One of the goals for our recent renovation and expansion project was to realize the Reif Center as a regional hub for a diverse range of artistic activity. As part of that goal the Reif Arts Council extended an invitation to the Grand Rapids Players to move onsite. We also worked with long-time tenant, the Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program, to develop a facility that served the needs of their organization. Did you know that so many community arts groups operated under one roof? The Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program has been around about as long as the Reif Center working to forward their mission of providing opportunities to hear, learn, and perform orchestral music for the youth and adults in Itasca County. Sarah Kowitz, Director of String Instruction, is one the major players behind that work. I’d like to introduce her to you!
Katie: What is your job title?

Sarah: Officially, I am the Director of String Instruction for the Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program.

Katie: And how long have you been doing that?

Sarah: This is my second year.

Katie: What were you doing before you started with Itasca Orchestra?

Sarah: I was actually in a totally different state! I’ve been teaching strings for as long as I can remember. I have worked in public schools teaching lessons, in community music schools, in community-run strings programs like Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program – all kinds of various teaching positions. But before moving to the area, my husband was in grad school in South Carolina and I was working with a couple different music academies.

Katie: I notice you don’t have a southern accent though, so you’re not from the south?

Sarah: No. I’m originally from Cloquet. I’m a “Minnesota girl. “

Katie: So, this feels like home to you then? Winter isn’t shocking?

Sarah: I actually think that was something they liked about me when I applied for the job, like, “She knows what she’s getting into winter-wise!”

Katie: What is your primary instrument?

Sarah: Violin.

Katie: You’ve done a lot of teaching, but you must have started as a student and performing yourself. What’s your performance background?

Sarah: I’ve played with symphonies wherever I’ve been. Growing up in the Cloquet-area I played with the Duluth Superior Youth Orchestra as a kid. Then in college I starting gigging with different orchestras like the La Crosse Symphony and other regional groups. When I was in grad school I played with symphonies around Austin, TX. I currently play with the Itasca Orchestra here in town and the Mesabi Orchestra up the Range. I also sub occasionally with the Duluth Superior Symphony. So, plenty of playing!

Katie: What do you love about teaching?

Sarah: The kids. They are always fun. And, you just never know what is going to happen with kids. I love seeing a student’s face when something comes together.

Teaching is a job that doesn’t feel like work.

Katie: What is unique about Itasca Orchestra and Strings? It’s one of few tenants here at the Reif Center, and I’d like our audiences to get to know them a little bit better.

Sarah: Well, you as a community are really fortunate to have a program like this. There are plenty of school districts that are cutting music programs. I’ve seen a big change in this area since I was young. Districts that used to have strings in the schools don’t. Itasca Symphony, as I understand it from the history, saw the need and wanted to be able to provide a service to this community. And it is unique! I’ve only worked with one other program that was run by a community symphony. Also, we have a great partnership with the schools. We’re allowed to go into the schools during the school day to provide lessons and the schools even provide places for us to teach in. It’s a really unique partnership.

Katie: How many students do you currently have in the program?

Sarah: This year we have right around 80, and it’s not just school-aged students. We have some adult learners as well.

Katie: Tell me about your colleagues. There are others who teach for IOSP?

Sarah: Yes! Another of our upper-string teachers is John Ondich-Batson. John is a recently got his masters from UMD in Orchestral Conducting, and his primary instrument is viola. He joined us just this year.

And then we have Dr. Ben Smith, who’s a cellist. He drives over from Duluth one day a week to work with lower-string players.

Katie: John also commutes from Duluth, correct?

Sarah: Yes, John drive over a couple days a week.

Katie: How do you feel the newly renovated Reif Center serves you and the program?

Sarah: It’s beautiful! Not just the space is beautiful, but having an office space here is a beautiful thing. It’s very convenient to have the performance stage near our office. We have lots of storage, so all of our instruments and music is in one area. When we have rehearsals, if something weird happens – someone breaks a string or someone is missing a page of music – it’s easy to just zip to the office and get it. And then I love being in the space just for all the activity that happens during the day. There’s people moving around, there’s dance families in the evenings. I think our parents who come in during the day with students for lessons enjoy the comfortable couches and fireplace. It’s just a great space and I like that it’s shared organizationally – not just the music people in here.

Katie: You also have lesson rooms in the renovated Reif Center – an upgrade from what was available before the remodel.

Sarah: Right! It is very convenient to have lesson space. And if we have a slightly larger group of students we can use the Ensemble Room. I used it for an impromptu orchestra rehearsal once when we couldn’t get into our usual space at the Middle School. We all got cozy in there and stood together. It was very loud, but it worked.

Katie: Do you have students who are doing ensemble work?

Sarah: We do! Some of our older student groups are working on chamber music in January and February.

Katie: The Reif Center brought Artaria String Quartet to work with students last year on chamber music. Is the work you’re doing now inspired by that residency?

Sarah: Definitely! That residency was one thing I was really excited about when I was starting with IOSP because I really like chamber music with students. It is ensemble playing, but they still have to be so independent because they’re one on a part. After Artaria worked students we wanted to keep that learning going.

Katie: Do you have a favorite composer?

Sarah: Sometimes it’s different who I like to play and who I like to listen to. I always like playing Beethoven. There’s just something there. And he’s fun to listen to! I find Copeland (the American composer) to be very beautiful and inspiring. I don’t think I’ve played or heard a piece of his that I don’t love. I like modern music too, I’m not afraid of the weird sounds you sometimes get. It can be very exciting.

Katie: How old were you when you started playing?

Sarah: I started with a school music program in fifth grade.

Katie: Since 5th grade, what has been your greatest career achievement, or a great shining moment?

Sarah: I’m going to talk about a favorite concert experience. My first semester as a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, the very first concert of the fall, I got to play Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto. I was obviously in the orchestra, but Van Cliburn played the piano. It was one of those moments that was just beautiful – to be on stage with this master and genius and he’s only a few feet away. Awesome!

If you’d like to learn more about Itasca Orchestra & Strings Program or the Itasca Symphony Orchestra, you can do so online at