Meet Javan Bowden, TNCS’s New Music Director!

Just in time for the upcoming (and highly anticipated) annual Winter Performance, Immersed got the opportunity to interview Music Director Javan Bowden. For the 2019–2020 school year at The New Century School, it was time for former TNCS Music Director Martellies Warren to pass the conducting baton. Although it was hard to say goodbye to our longtime friend, in true Mr. Warren fashion, he made sure he was leaving the superb music program he built in very capable hands. So let’s meet the one person who was right for the job!

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Mr. Bowden and Mr. Warren have more in common than being music educators. First of all, they are both from Alabama, although they did not know each other there (Mr. Bowden’s hometown is Birmingham). Secondly, they are both vocalists for Anthony Brown & Group TherApy. “In 2017, I began an internship program with Anthony Brown’s music label,” explains Mr. Bowden. “I was pretty much his personal assistant and his road assistant for about 6 months. Then, in December of that year he needed another tenor to fill in for their annual Christmas concert. So, I sat in for that, and since then I’ve been a part of the group.”

Musical Talent

Mr. Bowden further explains that, although he is a tenor in the gospel and pop worlds, he is a lyric baritone in the classical realm. (For what that means in practice as well as to hear a sample recording, click “Talk Like an Opera Geek.”)

And, his musical talents don’t stop with voice:

Originally, in the 4th grade, I started my music journey on the trumpet when my dad put one in my hand. I kept playing classical trumpet, and I wound up going to the only fine arts high school in Alabama, Alabama School of Fine Arts. After graduating, I attended Howard University in Washington, DC, where I double minored in classical trumpet and classical voice. In my sophomore year, I let go of the trumpet because it became a little too hectic to juggle both voice and trumpet.

Mr. Bowden still resides in DC, traveling to Baltimore to teach TNCS students on Mondays and Tuesdays. The rest of his workweek consists of his position as data collector in the education department of the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts. “There, we survey middle school kids before and after seeing a music or a theater performance to measure their sense of empathy, their consciousness,” described Mr. Bowden.

If it sounds like Mr. Bowden is a bit of a Renaissance Man, there’s more. At university, he also pursued a music business major that included courses in accounting, economics, law, management of behavior, and various other classes related to the music industry (such as with a music label or as an arts administrator). “It kind of gave me the option to be a performer or handle what’s happening behind the stage,” he said. He certainly uses this career versatility to advantage now!

Road to Education

So just how did he wind up teaching music at TNCS? “Mr. Warren extended the invitation to me,” recounts Mr. Bowden. “He knew that I was looking to expand my passion for music, and he seemed to believe that I could fill his shoes.” Prior to TNCS, Mr. Bowden subbed with Montgomery County schools as an art, English, and music instructor. “Now that I’m solely a music instructor, it has given me the opportunity to brush up on a lot of things that I learned throughout my years and reciprocate everything that was given to me to someone else—that’s really what I always wanted to do, pass along the art and love of music. Someone cared about me enough to cultivate that in me when I was a young kid, and that’s why I’m at this point. I kind of just want to give that back,” he said.

He also wasn’t necessarily interested in being an “extreme performer,” meaning that’s all he would ever do. Music majors basically have only two options, he explained, either that or teaching music, and, as he said, spreading a love of music in kids is important to him. If you’ve ever noticed how TNCS students swarm about him, then you know he is definitely giving them that. He is always smiling, and he developed a rapport with his students from the get-go.

At TNCS

“I enjoy teaching at TNCS,” he said:

It reminds me a lot of the high school I went to in terms of the many different cultures here and all of the languages spoken. It gives me another sense of why I am the way I that am, as accepting of a lot of different types of people. Even though I’m from Alabama, and it’s kind of a conservative state, I was given the opportunity to be in a space where I was accepted, and TNCS resembles that. I feel comfortable here.

His primary goal for the music program is to increase TNCS students’ “music literacy.” “I want to teach the kids to be able to be presented with a piece of music; read it; and identify the key signature, the tempo, and the clef,” he said. “It’s one thing to be orally aware of what’s happening, but it’s another thing to be able to analyze a piece of music on a page. That’s what I was brought up on, and a lot of those fundamentals are dying out. It’s like with reading and writing—you have to know how to write in order to read and read in order to write. It’s the same thing with music.”

He teaches in four separate divisions: one class comprises 5th- through 8th-graders, another 2nd- though 4th-graders, a third of Kindergarteners and 1st-graders, and finally a pre-K class (the latter meets once a month rather than twice a week).

“I have to approach the divisions differently, he explained. “I’m a bit more exacting with my older kids because I have a higher expectation of them. I remember what was expected of me at that age, and I try to replicate that as far as reading music, sight singing, oral awareness . . . I can’t expect the same thing from my K–2 students.”

With the Winter Concert looming, most classes are focused on practice currently. Mr. Bowden reports that he is excited to see all of the moving parts come together. He’s not alone!

Beyond TNCS

In his spare time, Mr. Bowden is a cantor at the Washington National Cathedral every other Sunday. He recently had the good fortune to participate in a commemorative service of the 400th anniversary of the first slave arriving in North America. “It was kind of a big program, and a lot of different delegates were there,” he said. “I was proud and very grateful to be a part of it. I love being there; they’re accepting of a lot of different types of people.”

So . . . want to hear him sing? You can find him on YouTube at both the cathedral and singing on Anthony Brown’s videos. “[2econd Wind: Ready] is my first album with the group, so I can knock that off my bucket list, actually having a real industry project that I’m a part of. I’m very grateful for that.” The album is hot off the press, just released last month, by the way.

The last thing Mr. Bowden wanted the TNCS community to know about him? “I’m a lover of music and people,” he finished. Welcome to TNCS, Javan Bowden!

TNCS Goes to the Grammys!

Or, to be more precise, a member of the TNCS community is going! Music Director and Primary Lead Teacher Martellies Warren (“Mr. Warren” as he is known among The New Century School community) is a tenor with gospel group Anthony Brown & Group TherAPy in his off-teaching hours. (Please read Music is in the Air at TNCS for more on Mr. Warren’s fascinating background.)

This group heads to Los Angeles, California on February 15th to attend the 58th Grammy Award Ceremony, having been nominated for Best Gospel Performance (click on Nominees and scroll to #36). Their live performance of “Worth” from their second album Everyday Jesus was recorded in December 2015. “Worth” has so far spent 41 weeks on the Gospel Billboard Charts, 20 of those weeks at the #1 position. In fact, the album itself debuted at #1. “It’s doing really well,” said Mr. Warren with a proud smile. “And to be nominated out of hundreds of people is just an amazing feeling. We’re super excited!”

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Anthony Brown (left) and Martellies Warren (right) hold two of the three Stellar awards they won for their first album. How many will they take home this time?

As if a Grammy nomination weren’t enough, Anthony Brown & Group TherAPy has also been nominated for a 2015–2016 Stellar Award (the 31st annual). Make that 10 Stellars—yes, 10! “They nominated us for every single thing we were eligible for!” said Mr. Warren. (By the way, Stellar awards are not new to this group, who nabbed three for their first album.) In the past few weeks, the group has rehearsed almost daily for 3–4 hours in preparation for that show happening just days after the Grammys, which they will open and which will take place in Las Vegas. Opening a show, explained Mr. Warren, isn’t just your typical performance. There will be complex choreography, pyrotechnics, and even some special, as-yet undisclosed attire, which secret he would not divulge, except to say that it would be fun and colorful in the beginning, changing to classic toward the end.

Although many would be starstruck by the amount of celebrity Anthony Brown & Group TherAPy have suddenly attained, Mr. Warren remains the consummate professional musician. Not content to rest on their laurels, he says he and the rest of the group want to continue honing their crafts and making worthwhile contributions:

This is the biggest thing we’ve ever undertaken. As artists, we want our music to be well-received by our peers. We have put something out there, and it’s scary, because we want to top the last [and their first, self-titled] album. “Testimony” [from that album] made history as the longest-running gospel single ever. It’s still on the charts, actually. That’s huge, and we want our sophomore album to be even better.

Before releasing these two masterpieces, Group Therapy functioned as background vocalists for just about every other gospel outfit they could before Anthony Brown decided it was time to write and record their own songs. Mr. Warren met Mr. Brown during their college days at Morgan State University, the former on a full vocal scholarship, the latter, piano. Mr. Warren accepted an invitation to audition as a singer for a group Mr. Brown was putting together. As the story goes, the line-up came to Mr. Brown in a dream, which must have been some kind of divine intervention, given that, 16 years later, they are still harmonizing.

This video taken at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, shows their live appearance on the TV show Celebration of Gospel, which features new and rising artists. Although they have been around in some form or another for years, Anthony Brown & Group TherAPy are considered “break-out” artists in their current incarnation, having emerged in superstar fashion on a scene typically dominated by entrenched artists.

Of course, there are probably two questions on everyone’s mind at this point. First, will the TNCS community get to hear Mr. Warren sing? Maybe so. He has pitched the idea to Mr. Brown of making an appearance at TNCS, although not for a full-scale performance, but more so to explore some of the aspects of the genre of gospel music just as TNCS students would any other genre. Second, how has he requested his green room to be stocked, now that he has made the big time? The amazingly talented but ever humble and always professional Mr. Warren says, “I get excited when I see a spread with tea, honey, and lemon. That’s so important to relax the muscles of a singer’s throat. That’s what you want to see.”

If you can’t send tea but want to show your support, send the group all of your good-luck vibes to snare the win(s) at their two upcoming awards shows :)!

Music Is in the Air at TNCS!

 

TNCS Music Director and Lead Montessori Teacher in one of the primary classrooms, Martellies Warren.

TNCS Music Director and Lead Montessori Teacher in one of the primary classrooms, Martellies Warren.

With the Spring Concert upon us, this seemed like the ideal time to profile The New Century School‘s talented and passionate music teacher Martellies Warren. Many of you know Mr. Warren as one of TNCS’s lead Montessori teachers in the primary classroom, and certainly all TNCS parents know him as the maestro behind those afterschool snatches of chorus, those sudden breaks into full-voiced song, and even those vibratto notes (held surprisingly long!) from the kids. But did you also know that Mr. Warren is a professional touring vocalist with gospel group Anthony Brown and Group Therapy?

This musician brings the chops! A native of Montgomery, AL, as a child Mr. Warren was always humming and singing jingles from commercials. “My mom noticed that I seemed to be musically inclined and so she bought me a little keyboard.” He immediately demonstrated an ability to pick out tunes on the keyboard, so the next step was piano lessons, beginning around age 10. By high school, he started formal singing lessons and won first place at his very first vocal competition. The late Dr. Nathan Carter who was Music Director and Chairman of the Music Board at Morgan State University here in Baltimore got wind of this rising star and traveled to Montgomery to recruit him for the music program. On a full vocal scholarship, Mr. Warren arrived in Baltimore in 1998 and began performing across the United States and in Europe with the Morgan State University Choir. He also began performing in musicals such as Porgy and Bess with the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company and others.

After graduating with a classical music degree in voice as well as a degree in education, he decided to make Baltimore his home. “My love for music really blossomed at college, where it started with classical music.” he said. “Now I do classical, gospel, and jazz, and I use my classical training to sing those different types of styles.” In addition to playing the piano, he also picked up trombone along the way, his other main instrument. “I also used to be a band teacher, so I can feel my way around most instruments,” he said. When asked why he took a detour from his music studies into education, he explained, “Being an artist, you never know if you’re going to get a gig. It’s kind of a glass ceiling—I could see more, but I couldn’t get there. I wanted to make sure I had financial stability even while touring or making an album, so I got that education degree under my belt. It started as something to fall back on, but then I fell in love with teaching. So now I teach and sing!”

As it turns out, his dual loves mesh perfectly at TNCS, where he both teaches and teaches music, but the path to TNCS wasn’t perfectly smooth. He started teaching in Baltimore City schools and almost wearied of education altogether. He despaired at what was happening to The Arts in public schools. “Going to work everyday and trying to do the best you can to give the kids a quality [music] education,” he says, “and realizing that your hands are tied and there’s only so much you can do because of the lack of resources and materials and the lack of support for The Arts is heartbreaking. I almost walked away from teaching.”

After a brief hiatus lasting a few months, he answered an ad to substitute teach at the very traditional Julia Brown Montessori School (credited with bringing Montessori teaching to Maryland). There, he ended up getting certified in the Montessori method, teaching for 7 years, and also serving as administrator before realizing that his heart is in the classroom with the kids. In 2012, he arrived at TNCS. He likes TNCS’s somewhat less traditional Montessori approach that allows him the room to bring in the music. In his own primary classroom, he incorporates a lot of it, whether singing songs together as a class or with classical music playing in the background, which he says helps keep the atmosphere calm and the kids focused. He appreciates that music is not “last on the totem pole, first to go” at TNCS. Instead, it’s considered essential, as all of “the specials” are fundamental to the TNCS approach to educating the “whole child.” “I’m passionate about being a music educator,” he says. “To have someone devalue that or not see it as essential is heartbreaking. Allowing children to have art and music alongside the academics brings back the sparkle in their eyes. It makes them happy.”

A primary class having a music lesson with Mr. Warren seated at the piano (not visible from this angle).

Primary students practice recognizing the notes of the music scale and demonstrating them with hand gestures.

Primary students practice recognizing the notes of the music scale and demonstrating them with hand gestures.

“The wonderful thing about coming to The New Century School is that I wasn’t held to a curriculum. They said, ‘We trust you. We trust your expertise. Let us know what you would like to bring to the school.’ So that’s what I did. I brought my love for performances, my love for the skillset—the educational portion. I try to give the kids a really good mix of everything.”

No performance-goer could deny that the bi-annual concerts at TNCS have scaled new heights under his tutelage. The Spring Concert underway currently was inspired by his love for the performing arts. “I have always had an affinity for the theater,” he said. In addition to playing the lead in Porgy and Bess, he has performed in The Wiz, Into the Woods, and others. “I decided to start the year by teaching about composers—Bach, Mozart—listening to music, and breaking down that aspect. So the first half of the school year was very structured. The children were interested, but they couldn’t wait to get back into the performance aspect! We saved the second half to let loose, have a little fun, and explore some different things.”

“I thought, why not try Broadway?” he said. “I want to do something different each year, to continue to evolve. The kids have really taken to showtunes, so even though Broadway is a huge undertaking, I think the children are doing a wonderful job.” They first delved into the history of Broadway and that particular area of New York City as well as the concept of what it would take for a school-aged child to perform on Broadway. “They were shocked to learn that children perform on Broadway. The number one question I got was, ‘How do they go to school?'” he said. “Everything you have to do, including homework, they have to do, too, plus rehearse and perform in daily shows.” This gave him the ideal opportunity to discuss the discipline required to pursue a career in the arts. Drawing on his own childhood, he explained that kids who want to be performers might have to trade playtime for practice and rehearsal. “They were really blown away by that.”

Making this connection to their own lives has only deepened their enthusiasm for putting on this show. The assortment of songs comes from several Broadway shows, including Mary Poppins; The Wiz; The Wizard of Oz; Annie, Get Your Gun; and Matilda. “Matilda is the standout this year; the kids really love that one so we’re doing three songs from that.” He has even included a top-hat number from On Broadway in the line-up. “I revised the lyrics to make it more kid-friendly,” he said, laughing.

What performers inspire him personally? “Classically, I’ve always been a huge fan of Luciano Pavarotti,” he says. Other favorites include the great jazz trumpeter Winton Marsalis, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, and the inimitable Frank Sinatra. His own voice is classified as tenor. Once a lyric tenor, he says all of his years teaching have deepened his voice and he now considers himself more of a “dramatic” tenor. As for his own music, although he compares the timbre of his voice to Pavarotti’s, his preferred genre is gospel, where he is something of a superstar.

In addition to performing with some of gospel’s biggest names, such as Dove Award–winning Maurette Brown-Clark, mega-producer Donald Lawrence, Tonex, the incomparable Lecresia Campbell, and many more, he is also a founding member of the Pi Eta chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia national music fraternity. And then there are his awards. Anthony Brown and Group Therapy took away three Stellar Awards this year, which Mr. Warren describes as “gospel’s equivalent to the Grammys.” They won Best Video of the Year (for “Testimony,” which you can view here), Best Male Contemporary Singer of the Year, and Best Group of the Year. Stellar indeed! Anthony Brown and Group Therapy also had the distinction of being the opening act on Season 7 of BET’s “Sunday Best,” which will air July 13th.

Television appearances, music videos, concerts, award ceremonies . . . how does he manage to do all that and still accomplish all that he does at TNCS? “It’s a juggling act,” he laughs, “to make sure my music career doesn’t conflict with my teaching. But my children get as much of me as possible.” He is also quick to point out that he keeps the two careers separate in other ways. “I try to be mindful of everyone’s religious beliefs. My music is Christian-based, but I like to share what I’m doing with TNCS parents just to keep them in the loop. I always try to make it clear that this is not a part of TNCS, this is me. We have so many different ethnicities and religions and beliefs at the school, and we come together and we make a huge melting pot community. That’s the awesome part of The New Century School.”

Certainly, the multicultural atmosphere TNCS strives for is something parents value tremendously. But TNCS’s incredible, amazing, loving, talented, dedicated staff might also be what makes the school so “awesome.” Thank you for all you do, Mr. Warren!