We sit down with Marisa van Lawick, Administrator & teacher of Early Childhood Classes at North Valley Music School, the only non-profit community music school in Montana. She tells about the origins of the school, their mission, most requested instruments to learn, and few stories about how the school has affected students lives.
WCR: Marisa, welcome to the program.
Marisa: Thank you.
WCR: Can you tell us the history of the North Valley Music School? When did it open?
Marisa: Sure. North Valley Music School was started by 2 wonderful women, Betsy Kohnstamm and Betty Lou Wambeke back in 1997. And basically, Betty Lou was a music educator and Betsy wanted her kids to be educated in a supportive, collaborative environment so the basic idea of opening up a community music school began. We started in, oh gosh I want to say a basement of a church and then moved on to renting space in other buildings and then finally were able to purchase our current location at 432 Spokane Avenue in 19…2000 maybe, 2000. And we’ve been here ever since.
WCR: And what is the mission of the North Valley Music School?
Marisa: Our mission is to enrich our communities through music appreciation, education and performance.
WCR: So I understand it was a priority to have parents involved early on as much as possible, with some of them even volunteering. Can you talk about the importance of parental involvement in student musical education?
Marisa: Sure. When our school first started, it was primarily based on music curriculum called the Suzuki method and that method really encourages parental involvement. It’s where parents actually come to lessons with their children and learn along with their children so we initially started with Suzuki piano and violin and basically with the Suzuki method you’re instructing the parents as well so that when they go home the parents are actually the instructors for their children throughout the week throughout their practice times. Since then we’ve moved to more traditional teaching methods as well as the Suzuki method and currently we have a certified Suzuki piano teacher and violin teacher on staff. Judy Doxtater, who is one of our piano teachers, who has been with the school for maybe 8 years, just this summer received her Suzuki certification in piano through book 1 so she’s going to be incorporating that into her studio as well, this coming fall.
WCR: And it was a priority early-on to have live performances. Can you talk about why that’s important for students?
Marisa: Yeah. Live performances, they help students set goals for themselves. It helps to build confidence in their playing. What we do is, each studio has 2 recitals per year; one usually in the late fall/early winter and one in the spring. All recitals are open to the public and then we also do, are able to offer community performance opportunities. Such as, well for instance, Huckleberry Days festival and different…Camp Festival Amadeus, it’s a big…the students put on a huge concert at the end of the week. That’s all open to the public.
WCR: And you recently just had Festival Amadeus, can you tell us a little bit more about that, what goes into that?
Marisa: Camp Festival Amadeus is a collaboration between Glacier Symphony and Chorale, who produces the Festival Amadeus, and North Valley Music School and we produce the camp that goes along with it. So Camp Festival Amadeus is a chamber orchestra music camp for students, teen level, so teenagers, 7th grade through 12th graders of intermediate to advanced music playing levels. They come from all around the state and it’s a collaboration between the Glacier Symphony because we use the guest musicians that come in for the festival to help teach at the camp. So these teachers are coming from around the state, around the country, around the world. So the camp runs throughout the day time and then the festival is in the evenings. The concerts are in the evenings. It’s a wonderful opportunity for these kids to experience what it’s like playing in a professional atmosphere, professional settings. With chamber ensembles or with larger symphonies.
WCR: So why is music education important?
Marisa: Music education is so important early on for early childhood. It’s important in promoting brain development, spatial temporal reasoning. There’s all kinds of research that’s been done for early childhood. And then also for adults, we have a number of adult students who are retirees. I can think of 2 retired physicians that we have with us right now who realize the importance of staying active and staying busy and learning into their senior years. It’s important for the promotion of motor skills and coordination…sense of timing, muscular development, memory skills. There’s an abundance of benefits that go along with music education.
WCR: And you talked a little bit about brain development; you talked a lot about it. So what’s been the youngest student you guys have had at North Valley Music School?
Marisa: Well, we do offer, we have a really nice early childhood program. We use a curriculum called Music Together and it’s for ages birth to 5 and a lot of our parents who come in and join our Music Together program…they might have a toddler and they might also be expecting so even in utero these little tiny developing fetuses are hearing music and feeling rhythms and being able to listen to music. So we use that Music Together as our early childhood program. It’s for children and their care givers so it’s an adult-child centered class. We also have other early childhood classes. We offer a ukulele class for early elementary age, this year we’re bringing back our children’s choir. For ages, I think it’s going to be 4th grade through 8th graders. And then all the private lessons that we offer.
WCR: And you’ve been doing this for a while, what are some of the benefits you see for kids that get involved that early later on in their life?
Marisa: You know, I always say that music is…learning music is a gift that will last you your lifetime. Kids can do all kinds of activities, especially here in the Flathead Valley. There’s so many sports opportunities, there’s theater, there’s music. But music is something that can stay with you forever. You might only be able to play soccer until your senior years but music will take you all the way through.
WCR: So what are some of the programs that North Valley Music School offers?
Marisa: Programs here, well, first of all, we teach private lessons in all the stringed instruments; violin, viola, cello, guitar. We offer piano, harp, flute, voice. What am I leaving out…I think that’s it. And then as far as group classes, we have our early childhood classes and we have an acoustic jam program that’s on Wednesday evenings here at the school and basically it’s a very casual gathering of musicians that you can just come in and join, drop in and they usually have a number of songs they are working on and it’s for all kinds of acoustic instruments. We offer our Camp Festival Amadeus program and then during the summer we have several camps that we offer. I think we just got done last week with a ukulele camp that was really fun, led by Christian Johnson and it was a very intergenerational camp. We had grandchildren along with their grandparents coming and it was great.
WCR: So you kind of read down the list of instruments that you have…what are the most popular instruments, or most requested I guess for students to want to learn?
Marisa: I think it would be piano. We have let’s see…1, 2, 3, 4, 5 piano teachers on staff. So that would probably be our most popular instrument followed by violin and guitar.
WCR: How many students does North Valley Music School serve?
Marisa: Well, during our school year we serve between 250 and 300 students throughout the year and that ranges in ages from young toddlers to retirees.
WCR: And when does that school year start and end?
Marisa: Our school year starts in September and runs through June. We usually base it on the Whitefish school district calendar but we do run 2 trimesters of 12 weeks each.
WCR: And over the summer are you still giving lessons?
Marisa: We do still give lessons during the summer but it’s more of an abbreviated schedule. A lot of our teachers take time off and lessen their teaching load so maybe they’ll just come in 1 to 2 days per week. Some of our teachers take the entire summer off.
WCR: What are the goals of most of the students and how far can North Valley Music School take them?
Marisa: So it varies. You know, some of our students just want to learn some chords to play their favorite pop songs. Some of our students want to learn more music theory and they want to go on to higher education in the music field. And then we have our adult students who maybe played as a child and would like to get back into it or who, like I said earlier, just think it’s really good for mental awareness.
WCR: So, do you get any aspiring rock stars in here?
Marisa: Oh yes! We certainly do. We, we’ve had some of our students that started with us when they were younger have gone on to…I think there’s 2 of them I can think of, who have gone onto actually audition and be on American Idol and…yeah, I think both of them were American Idol or I want to say one of them may have been the Voice. But yeah, there’s all kinds. We’ve had students who have gone onto the Berkley School of Music and other pretty well-known higher education institutions.
WCR: So how does learning an instrument affect a student’s overall attitude & confidence?
Marisa: Well, I think it really helps to build confidence. Again it’s how far they want, how much time and effort they want to put into it. But in Whitefish, we are so fortunate to have an incredible music department in our public school system that North Valley Music School collaborates a lot with. Actually, one of our teachers, our long time teachers here at North Valley Music School is also the orchestra teacher at the middle school and Whitefish high school. So a lot of our students that have started with us at an early age and continue on with music through public school, they enter competitions and district festivals, state festivals and they just do incredibly well. For our small population we have an amazing music department and music community here in Whitefish.
WCR: Are there any memorable stories from some of your students?
Marisa: Yeah…you know, over the past 18 years…let me think here. A few years ago, when our school first started out, we had just a small core group of families who joined and participated and the children were young, maybe 4, 5 years old and a few years ago, those kids graduated from high school. So they were all seniors in high school and they were all at, they had continued on with their music education and they were at an all-state music festival and I believe it was in Bozeman and lo and behold here comes their very first violin teacher who had moved out of the area many, many years ago and is now living in Livingston and she was at the festival as well and got to see her little tiny students from 4 and 5, who started at 4 and 5 years old, participate and win awards at this music festival. So it was kind of a full circle event for the students and her.
WCR: Yeah, I imagine that would be pretty amazing. So what’s the best feedback you’ve gotten, or what type of feedback do you get from parents? Do they see the benefits beyond just learning a new instrument for them?
Marisa: For their children?
WCR: For their children.
Marisa: Overall I really feel that we get a lot of real positive feedback. We’ve had families who have stayed with the school for years and years and kind of feel like they’ve become part of our family – our music school family. We put a bulletin board out in the foyer of our school that says Our Music School Family, or North Valley Music School Family and every time there’s pictures or maybe newspaper clippings or anything like that we post that so a lot of these families who have, with children here at the school have been here so long and then we see the kids grow up and go on to college and still get to hear about their endeavors throughout their college time as well. So I think the feedback has been pretty gosh darn good overall.
WCR: I understand that Christian Johnson, one of the original members of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, a pretty famous band that originated in Missoula in the 70’s, is a teacher here at the North Valley Music School. Can you tell us about his involvement with the school?
Marisa: Sure, Christian actually walked in right behind you. Christian Johnson, what can I say…he’s the real deal. He’s been with us since, I think since 2008 and he has a pretty large studio here at the school. He teaches a number of different stringed instruments. He goes the extra mile for his students. He’s got quite a few of them who’ve been with him for several years and he just promotes them in any way that he can. Christian likes to take his studio recitals into the community so he holds them mostly at the Craggy Range Grill in downtown Whitefish and he sets it up as a regular gig for the students. So they use the stage there, they occupy the whole performance area at the Craggy Range and if you ever have the chance to attend one of his studio recitals there it’s a whole lot of fun and it’s very supportive. It’s a really supportive community that comes out for the recitals.
WCR: That sounds fantastic. So who are some of the other teachers? I know you said there’s a lot of Whitefish high school, or Whitefish School teachers.
Marisa: Well we have Jenanne Solberg and she is the orchestra teacher at the Whitefish public schools. She’s been instrumental in enlarging our string program here in the Whitefish Community. We also have…there’s Donny Rifkin who has a huge piano studio. We’ve got Judy Doxtater…most of our teachers have been with us for over half a dozen years. Judy Doxtater, Diane Dickerson, who is our harp and flute and piano teacher. We’ve got Don Rees who teaches guitar and banjo. Tina Bertram who teaches piano and banjo as well. New to our faculty is Emily Hackethorn and she is our voice and piano teacher. Wonderful young gal who moved up into the area from the Florence area and we’re lucky to have her. Let’s see….who am I missing? I think that’s about it. Currently we are interviewing for a violin and cello teacher. Lost our cello teacher last year and would like to hire another violin teacher and rebuild our violin studio.
WCR: You have a pretty wide variety of instruments that you teach here at the school. Are there any other instruments that you’ve kind of been looking to also teach as well, or you kind of have your core and that’s what you’d like to stick with?
Marisa: Well we do have our core in piano and the stringed instruments and voice, but at some point down the line, which we have looked into in the past, it might be nice to be able to offer percussion, woodwinds, and brass. We don’t offer that currently…we don’t get an awful lot of calls or inquiries about those instruments but it would be nice to be able to offer them. We would just need a better situated space for that as far as soundproofing and all that goes.
WCR: So what can we expect to see from the North Valley Music School for the future?
Marisa: Well for the future, you know, we’ve been here for 18 plus years and we’re a community music school, meaning we benefit all ages of our community and for the future what we would hope to do, and this is kind of a long-term goal, maybe 5, 10 years out even. But, at some point, if we grow where, if we grow in our student body where we’re gonna outgrow our current space it would be really nice to have another facility with a few more studio spaces and a nice, comfortable, maybe 75 seat recital hall that we can use. Sometimes when we have larger studio recitals we either go to the church or we rent another facility to be able to accommodate those, the audience in that studio size. So it’d be nice to have a little bit of a larger recital area. And then also just be able to incorporate more soundproof rooms and maybe another bathroom would be nice.
WCR: It’s the small things! So how is the North Valley Music School funded?
Marisa: So we are a non-profit and we are funded…so we are funded privately or by private or corporate donations or we do a lot of grant writing. We need to raise approximately $50,000 per year to cover our overhead and other administrative costs and things like that. The rest of it is obviously by tuition and registration.
WCR: The 2nd Annual Deadication Festival is happening on August 22nd with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the North Valley Music School. Can you tell us about the festival and how North Valley Music School became involved?
Marisa: So like you said, this is going to be the 2nd Annual Deadication Festival and I believe each year the organizers of the festival choose another non-profit to benefit. And this year, we were fortunate enough to be chosen so North Valley Music School is going to be out at the Deadication Festival on the 22nd and we’ll have a booth out there and lots of information about our school. Some of our board members will be out there just talking to people and promoting our school And of course there will be the great music that’s gonna be played all day long.
WCR: Yeah, 7 bands are going to be out there, 7 local bands. Going from noon to midnight.
Marisa: And it’s at a beautiful location – Stillwater Landing – up 93 north, north of town. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and it’ll just be a really fun, fun day.
WCR: Yeah, I can’t wait. It’s gonna be fun. I haven’t been out to Stillwater Landing yet.
WCR: So I understand the North…I’m sorry, go back to the other question I was going to ask…almost skipped one. If somebody wants to become involved as a student how do they sign up?
Marisa: Well actually we’re taking registrations right now. Our fall trimester will start on September 1st. So if anybody wants to sign up or is interested in information or lessons they can call the school at 862-8074 or they can visit our website, northvalleymusicschool.org, or they can just come on in.
WCR: And I understand North Valley Music offers scholarships. Can you tell us about that?
Marisa: We do, we do offer scholarships. We follow the federal guidelines for free or reduced school lunches. If you’re not a public school student, for instance if you are a home school student or a college student, then you are able to go online and just look up the guideline amounts so it’s based upon your income and so from those guidelines we offer full tuition scholarships for half hour lessons or scholarships at 50% for half hour lessons so it just depends what you qualify for.
WCR: If somebody wants to become involved as a volunteer or donate to the North Valley Music School who should they talk to, what should they do?
Marisa: Well they can certainly come in and talk to me or anyone here at the school. They can call the school, visit our website, or just stop in. If they’re out at the Deadication this weekend they can certainly talk to any one of our board members or staff members who are out there.
WCR: And if they wanted to drop by and kinda get a tour they can…what are your guys’ hours?
Marisa: Sure, we love when people come in to visit. A lot of times we have people who say, I drive by all the time and I’ve never been in and we love showing the school off to people like that. So our hours, well our office hours are Monday through Thursday, currently in the summer its 10 until 4 and a lot of times our teachers teach later on into the evening. But, yeah, they can come in, stop in anytime and see us or they can call. Again 862-8074. Set up an appointment, whatever. We love having people come in.
WCR: Is there anything else you want to add?
Marisa: No, I just want to thank you for coming in and looking around and coming in and talking with us.
WCR: Marisa, thanks for being on the program and I will see you out at the Deadication Festival on Saturday August 22.
Marisa: Sounds good, thanks Eric.