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!
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.”
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.
“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!
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!