Large Ensemble Improvisation & Collaboration
Active Listening
Working with Classically Trained Musicians

Thollem’s “relentless touring and performance schedule, and the diverse range of artists with whom he collaborates, reflect his unique versatility and sensitivity.”
– Dr. Mark Kirschenmann, Uinv. of Michigan

“Thollem’s ability to focus on and orchestrate the range of each participant’s abilities into a creative work that raises the quality of the whole, is the result of his years of tireless, rigorous international experimentation”.
– Dr. Hafez Modirzadeh, San Francisco State Univ.

I was completely overwhelmed with how amazing the performance worked out. Every student left that evening truly being able to say that they were creators of music and NOT just performers of music.
– Diane Wyant, Director of Bands, Branham H.S.

Thollem grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the son of the dedicated and inspiring piano teacher, Geraldine Simons. He began teaching private and group piano and theory lessons when he was 13 years old. Over the years he has branched out into working with musicians and non-musicians alike in a wide variety of approaches and techniques through private lessons, large ensembles in music conservatories, high school concert bands, with developmentally disabled adults and children, the incarcerated, the elderly, youth symphonies and chamber ensembles. He has been traveling perpetually for many years working within communities throughout North America and Europe collaborating with a wide array of musicians, dancers, filmmakers, writers, poets, and painters.

Large Ensemble Improvisation & Collaboration Clinics

Thollem’s large ensemble improvisation and collaboration clinics explore group collaboration, large ensemble improvisation (structured, conducted and free), egalitarian group dynamics, consensus decision-making, and communication skills as well as listening exercises, extended techniques, philosophy of improvisation musically and life in general. 

Overall, the emphasis is not necessarily on individual creativity but on sonic exploration as a collaborative process. The clinics encourage participation by anyone regardless of their musical experience, age, or language and the techniques can be adopted as teaching tools for participants to share with others. Most importantly, the clinics develop organically from the input of the participants, a natural progression, a structured improvisation of its own. Participants will leave with a greater ability to work collaboratively with others and to fully realize their own ideas and projects. Each clinic develops according to the group, empowering individuals long after it has finished. Thollem has worked within many communities and ensembles throughout the U.S., Mexico and Europe, in universities, conservatories, grade schools, prisons, art and senior centers.

Large ensemble and collaboration workshops begin with the inception
of an ensemble of otherwise disparate individuals and develops, through collaboration, to create an identity as an ensemble.

The workshop can be presented in one of two ways (both are open to everyone regardless of their experience with collaboration and/or the arts):

  1. Focus primarily on music
  2. Focus on multi-disciplinary collaborations
    (Dancers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, actors, fine artists and more)

As well as traditional musical instruments and voices, the workshop may also incorporate found objects and objects that already naturally exist in the space, the acoustical properties of the space and everything possible that we discover as an ensemble throughout the process.

Overall, the emphasis is not necessarily on individual creativity but on exploration personally as well as with others collaboratively. This workshop encourages participation by anyone regardless of their musical experience, age, or language. Most importantly, the workshop develops organically from the input of the participants, a natural progression, a structured improvisation of its own.

Participants will leave the workshop with a greater ability to work collaboratively with others and to see their own ideas and projects through to their full realization. The workshop is specifically
designed to empower individuals long after it has finished.

Active Listening

This workshop focuses on one of the most important skills in living: listening. This one-three hour listening workshop leaves the participants aurally rejuvenated, enhancing their awareness of the nuances of everyday sounds of life.


In a lecture situation, Thollem talks about his approach as a composer/performer, his work with large ensembles, as well as his travels and the benefits of this lifestyle.

He performed for [my students] briefly on the piano, and then talked with them about his musical development, training, and interests, along with some of his notable performance experiences around the world, his recording projects, and his life in general as an entrepreneurial free-lance musician. He also demonstrated some of his improvisation techniques. The session was thoroughly enjoyable and engaging…” – Jonathan McNair, UT-Chattanooga

Working with Classically Trained Musicians

Thollem has been working on his improvisational techniques with great musicians of classical training for many years now. Some of his more well-known works have been with Stefano Scodanibbio (‘On Debussy’s Piano And’ on Die Schachtel Records), and a quartet release with Daniele Roccato, Marco Rogliano and Francesco Dillon recorded at the Rassegna di Nuovo Musica in Macerata (released on Setola di Maiale). He has also worked with full symphonic orchestras such as Orquesta Libertad in Oaxaca, México, and the San José Symphony Youth Orchestra as well as in universities and conservatories throughout N. America and Europe. As a classically trained musician himself, he has a deep understanding of the challenges classically trained musicians face as they engage in improvisation. Thollem has devised simple ways to unlock creativity and help empower musicians towards self expression and collaboration who have otherwise attained high levels of musicianship.

Some important elements that Thollem emphasizes to classically trained musicians:
1. Improvisation is simply the action of free will. It can be as simple as playing a sound without the direction from another human. The process itself is as important as the result and at times even moreso.
2. The techniques classical musicians have attained over years of training are fundamental to the ability to improvise even though the process of attainment often negates the freedom of expression unnecessarily.
3. Improvisation used to be an integral aspect of the European Concert Music traditions. Bach improvised fugues, Beethoven wrote extensively about improvisation in his compositional process and of course the virtuosi competitions in the Romantic era were displays of profound spontaneous relationship to their instruments and sound. Improvisation has been widely utilized by modern composers.

Past workshops/lectures/master classes include:
o Jazzores Festival – Ponta Delgada, The Azores – Portugal
o CalArts – Santa Clarita, CA – USA
o Fylkingen – Stockholm, Sweden
o Orquesta Libertad – Oaxaca, Mexico
o Music Conservatory – Thessoloniki, Greece
o Portland State University – Portland, OR – USA
o The Shed – Dublin, Ireland
o Trasporti Marritimi Festival – France
o University of Ohio – Akron, OH – USA
o Scuola Populare Di Musica Ivan Illich – Bologna, Italy
o University of Illinois – Urbana, IL – USA
o Tavola Tonda – Palermo, Italy
o Centre Municipal Culture et Loisirs – Gap, France
o Easy Lemon Loft – Chattanooga, TN – USA
o Centr’Arti – San Marino
o MU.VI.MENT.S Festival – Itri, Italy
o High Mayhem – Santa Fe, New Mexico – USA
o Improvisation methods utilized in both the
   Cologne School of Music and the Paris Conservatory
o University of Wisconsin, Madison – USA
o University of TN, Chattanooga – USA
o University of San Francisco, California – USA
o Branham High School, San José, California – USA
o Outsound New Music Summit San Francisco, California – USA