Creating chaos is more difficult than one might imagine.
On Monday morning, Big Sky High School’s wind ensemble was hard at it, trying to produce the best chaos they could imagine.
Cheered on and coached by guest instructors from the New York-based Institute for Creative Music, the 32 young musicians embraced the 90-minute workshop on improvisation, and by the end managed to create that rare magic of discordant harmony.
“It’s not that hard to let go – it’s hard to think about the emotion that goes into your music, that goes into a note,” said Josh Hungate, a senior trombone player.
Being asked – and encouraged – to step away from sheet music and to put your own stamp on the sound, was pretty thrilling, said Kelsey Austin, a sophomore flute player.
“It was really cool,” Austin said. “And to work with people who have a different experience in the music world, with different kinds of emphasis than we are used to playing is really cool.”
The quintet of professional, highly trained, mostly jazz musicians are in Missoula this week to empower students to innovate, to improvise and to create their own compositions, said Dylan Dwyer, Big Sky band director.
Made possible by a $7,975 Plum Creek Foundation grant, the visiting artists will be working with high school and middle school band programs in Missoula County Public Schools, Dwyer explained.
The musicians – Chris Teal, Nick Finzer, Chris Ziemba, Mike Kaupa and Matthew Golombisky – all have distinguished performance and teaching resumes, and have been trained or teach at the nation’s premier music schools, such as the Eastman School of Music and Juilliard.
Teal and Finzer began the institute about three years ago, with the goal to support meaningful, intellectual musical inspiration and to support school music programs around the country.
In the pursuit of learning, oftentimes young students are instructed in a way that is focused on playing the perfect note, honing rhythm and following sheet music exactly as it was written, said Finzer, who has shared the stage and learned from such greats as Wycliffe Gordon and Frank Wess.
“But improvisation has been in music from the beginning,” he said. “And we really want students to get back to the joy of making music, of creating a mood.”
“We want to give them that experience, because creativity is what connects us, one individual to the next. It develops a different part of our brains, and it opens up a different part of students’ musical perspective,” Teal said. “For us, it’s great to come in and work with teachers and ensembles that work at a high level and have a wide range of abilities.”
With every workshop there are always several students who obviously come to life with their newfound knowledge, Finzer said.
That aha moment played out for the entire Big Sky wind ensemble when trumpet player Mike Kaupa instigated about 10 minutes about how to make unusual and unexpected sounds with his instrument.
Having performed internationally and shared the stage with the likes of Jorge Rossy, Ray Charles, Mel Torme and Ben Monder, Kaupa had plenty of unique techniques to share.
“I’m all about chaos,” he said with a mischievous grin as he removed the slide from his trumpet and began making the mournful sounds of the loons that grace the waters in upstate New York where he lives.
Finzer then jumped in to show the students how to make bomber plane sounds with the trombone, and then Golombisky stirred things up when he wove a drum stick through bass strings to make strangely smooth but frazzled and tension-filled sounds.
The morning was, in fact, an exercise in tension and release, balancing harmony with dissonance, and creating sweet sounds with a highly polished ensemble and then exploring the unknown in bursts of anything goes.
“I liked the ability to play whatever you wanted to,” Hungate said. “There were no standards or chords that you had to play, you could do whatever you want.”
“I’m super excited they are here,” he said of the instructors.
“It’s really great,” said Drew Beck, a senior saxophone player. “They really push your creativity and there is so much more room to be expressive and tell your story.”