celebrating its 10th year.

And, it is because of that growth that the 3,500-square-foot home near downtown is again remarkable. Every corner is in use: Instructors teach in rooms the size of a large, walk-in closet, the unattached, one-car garage has been converted into a welcoming teaching studio, the kitchen houses a printer and files and the dining room serves as a recital hall.

On this year’s first registration day, lines of people waiting to sign up strung out the back door.

The school is looking for other locations, hoping to find or build a new space sometime in the next few years. The ideal site would be around 10,000 square feet, have better parking then the current locale and be located near downtown, where students can continue to walk to North Valley for after-school lessons.

“We keep thinking that we’ve met our physical limitations and then somehow find a way to fit more,” Director Cameron Blake said. “We didn’t anticipate this growth, but it’s time to look at alternative spaces.”