Students learn the art of improvisation

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Matthew Golombisky, the bass player with the Institute for Creative Music New York Jazz Collective, works with the Flathead High School Concert Band on Tuesday. The Collective is spending time at five area high schools this week, culminating with a free concert today at Columbia Falls High School at 6:30 p.m. 

Whether in orchestra or concert band, music students from Northwest Montana schools learned the art of instrumental improvisation this week under the direction of a New York jazz collective.

The five-member collective from the Institute for Creative Music is headed by drummer Chris Teal and trombonist Nick Finzer and includes trumpet player Mike Kaupa, pianist Chris Ziemba and bassist Matthew Golombisky.

Over the past week, the collective has been busy holding workshops and teaching students at Columbia Falls, Flathead, Stillwater Christian and Lincoln County high schools and Whitefish Middle School and Whitefish High School

One of the aims is to encourage the students to cut loose and play with musical notes.

Today, students will participate in an intensive all-day event learning technical aspects of music production and distribution through hands-on workshops in mixing, recording, composing, songwriting and starting student bands.

Their hard work culminates with a free concert at 6:30 p.m. today in the Columbia Falls High School auditorium.

On Tuesday, the group worked with Flathead High School students. Band teacher Allen Slater said most of the younger students would be learning improvisation techniques for the first time.

“Improvisation is not usually a part of our regular classes, but the older kids have done it in various forms. Today’s improvisations are really unique because they’re doing whole band arrangements,” Slater said.

Teal said improvisation usually takes advanced players back to an elemental level.

“We do a lot of teaching of songs by ear — singing them and then having them play it on their instruments,” Teal said. “We break down the melody into little pieces they can then use as the basis for improvisation.”

Flathead musicians practiced an improvisation exercise composed by Golombisky for a mixed orchestra. This sheet music was different from traditional pieces students were familiar with. Rhythmic elements were denoted on sheet music, but music notes were replaced with “x’s,” and students were given a choice of notes to play.

“When you put the chart in front of them, their faces are blank,” Golombisky said. “Once you break down the sections — even though it looks alien to them at first, they’re familiar with it.”

Finzer added: “Kids improvise without even knowing it by choosing a series of notes. It’s like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book except you have guided experience.”

During the Flathead jazz band class, collective members performed a Miles Davis song, then taught students how to learn a song by ear without sheet music.

“We perform it for them, sing them the melody, have them sing it back and then work through playing it on their instruments,” Teal said.

After singing back three notes of the Miles Davis song, senior Garth West was asked to improvise using them. Holding up his trumpet, he dove into a solo performance.

“It’s not as daunting as it seems,” Finzer said.

This is his fifth year in a jazz band but second year doing solos.

“You do whatever with the notes you’re given,” West said about improvisation. “The rhythm should fit with the rhythm section or mood of the song.”

Teal said he and Finzer formed the Institute as an avenue to bring professional performers in classrooms and teach music in a compelling and interactive way from performance and recording to production.

“Instead of just telling them what we do, we bring them into it. We teach them songs that we play,” Teal said.

When the musicians are not traveling with the Institute, they play in jazz, rock or classical groups.

The collective was brought to the Flathead Valley with support from an $8,000 Plum Creek Great Classrooms Grant submitted by Columbia Falls High School band director Karen Ulmer. Ulmer’s students worked with the collective Monday. The experience was an inspiration for some of her students.

“My third-period class has decided they are writing their own music for the Christmas concert,” Ulmer said.

For more information about the Institute for Creative Music, visit

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at

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