The News-Optimist has had an excellent relationship with local musician Cole Knutson for some years now. He is a young man who has travelled to study and perform at some of the most prestigious places in the world. We’ve done stories on how he’s played at Carnegie Hall, performed with honour bands national and international, studied at Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien in Austria, performed a recital on an organ Mozart played on, and played Beethoven’s piano in a house where Beethoven used to live – and he’s only 22.
It’s safe to say we have a prodigy on our hands. Now, that prodigy has an ask of the community. Before we talk about that, know that Knutson is determined to become one of the best collaborative pianists in the world. He is fervently loyal to North Battleford as his hometown, believes in its musical community and plans to immerse himself in that community as a performer, teacher and promoter in the future.
Also, before we talk about the ask, know that Knutson has been on hiatus from his studies in order to recuperate from a life-threatening injury sustained while studying in Austria. He’s been teaching and working two other jobs to support himself while he’s home recovering from a double concussion, not to mention other injuries for which he is undergoing physiotherapy.
Also, know that Knutson is one of the most determined and enthusiastic young men you may ever meet. He is dedicated to his family, his friends, his home, his mentors and his music. He is also proudly Métis (“I know,” he laughs, “the blond hair and blue eyes …”) and is passionate about Métis culture and introducing that culture to those he meets abroad.
Now, know that Knutson has been accepted into one of the world’s leading conservatories, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, England, founded in 1880. Alumni of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama are at the heart of the performing arts around the world, as you will see if you Google the school. Know also that the school believes enough in Knutson that it has held his place after he had suffered serious enough injuries to prevent him from attending in the fall of 2018 as planned. Knutson’s family has been as supportive as possible, both financially and emotionally, throughout his endeavours, but their resources are not unlimited. He has been fortunate enough to have qualified for a variety of scholarships and grants over the years, but with cuts to funding to the arts, there are becoming fewer and farther between. At any rate, the Guildhall School is a conservatory, the exact sort of thing a performer needs, says Knutson, and not a university. As such it doesn’t qualify for most scholarships, grants and bursaries that are given to Canadian students to study overseas.
That brings us to his ask.
At this point, we will let Knutson introduce himself:
Dear Citizens of the Battlefords,
My name is Cole Knutson. I am a classical musician born and raised here in the Battlefords. I am a recent graduate from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, where I was awarded a Bachelor of Music Degree in Music Performance. Additionally, I am a graduate of the 2017, and 2018 Franz Schubert Institut Internationaler Meisterkurs für Liedinterpretation, in Baden bei Wien Austria. Awards include second place in the Kiwanis National Music Festival in Ottawa and first prize in the American Protégé Competition College and Professional Division, where among other prizes I was invited to New York City to perform a recital at Carnegie Hall.
In the winter of 2017, I auditioned at eight of the top music schools in the world with intent to study piano accompaniment at a postgraduate level. Having studied piano at the internationally acclaimed Franz Schubert Institut in Austria in the summer of 2017, I had the opportunity to study under many of the world’s leading pianists, singers and music instructors, one of whom was pianist Julius Drake, who is one of the most acclaimed living vocal accompanists in the world. After carrying out my studies in Austria, Mr. Drake encouraged me to audition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, England, where, if I passed the audition, I would eventually take up studies with him as my primary instructor.
I was fortunate enough to have been accepted at every school I auditioned at, and ultimately accepted my offer to study with Mr. Drake at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, starting in the fall of 2018. While I was away completing studies in Austria over the summer, I was involved in a hit and run where a car went through a stop sign and hit me while I was riding my bike. Suffering from a serious concussion and physical injuries to my body from the accident, I was forced to withdraw from my studies in England just weeks before I was set to fly off.
Despite this terrible accident, I saw this as an opportunity to get involved in the Battlefords. Among all of my activities, I began teaching, volunteering over 20 hours per week as a church musician and working as a front of house representative at the Dekker Centre. I have made an intense effort to give back to the community with hopes to make a better and happier community in the Battlefords.
To my surprise and great fortune, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama recognized the nature of my accident and asked me to re-apply to the program since my recovery had been progressing well. I ultimately accepted their offer to study in the two-year Artist Masters Programme starting in the fall of 2019, where I will receive two master’s degrees upon completion, and now am in the process of finding the financial support to begin my studies. Compared to other students at the school, I received an exceptional scholarship. For most students to complete the program, it would cost a total of $124,000 CAD. The Guildhall School was kind enough to sponsor me so that over the duration of two years my education will cost approximately $71,000. CAD. Upon completion of the course, I aim to take up work at an opera company in Europe and work as a recitalist playing in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the globe.
Unfortunately, I do not have the proper finances to afford the program despite having an incredibly generous scholarship offered by the Guildhall School. The combined tuition and costs of living in London are incredibly high, especially since the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. My parents are not in the position to help me financially and trying to find financial support through the government and other organizations in Canada is difficult – almost impossible. I have decided to turn to businesses and members within our beloved community to try to find the financial support needed to fulfill this opportunity that does not come to many people in the world. The program accepts only a handful of pianists from all over the world yearly, so for a Canadian musician, and especially a prairie boy from North Battleford, Saskatchewan to have this opportunity is truly a nearly impossible feat to have achieved.
I take great pride in my home, as a Canadian, Saskatchewanian and citizen of North Battleford. I have been fortunate to have been supported by our community and province to study and perform all over the world. However, all of this has been to get me to this very place in my life, the cusp of reaching the pivotal point in my career and it is merely a lack of funds that prevents me from accomplishing my goals.
As I have travelled the world, I have come to understand the value of growing up in a small community in the prairies. Many of us come from a long tradition of ancestors who chose to move here and set up homestead in hopes to give their children, and their children’s children the opportunity to grow and thrive, sometimes at the cost of their own hopes and dreams. Out of this culture has come a unique place where once upon a time, as a farmer, from the moment you could walk, you were outside helping with simple tasks. Shortly thereafter, your days would begin early, you would work all day and at times well into the night and once your work was completed for the day you ventured over to your neighbour and gave them a hand. Even though times have changed, and many families are no longer farming, this tradition of helping your neighbour is something that has remained a part of our identity as Saskatchewanians. We as a community operate as such and have an immense amount of strength when we come together to meet a common goal. We live in a place where a stranger is courteous to help someone who may be in desperate need of help. $71,000 is an incredible amount of money when you look at it as one number. But if 710 people, less than five per cent of our city’s population, donated $100 each, that would cover the costs of my training for two years at the best music school in all of the world. So, I am hoping that you receive this letter and see that what I am asking for is not just money, but an opportunity to make a prairie boy’s dreams of studying at the world’s best music school, performing on the world’s most prestigious stages, and becoming one of the best piano accompanists in the world a possibility.
Thank you for your time, and I hope that we may connect and make this seemingly impossible goal a living reality.
With great thanks and best wishes,
Cole Knutson had come down the side of a mountain in Austria and was on his way to meet friends for a Sunday evening meal at a local restaurant in the small town where he was staying while studying. He had a bicycle to ride, provided by his landlords, but they had not provided a helmet.
He was close to his destination when a car suddenly darted out from a side street, crashing into him from the right side. He was flung to the ground and the car speeded away.
To say Knutson was dazed is an understatement. In fact, he would learn later he had suffered a double concussion. His brain, he explains, had bounced backward then forward within his skull, creating a concussion at the back and at the front. He had also injured his knees. But, of course, his first thought was his hands. They seemed to be uninjured, but his leg was bleeding.
Being concussed and not knowing it led to some bad decisions, says Knutson. He let some bystanders who had seen the collision help him to his feet, and at his insistance, to the restaurant. He was already seated when his friends showed up and they did not realize until it was time to go that Knutson couldn’t even stand up. They were horrified when they realized his condition, but since small town hospitals are closed on Sundays, they let Knutson talk them into taking him home. He said he would go to Vienna to the hospital the next day.
One of his friends, bigger and stronger than most men, helped him on his way, carrying him uphill for three of the five-kilometre hike home.
“The next day” became “the next day” and “the next” as Knutson was loathe to leave for Vienna at such an important time in his studies. At one point, he was about to play in a master class and, when he looked at the music, it made no sense to him. He doesn’t remember doing it, but he is told he played the piece from memory – in a different key, as it turns out. (Knutson says he has always had a knack for transposing.) He and the singer he accompanied received accolades for their performance, but he knew he would have to see a doctor, although he had no insurance, because he couldn’t afford it. A physician in Vienna confirmed the concussion, and with his studies concluded, he headed home.
For the first three days, he says he was a zombie. Then, he went to Third Avenue United Church, to practice on his favourite piano, he fell off the bench. That started him on a round of doctor appointments, treatments and physiotherapy, supported by his family.
While he has recovered enough to be able to play again, he still has balance and short-term memory loss issues. But he is thankful that his music is intact and it is still the passion of his life.
Cole Knutson first began music lessons with local vocal instructor and choir director Lisa Hornung who, when Jaya Hoy moved to North Battleford, told him, “You have to go to Jaya.”
Hoy, originally from North Battleford, had a career as a collaborative and solo pianist throughout the United States and Europe and had studied with top teachers.
Although he was apprehensive, it was meant to be.
“Jaya is probably the biggest mentor I’ve had in my life – on a musical level, on a personal level and even on a spiritual level,” says Cole. “Without Jaya I can honestly say I wouldn’t be doing any of this. She has always been there encouraging me and supporting me.”
When he began saxophone lessons, his instructor was Gene Aulinger, who was the influence behind Cole’s willingness to audition for more and bigger ensembles on his musical journey.
“He encouraged a lot of the students to audition for ensembles and influenced me to audition for all of these groups. At one point in high school I was in 17 different ensembles at once,” he laughs.
Mentors such as Hornung, Hoy and Aulinger have inspired Knutson and he hopes one day to be as inspiring to others through his work as a pianist and, one day, a teacher here in the Battlefords. Already, he is enjoying the moments when his present students find their way to musical enlightenments. Modestly, he says, “It’s not me, it’s the student.”