North Battleford musician Cole Knutson has mastered not one, but two instruments by the age of 19.

Knutson started playing piano at age 12 and saxophone at 13. He’s now in his second year of a saxophone performance degree at the University of Manitoba, though he does three times the amount of performances on piano as he does on saxophone. “I get questions all the time at school – what is your actual major here?” he laughs.

Maintaining a professional calibre on two instruments is tricky, leading to a gruelling schedule. After attending classes, practicing, playing in 10-20 ensembles, performing, and doing homework, he gets about four hours of sleep a night. “If I were to play all the music that I’ve learned just this year, it would take 16 hours. In a given week, I find myself wearing dress shirts and tuxedos – performance clothes – more than everyday clothes,” Knutson says. “I love what I do, so it’s totally worth it.”

In 2015, he was lead saxophonist for the National Youth Band of Canada, which rehearses and puts on performances one week a year. At national events, Saskatchewan is often underrepresented, leaving Knutson to serve as an ambassador. “I tell them that we have great teachers and such a rich sense of culture. Art is so well-supported here that it’s hard not to flourish as long as you work hard at your instrument,” he says.

He is one of very few Métis musicians in the classical music community. “I know a lot who play folk, rock and jazz, but I haven’t come across many Indigenous people in the classical or piano world,” he says. “Everywhere I go, and especially internationally, I tell everyone what it means to be Métis, what our identity and cultural practices are. I try to bring honour to my heritage.”

He landed a coveted spot in the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles Youth Wind Orchestra in 2015, one of only two Canadians chosen to participate. He was also selected as the co-principal saxophonist. An Indigenous Pathways Initiative grant made it possible for Knutson to travel to San Jose, California, to participate. He and his fellow musicians rehearsed daily from 7:30 a.m. to midnight, using meal breaks to attend other orchestras’ concerts. The week culminated in a performance for a sold-out audience of 1,500. “The experience really opened doors for me internationally. I met a trombonist from Ireland, and we’re in process of scheduling a tour in seven European countries in 2017. It’s really exciting,” he says.

For Knutson, though, it all comes back to Saskatchewan. For the past two years, he has returned each summer, inviting friends from around the world to collaborate with him. Together, they tour communities around the province, such as North Battleford, Unity and Kennaston. “We bring skill and craftsmanship to Saskatchewan, presenting refined classical music to audiences that don’t get to hear it live very often,” he says.

His ultimate goal is to take a master’s degree in piano in London, England, then come back to Canada to teach and perform. “I would like to make a life for myself in Saskatchewan. I want to bring back the knowledge I’ve acquired and continue to educate people in smaller communities about classical music.”

Photo by Lexi Sarenco