Conservatory growth fills former City Hall

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Karin Wedemeyer, right, co-founder of the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint, leads a group of young students on a musical excursion as instructor Marj Cooke demonstrates the inner workings of the piano. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — In a move that has become almost as dependable as the change of seasons, the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint is on the grow again.

This past summer, the school announced it would be moving its classrooms and private studios upstairs in the historic City Hall building to accommodate the need for more teaching space. Last week, it learned that the walls in its original downstairs digs had been removed to create one, large area. In short order, the street-level space was reclaimed and added to the conservatory square footage as the staging area for dance classes, recitals and future performances.

Co-founders Karin Wedemeyer and Ruth Klinginsmith won’t have much time to celebrate the good news, as they are in the midst of preparing a group of young musicians for the conservatory’s first trip abroad while, at the same time, finalizing the accreditation process to become part of the National Association of Music Schools. To clear that bar, the conservatory has implemented the rigorous set of curriculum and standards required under the Carnegie Hall Achievement Program.

Set for April of next year, the group’s international tour will act as the first step in what could become a cultural cross-pollination process that uses Sandpoint as its base. On this first outing, five string students will travel to the Arts & Music Center in Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California, to play in concert with the orchestra there, as well as in smaller performances on their own.

“We’re planning to send students abroad to get them exposed to knowledge outside of Sandpoint, but also to get students from other countries to come here,” Wedemeyer said. “It’s an immersion in music and culture so that they can see what the standards are like in other countries and develop confidence as musicians.”

Not every student will pursue a career as a professional artist, she concedes, but the conservatory’s mission is to prepare them for that prospect, nonetheless. Over time, students are expected to be able to read music with the best of them, perform like champs and hold up under the demands of a career that requires the unique combination of an open heart wrapped in a thick skin. To give students a glimpse of this world, the conservatory had them take the hot seat when Spokane Symphony Orchestra conductor Maestro Gary Sheldon visited to conduct “mock auditions.”

“He gave our students an opportunity to see what that process is like,” said Wedemeyer. “To equip students with these skills and to help them develop resilience and confidence is deeply satisfying.”

A walk through the conservatory’s hallways on any given weekday afternoon or evening is a sensory experience. The sounds of myriad string instrument, woodwind and piano lessons blend together from behind closed studio doors. A group of young children finishes a vocal warm-up before marching off on a “musical excursion” to peer inside a baby grand piano and see what happens when its keys and pedals are manipulated by a professional player. Elsewhere, even younger kids are being handed their first violin by Klinginsmith, who has invited one of the older violin students to perform for them.

More recent activity has included an explosion of enrollment in the musical theater and Shakespeare classes, both of which stand to benefit when the new space downstairs is fully outfitted with mirrors and a dance floor for a new series of classical ballet classes taught by Laurie Buck. According to Wedemeyer, bringing the dance instructor on board is an artistic homecoming, since Buck was the person who provided the co-founders with a corner in her Studio 1 Dance Academy as a launch pad for the conservatory concept.

Once the ground floor dance studio is in place, the conservatory will have nearly 3,000 square feet of teaching space — a good thing, since both enrollment and class rosters have expanded dramatically since the school got off the ground. Formed in September 2009, the school has grown from three classes and 13 students to an organization that now boasts multiple group classes, 11 instructors and roughly 110 students.

The co-founders don’t chalk their success up to deep-pocketed funding or good timing, since neither was in play when they rolled out their plan.

“We started our endeavor right after everything collapsed in 2009 and we had so many hard-core critics who said it wouldn’t work,” Wedemeyer said. “But we had a risk-free business model — Ruth and I worked for free and we went very, very slow.”

What they saw in Sandpoint — beyond the impact of a global financial meltdown — was the opportunity to take the town’s reputation as an arts community and turn it into something more tangible. With that in mind, they began gathering instructors under one roof and building the class list as they went along.

“There was such a need that Ruth and I decided, no matter what, we were going forward to bring all of this talent together in this way,” said Wedemeyer.

With national accreditation in the works and an international cultural enrichment program on the horizon, the music conservatory already is looking down the road at what could be a much bigger picture. Sandpoint has for some time been called “a college town without a college” — something Wedemeyer views as another opportunity.

“As Sandpoint becomes more and more arts-oriented all the time, we are growing this presence, organically, right here at home,” she said. “It is our goal — perhaps long past my being here — to reach a point where we can grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. Truly, that’s a long-term goal. But I see that it’s a possibility, so why not try?”

Coming from someone who helped take a handful of kids in a corner space and turn it into a conservatory that now takes up the better part of two floors in one of downtown Sandpoint’s largest buildings, one might be prone to take that question seriously.

To learn more about classes and programs at the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint, visit the group online at its website, or call (208) 265-4444.

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