In 2011, Erica von Kleist visited Montana for the first time. A year later, she left the fast pace of New York City and relocated to Whitefish for good.
“I feel like I got out of prison,” von Kleist said. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”
She is now working in the Flathead Valley as a professional musician, teaching private lessons, and working to further promote music and the arts through two businesses.
It’s a lifestyle that she described as “intense,” but one that she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“The Flathead Valley is the perfect place to set an example for how to make a sustainable living,” von Kleist said. “The creative energy exchanged between people here is amazing.”
Von Kleist was born and raised in Connecticut, by parents who were in both music and visual art. She began playing piano around age 5, but the experience just didn’t keep her interest.
Music didn’t capture her full attention until she was 9 years old, when she discovered her mother’s old flute stored away in a cupboard. She taught herself the melody of a song from the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid,” and from that point on knew she wanted to pursue music.
It’s a passion she has spent every moment building on since.
“[A musician] always was what I was and who I am,” von Kleist said. “You choose your own adventure.”
Von Kleist began her adventure by participating in different band classes through her school years, and went on to attend the Manhattan School of Music in New York after high school graduation. She studied there for a year, then transferred to the Juilliard School when the conservatory added a jazz program. In 2004 she graduated from Juilliard with the first bachelor’s degree the school had awarded in jazz studies.
Von Kleist said she was grateful for her time and experiences in school, but her love of music and ultimate career path were born from getting out and playing live shows.
“So stay in school kids, but also get out and do gigs,” she said, laughing.
After graduation, von Kleist began touring with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and recorded two Grammy-nominated recordings with the band. During her time in New York, she also toured, recorded and/or performed with Chris Potter, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Bebo Valdez, Cachao, Celia Cruz, Kristin Chenoweth and Seth MacFarlane, among many others.
Von Kleist has released three albums as a band leader: “Project E” (2005), “Erica von Kleist and No Exceptions” (2010), and “Alpine Clarity” (2014).
“Alpine Clarity,” recorded at Whitefish’s SnowGhost Music studio, was von Kleist’s first major project after moving to Montana. The flute-focused album was, in many ways, the new start von Kleist needed.
“There was a lot of music I had in me that needed to get out,” she said.
The opportunity for collaboration on the album served as her jumping-off point in the Flathead.
“The level of musical talent is just awesome here,” she said.
It was the level of talent combined with the lifestyle that attracted von Kleist to the valley in the first place. She first came to Whitefish visiting a musician friend who was spending the summer playing in the pit orchestra for the Alpine Theatre Project.
The following summer, ATP hired von Kleist to play for the summer season. She never looked back.
“Being a professional musician in New York City is incredible, but not sustainable,” von Kleist said. “I needed a different quality of life.
“An important part of the transition was having the opportunity to socialize and network with people from every walk of life ... Less jazz musicians and more just creative people. It was so liberating.”
Her new life here includes teaching private piano and woodwind lessons; performing around the valley, both as a soloist and with various other collaborative groups; and running her businesses, the Northwest Artist Syndicate and Groovetrail.
Von Kleist said her focus right now is laying down a solid base with the Northwest Artist Syndicate and Groovetrail. The companies are related, but legally function as separate entities.
The Northwest Artist Syndicate is a for-profit company, representing local artists and helping to connect them with performance opportunities. Groovetrail is a nonprofit organization focused on community service through the arts, designed to send live music into schools, nursing homes, retirement communities, veterans’ homes and hospitals.
Von Kleist said she’s happy with the speed of growth both companies have experienced, and is looking forward to continuing to expand.
Going forward, von Kleist shows no signs of slowing down. December will see the culmination of Groovetrail’s current partnership with the Center for Restorative Youth Justice and local singer/songwriter Halladay Quist, with a student performance at the KM Building in Kalispell on Dec. 4 during the Holiday Stroll. Groovetrail also just received a grant from the Whitefish Community Foundation that will kick start the “Gift of Music” program.
The Northwest Artist Syndicate is gearing up for the second annual Singer Songwriter Showdown, scheduled for Feb. 19 at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts. The judging panel is being finalized for the event, and applications for performers are currently being accepted at www.northwestartistsyndicate.com.
Von Kleist is also busy recording for an upcoming album release with singer Eric Michael Krop. The “Eric and Erica” duo frequently perform around the valley, and will be adding a weekly “piano bar”-style gig at the Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish before the first of the year. Von Kleist said the duo recently decided they were ready to take their collaboration to the next level by recording an album together.
“We’re working on embracing who we are, and really bringing it up several notches,” she said.
As if all of that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, von Kleist also just purchased a trombone.
“I have no intention of becoming an expert trombonist,” she said, laughing. “I just want something new and fun to learn how to do.”
In the midst of the musical chaos, von Kleist said she’s found the peace she was searching for in Montana.
“My favorite thing [about living here] ... Being constantly reminded by nature of how small you are,” von Kleist said. “Nothing else matters but breathing the air, smiling, and just enjoying the moment.”
Von Kleist said she hopes both businesses will eventually be large enough to stand on their own, which will allow her to take a less active role. Ultimately, she said she wants to be able to spend more time writing, recording and playing.
“I want to create,” von Kleist said. “The instruments and businesses are all tools of creation, and as an artist and musician it all goes hand in hand.
“I want to constantly keep dreaming.”
Entertainment Editor Stefanie Thompson can be reached at 758-4439 or ThisWeek@dailyinterlake.com.