Sharing Music Theory

By Beacon Staff

The meaning of music is impossible to define, since it means different things to different people. But as a language, music has distinct patterns, a near-universal means of communication. It can indicate a broad time and place, or it can be a feeling, a form of expression unique to those who create it.

For Erica von Kleist, music is the force that has driven her life for the past 12 years. It brought her to New York City to study and play and teach, and it drew her to the Flathead Valley to work with the Alpine Theatre Project.

And now, music is a conversation between von Kleist and the patrons at Crush Wine Bar in Whitefish on Monday nights. At 7 p.m., von Kleist takes the stage with a keyboard and a microphone and leads the bar through a music theory class.

If that sounds out of ordinary in the Flathead, it is, von Kleist said, but it’s also something in which she’s well versed. Along with her two albums, von Kleist has also published a book on music theory and teaches it as well.

The classes at Crush, which are free, can help educate musicians and non-musicians about why songs sound the way they do.

“I’m really trying to cultivate something there that is beneficial for the music community,” von Kleist said. “(The class is) not just for musicians. It’s for anyone who wants to come and open up their ears to music.”

Von Kleist is regarded as one of the up-and-coming musicians in the New York jazz scene, where she spent 12 years studying music. She plays a plethora of instruments, including the saxophone, flute, piccolo, piano and more. Her education began at the Manhattan School of Music before she finished out her bachelor’s degree at the Juilliard School.

The foray into the Flathead music scene began last summer, when von Kleist came out to lend her talents to the Alpine Theatre Project.

“I came out here and just fell in love with the area,” von Kleist said.

She also appreciated the pace in Northwest Montana compared to the constant rush of New York City. To exist as a musician there, one must operate on full throttle on a constant basis, she said, and that gets exhausting after a decade.

“If you just want some fresh air and some space to breathe, it’s kind of hard to find that there,” she said. “I’m now living here 80 percent of the time and I’m back in New York about 20 percent of the time.”

That 20 percent represents gigs she’s hired for, von Kleist said, and it is helping wean her off the lifestyle she’s had for so long. It’s tough to go “cold turkey” when you leave New York, she said.

To make a living in the Flathead, von Kleist has started a private lessons studio, and has found that there are plenty of students willing to learn her particular type of music theory.

A group of music theory students sits at the bar at Crush Lounge in Whitefish as Erica von Kleist, left, quizzes them on chord inversions and chord extensions. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

The idea behind it, she said, is to teach with numbers. Instead of the traditional do-re-mi scale, von Kleist teaches it as one, two, three, giving students an idea of where the notes exist in relation to one another. This way, a person can start learning music theory without necessarily having to know how to read sheet music, she said.

“I teach this way because a lot of people who come to me for theory advice might not read music very well or might not have a ton of technique or ability on their instrument, but are hearing things and want to know what they’re hearing in music,” von Kleist said.

That’s also how she runs the music theory classes at Crush. She’ll discuss a different topic each week, and usually ends up having the whole bar sing along to help them understand.

Then, every other week, von Kleist and local jazz musician Don Caverly take the stage to perform in their duo, Donny and Kleist.

Von Kleist’s students will also perform in Whitefish at a June 2 recital at Quickee’s Pub, starting at 6 p.m.

“It’s open to the public and we’re just going to be jamming out,” she said.

Von Kleist said she welcomes the challenge of helping those who may not have the technical knowledge of music understand its esoteric and mathematical aspects, and in doing so, challenging herself to be a better musician.

“I’m just as much a teacher as I am a performer and I think the two go hand in hand,” she said. “If you can teach then I think that makes you a better performer.”

For more information on Erica von Kleist, visit www.ericavonkleist.com.

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