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New music school opens in downtown Duluth

The Northerly School for Music is a quaint storefront space at 20 N. 2nd Ave. E., adding music education to the mix in the Historic Arts and Theater District.

Woman and man laugh as they play guitars.
Cooper Orla, left, and her husband, Kyle Orla, share a laugh as they strum guitars in a studio at The Northerly School for Music in Duluth on Thursday, March 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

DULUTH โ€” Kyle Orla doesn't like to use the word "revitalize." With his new downtown music school, he hopes to "just reconnect with what's already here."

Woman talks in front of wall of stringed instruments.
Cooper Orla talks about moving into a new space at The Northerly School for Music on Second Avenue East in Duluth on Thursday, March 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Orla's first connection to what's now styled the Historic Arts and Theater district came during his youth, when he spent a lot of time at what was then the Encounter Skate Park.

"I was down here every weekend," he said. "I was more on the music side of the scene that was very tied in to skate culture."

The skate park was located at 201 E. 1st St. in a building now owned by Duluth Playhouse, which is using it for storage. The Northerly School for Music, founded and co-owned by Orla and his wife, Cooper Orla, is just a half-block down the hill.

"We were buying pottery from Courage Goods, who was in here right before, and she had posted in her (Instagram) story, 'I'm moving out!'" Kyle Orla said.

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"We realized," he continued, "with this space, this idea, we've both always talked about having more of a community-centered space and a school (where) other teachers can be involved. This would be the time. We need to do this. We need to do this now."

The Orlas, married in 2021, have combined their two former last names into a single shared surname. "She was Orth, (I was) Ollah," said Kyle Orla. "We became Orla."

"We're like, we should look up what it means," said Cooper Orla. "It means 'golden princess,' so...works for us!"

Kyle Orla is one of Duluth's best-established musicians and music teachers. He's played with a wide range of local artists, and has been a regular at a series of music spaces including, most recently, Duluth Folk School, where he rented a studio to give lessons and repair instruments.

"What I specialize in is folk, oral traditions (and) early jazz," said Kyle Orla. "A whole lot of things, but primarily, early American music is my favorite."

Man looks over guitar.
Kyle Orla places a guitar on the workbench before examining it at the Northerly School for Music on Second Avenue East in Duluth on Thursday, March 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Founding a proper music school allows the Orlas to expand into other forms of music. Clifton Nesseth also plays the music Kyle Orla focuses on, but "he has a whole other classical side of his education as well."

Nesseth is one of the first teachers confirmed for The Northerly. "I was really excited to see (the Orlas) made this big step to put together the business they're pursuing," said Nesseth. "A mix of instrument repair and lessons and kind of becoming a community hub for music."

K.O. StringWorks, formerly Kyle Orla's brand for lessons and repairs, is now simply his repair business โ€” located at a central workbench within The Northerly space. About a dozen instrument cases form his repair queue behind the bench, while instruments for sale hang from pegs near the front window.

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In a few months' time, the school will expand to incorporate the adjacent storefront to the north. "A lot of this will actually go in the other room," said Kyle Orla, indicating instruments and equipment stacked above a soundproof (well, "soundproof-ish") studio built into a corner.

To demonstrate, the Orlas grabbed guitars and sat in the studio, where they laughed as Kyle pretended to teach Cooper some chords. The act echoed the couple's actual past, as Cooper Orla explained.

"Kyle, through the beginning of our relationship, taught me how to play guitar," she said. Having recently stepped away from a doula business, Cooper Orla has joined The Northerly team as "the behind-the-scenes person, making sure all of the wheels are turning and that we're getting the things done that we need to get done."

"Music is all about community and relationships and being together, sharing each other's emotional state of being," said Nesseth, who plays a variety of stringed instruments. "Every time I've seen Kyle in action as a performer, or just sat down to talk with him, that seems to be at the center of what he's interested in doing as a business person."

People talk.
Kyle Orla, left, talks about being in downtown Duluth at The Northerly School for Music on Second Avenue East on Thursday, March 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

As arts and cultural events coordinator at the Nordic Center, Nesseth spends a lot of time downtown. "It's a really cool part of the city, and it's an area that's definitely in need of some energy and some support," said Nesseth. "Kyle being in that particular building is a step forward for what that part of town is doing."

"We're both just really falling in love with downtown again," said Cooper Orla. "It clearly needs a little bit of love, but we like it. We like the folks down here."

Kyle Orla pointed first west and then east. "There's peculiar energy, there's no denying, that when you have Essentia's new building right there, and three burned-down buildings right here, (and) a memorial to one of the worst things that ever happened in Duluth ... and here we all are."

"Complex," said Cooper Orla, "which is what the center of the city is."

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The Northerly is a cozy spot, with a wide couch and a vintage amplifier (it's for sale) and coffee mugs hanging ready alongside the fiddles. While the Orlas say The Northerly won't be a full-fledged performance venue, they do hope to offer ticketed events for small audiences.

"Something where the artists could talk about process, storytelling," said Kyle Orla. "I think there's a serious lack of that, especially all-ages (shows)."

The space is already in use for Kyle Orla's instrument repair and personal music lessons, and the Orlas hope to begin welcoming additional instructors starting this summer. Kyle Orla is also continuing to produce videos with music instruction and history, which he began during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Couple talks in front of wall of stringed instruments.
Cooper Orla, right, listens to her husband, Kyle Orla, talk in the new space for their Northerly School for Music on Second Avenue East in Duluth on Thursday, March 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"He's a workaholic, but just in a way that he loves it so much," said Cooper Orla. Turning to her husband and business partner, she said, "You would be doing it anyway, even if you weren't getting money from it."

The Orlas are pleased with the new space, which just happens to be where they may have met for the first time. "This used to be an art gallery" co-owned by mutual friends, said Kyle Orla, referencing the space's history as the Ochre Ghost. "At least, we were brushing shoulders here."

Kyle Orla currently teaches students from ages "6 or 7" to 75. The Northerly's owners expect the other teachers, among them, will offer solo and group lessons to a similarly wide range of ages.

"There's just a lot of really cool gems dotted through Duluth," said Nesseth, "and I have a feeling that The Northerly is going to become one."

Husband and wife laugh as they play guitars.
Kyle Orla, right, laughs with his wife, Cooper Orla, as they strum guitars in the practice room at The Northerly School for Music in Duluth on Thursday, March 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

For more information on The Northerly School for Music, email info@northerlyschoolformusic.com or follow @thenortherlyduluth on Instagram.

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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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