Music Issue

Making ‘Really Sweet Lemonade’ Out of a Sour Year

North Valley Music School’s pandemic-necessitated virtual offerings are here to stay as school continues to grow and educate students from infants through the elderly

By Andy Viano
Christian Johnson, right, gives a virtual music lesson from North Valley Music School in Whitefish on April 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Of the many things that the North Valley Music School is, there is one thing the school’s enthusiastic executive director would like you to know it is not, especially because it’s precisely the misconception she had before she learned better.

It is not, Deidre Corson says, a place where rich kids take private music lessons inside an eight-studio school and performance center inside a converted house on Spokane Avenue in Whitefish.

What it is, Corson learned, is a place that teaches lifelong lessons in performing and appreciating music to students of every ability and every age, that offers thousands of dollars in scholarships to offset its relatively affordable (and sometimes free) group and individual instruction, and a school that she playfully says is on a mission to “take over the world with music,” a mission that unexpectedly became a little clearer more than a year ago when the pandemic reached Montana. It was then that Corson and team made “really sweet lemonade” out of the sudden upheaval of everyone and everything.

“Right off the bat we were like, ‘let’s take advantage of the opportunity’ and not think of this as a hardship but, rather, we have to adapt and let’s jump on it,” Corson said.

In March 2020, North Valley Music School’s three-person part-time staff, Corson included, moved remote and the dozen-plus instructors all began offering their classes via videoconference. A few expected hiccups ensued but by the summer, Corson said, the virtual lessons were humming and before too long some added benefits became clear. Recitals once restricted to friends and family within driving distance were instead live streamed, so grandma and grandpa could tune in from anywhere in the world. And when the school’s newsletter shared the news of online lessons, former students who had moved away suddenly could re-enroll, and many did, from as far away as Alaska and Vermont. 

Cohen Gates plays the piano at North Valley Music School in Whitefish on April 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Even close to home, as schools closed and sports seasons were canceled last spring, students and their families clung to the opportunity to do something that felt even a little familiar.

“Music was a really nice thing to do and keep doing. It made everything feel normal,” Jenny Wickland, a faculty instructor who works primarily with young students, said. “As with everything it was ‘how is this going to work’ but it was actually really fun … a lot of really great things have come out of it and I think we all really appreciate being together so much.”

In-person instruction has since returned, in large part, to the school although some students have remained remote, and Corson said the school “won’t ever stop” offering virtual lessons or virtual recitals following the overwhelmingly positive response. Flathead County’s decreasing COVID-19 caseload and the expanded availability of the vaccine have also allowed some of North Valley’s group programs to return, including the Glee Club children’s choir, which began rehearsing on April 6.

The Glee Club is open to kids age 7 to 12 and is one of several programs the school offers at no cost, something made possible in large part by fundraising done through the Whitefish Community Foundation’s annual Great Fish Challenge. Other free group programs include a weekly acoustic jam on Wednesday nights and a community orchestra where Corson said you can find a “9-year-old beginner violin player playing with the 70-year-old beginner cello player.”

Jenny Wickland, left, instructs Jacob Osborn at his piano lesson at North Valley Music School in Whitefish on April 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

It is those programs, on top of the more than $20,000 in scholarships the school is able to provide to ensure that they continue “a history of turning no student away” from any program, that Corson leans on to try and shed the stigma she had when she joined the school’s board of directors eight years ago, before being named executive director in 2016.

“I drove by this place probably thousands of times and I always kind of thought ‘this is where wealthy kids go and get music lessons,’ and when I came onto the board it was such an eye-opener,” Corson said. “We have programs for literal babies, zero years old, up to our oldest student is in their 80s.”

And for every one of those students, Corson believes, the joy of connecting with music only deepened during the pandemic year. It’s why there’s a sliver of sincerity in her repeated quips about taking over the world, in part because what was lost when we all sequestered to our own quarantine hideaways did also make room for a greater capacity for appreciation.

“Everyone knows that (music) is powerful but like many things, like clean air and water, we take those things for granted,” Corson said. “I think music really helped a lot of people get through the pandemic. I feel proud and honored that these guys kept going.”

North Valley Music School is located at 432 Spokane Avenue in Whitefish and offers instruction both there and at two satellite locations in Lincoln County. For more information on the school and all of its programs, visit northvalleymusicschool.org.

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