Music School Spreads Across the Valley

By Beacon Staff

In its 10th year, North Valley Music School in Whitefish is reaching a crescendo.

For years the school’s reputation and enrollment have been building, stressing the confines of its small building – a 1930s house on Spokane Avenue. Now, to accommodate the growth, the school is adding teachers and opening two satellite locations – one in Columbia Falls and another in Kalispell.

“It’s both out of necessity because of the lack of space here and, because of gas prices and the growing number of students we have coming in from outside of Whitefish, we found it would be helpful to those students and their families,” Cameron Blake, the school’s director, said.

Both new locations are the result of local partnerships.

In Columbia Falls, the music school joined with the First Best Place Task Force, a grassroots community group, to hold private lessons in the Glacier Discovery Square building on Nucleus Avenue.

Music instructor Christian Johnson works through some music theory with student Izzy Ray at North Valley Music School in Whitefish.

The task force intends to redevelop the former bank building into the new home of the Columbia Falls Branch Library. Fundraising is ongoing for that project, but the group anticipates the remodel of the building will begin in early 2009. In the meantime, Barry Conger, executive director of the task force, said the group hoped to use the building as much as possible for community activities, including the music lessons, which are expected to continue through construction.

“They’ve been bugging us for years about how to get us to come over there,” Blake said. “As a nonprofit, these relationships with outside groups are what have really made this possible.”

In Kalispell, the Kalispell Montessori School on Willow Glen Drive will act as North Valley’s other new hub. Students enrolled in the Montessori school are allowed to take private lessons during the day as part of their studies, Blake said, spreading some of the instructor’s workload into off-peak hours and opening after-school slots for other students. Classes there will include piano, voice, violin, fiddle, mandolin and guitar.

In addition to the new locations, North Valley has also added five new teachers – three as replacements to teachers who retired or moved last year, and two new spots. The school now boasts two staff members and 15 instructors, almost all with degrees in the subject they teach and all who have impressive professional music experience.

One of the new additions is Christian Johnson, an original member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band and a familiar face in the Flathead Valley live music scene. Johnson is currently a member of four professional bands and hosts and mentors weekly open mic nights at Red’s Wines & Blues in Kalispell.

“I won’t just be teaching music and the documentation and communication of music, but also what it takes to be a professional player for those that might have interest,” Johnson said. “Competition is fierce in this business.”

Brittany Barnes, 12, works on proper hand and elbow positions while playing a song for instructor Diane Dickerson during her lesson at North Valley Music School in Whitefish.

All told, Blake estimates that the new satellite locations and teachers will immediately add lessons for another 50 students. That number is expected to grow as those sites increase teaching days from once a week to two or three days per week and add group lessons.

As Montana’s only non-profit, community music school, North Valley has found its niche, enjoying – and struggling to keep up with – steady enrollment increases in its first decade. This year, about 350 students are expected to sign up for private lessons – an increase of almost 70 students from just last spring. Another 300 people will likely take advantage of group lessons and community programs.

Every corner of the school’s 3,500-square-foot house in Whitefish is in use: An unattached, one-car garage has been converted to a teaching studio; office supplies intermingle with kitchen appliances; the sounds of piano, violin, guitar and singing voices drift from rooms throughout the house.

To make room for five computers for the school’s new electronic music program, a couch in the dining room had to go.

The new locations will alleviate some of the growing pains, Blake said, but a new home in Whitefish is necessary. “We’re still maxed out again this year in Whitefish,” she said. “We’re looking for new spaces now and hoping to find a new location or build sometime in the next few years.”