“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” - Plato
What began over a shared cup of coffee has become an instrumental part of hundreds of young musicians’ lives over the past decade. Co-founded by Karin Wedemeyer, a German-born opera singer, and Ruth Klinginsmith, a violinist trained through the Toronto Conservatory, these two women launched a music hub unlike any in North Idaho.
The Music Conservatory of Sandpoint opened its doors to musician hopefuls in September of 2009 and over the past decade has fulfilled its mission by expanding opportunities for arts accessibility, teaching music with a consistent curriculum 365 days a year and successfully training aspiring young performers.
“Our vision is to become a leading school of performing arts in the Northwest, the ‘Julliard of the Wild West,’ we like to kid. But we are not kidding,” says Kathi Samuels, Board of Directors chair.
Kathi’s first interaction with MCS involved her interest to teach her son, who was 6 years old at the time, how to read music. She enrolled him in a group recorder class in 2010. “The environment of music was a draw for me as a parent, a place where my kids could be immersed in ‘the language of music,’” she says. “After one visit, it was obviously a place I wanted to visit again.”
Over the years, Kathi has been part of the accreditation committee, events and ultimately decided to join the Board because she believes that “music makes a difference in the lives of children, especially in the formidable years.”
At its inception, MCS offered mostly private classes and group instruction but over time has expanded to include accredited coursework, instrument departments and recently added a more comprehensive children’s theater and the young classical singer to round out their classical repertoire.
Today, any budding musician, from preschool to adult, can learn music from the Conservatory in a variety of ways. They offer El Sistema afterschool classes, which include a full-instrument youth orchestra, to private instruction, to summer camps. Private instruction is available in piano, guitar, voice, strings, percussion and more. Younger children can enjoy Little Mozarts mommy-and-me classes. And for those students interested in pursuing a degree or career in the performing arts, the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint offers Honors Track.
“We’re cross-cultural as well, hosting international conductors and exchange students for master classes and as part of our summer international youth orchestra,” says Kathi. “We want to connect students to music in as many ways possible. This spring one of our instructors will return to Sandpoint with a degree and certification in music therapy, opening up a brand new avenue for participation.”
The Music Conservatory of Sandpoint is addressing the needs of youth and aspiring performers in the community with the desire to become a model for other rural cities across the country. Not many rural towns have an accredited Conservatory downtown. “We trust in the transformative power of music and creativity,” says Kathi. “We believe in our training ability.”
MCS achieved accreditation in 2013 from Western Association of Schools and Colleges. And this spring they will host their six-year site visit as part of accreditation protocol.
For those families needing assistance, MCS provides scholarships to include tuition assistance (when economic challenges would otherwise limit participation), merit scholarships (for younger students who demonstrate dedication and particular talent on an instrument) and honors track (for high achieving students desiring to make music their career or educational path).
Scholarship support comes from MCS’s annual Fall Serenade fundraiser and the generosity of the community and new corporate sponsors Ting, Walmart, Litehouse, Sandpoint Rotary and Kochava, who are supporting the Honors Track students.
“We would not exist if it were not for the generosity of the Sandpoint community,” states Kathi. “We are grateful for our many grant, foundation, corporate and private partners, who have supported MCS for nearly 10 years!”
The Music Conservatory of Sandpoint is made up of 20 instructors who have rich educational backgrounds, degrees and performance experience in a wide variety of genres. And the dedication of the staff and instructors can be seen on a daily basis.
“I often observe [them] teaching beyond their regularly scheduled lesson times; just those few extra minutes to make sure our students are getting their notes just right. I watch them lug chairs and music stands to performances on evenings and weekends. They move drums, stages and oddly shaped instruments to rehearsals and back again. All because I know they genuinely care about student progress and success. MCS would not be the same without them,” Kathi affirms.
In 2018, thanks to support from the Equinox Foundation, the Conservatory was able to hire John Fitzgerald as their music director. With credentials including a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree of arts in teaching from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, John teaches voice and piano, conducts the El Sistema Youth Orchestra and oversees the Honors Track.
“He has the ability to transpose music and adjust orchestra pieces to make sure that it’s at the right level for the player,” states Kathi. “Not only is John an excellent instructor, but he is also an accomplished vocalist. He will perform as part of our Bel Canto Opera Company on March 23 at the Panida. I wouldn’t miss it!”
The Conservatory currently has 244 private and repertoire students enrolled, plus another 120 taking part in MCS’s outreach and after-school El Sistema programs (a partnership with LPOSD at Farmin and Kootenai elementary and the Priest River Lamanna High School).
“With the number of students coming through our doors, we know that we are contributing to the vitality of downtown, and more importantly, to the greater arts community in Northern Idaho,” says Kathi.
The Music Conservatory of Sandpoint is located at 110 Main Street in Downtown Sandpoint. If you are interested in learning more about their programs, call 208.265.4444, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit SandpointConservatory.org. If you would like to show your support, they invite you to attend one of their concerts or donate online by clicking ‘About’ and selecting ‘Friends of the Conservatory.’
“It is never too early, or too late, to start,” says Karin, executive director. “Music can—and should—be a lifelong passion.”