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Grant MacEwan University welcomes folk musicians

Laura Swankey, Angela Power, Maria Martire, and Allison Nichols - all Vocal Performance Majors in MacEwan University's Music Degree Program

In his timeless instructional book, “How To Play The Five-String Banjo”, Pete Seeger advises aspiring folksingers to learn to read music, “but not enough that it hurts your playing…”  Things have changed a little since 1948, especially in the level of post-secondary education artists working in the folk and acoustic music world achieve.  Many of the instrumentalists and singer songwriters on our festival stages have completed years of study in B.A. and Masters Degree programs in classical music training; while others choose the more self-taught traditional methods by hanging out at square dances hearing the old-timers play the fiddle, passing around songs at campfires, listening to vintage LPs, or by crafting new songs forged from late nights spent alone with a guitar and a story to tell.

Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan University is now offering a four-year Academic Degree B.Mus. program that includes courses including discussions about folk and roots music with an emphasis on jazz and contemporary popular music.  The Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music program begins in September 2011, and will complement its long-established two-year Music Diploma program.  MacEwan’s new music degree program is a rare gem in the heart of Canada’s west; as there are few fully academic B.A. Music programs in North America that place contemporary music in the spotlight rather than classical.

Students can study voice, bass (electric or upright), percussion, guitar and woodwinds as primary instruments, but are encouraged to pursue other instruments alongside; violin, mandolin, banjo or whatever other instruments may delight a student’s ear.  Courses in history of popular music include the work of Canadian jazz pioneers like Jackie Washington and Oscar Peterson, as well as Canadian singer-songwriters like Stan Rogers and Joni Mitchell.  Students can choose to major in Performance or Composition, but songwriting from a contemporary perspective is covered in both streams of study.

Bob Gilligan, Music Department Chair indicates, “Discussion of folk and roots music is an integral component of the course”.  Minors in Music Technology and Music Career Management complement the Music program, offering courses in music recording, processing and editing, booking gigs, promotion and marketing, and grant application writing.  Gilligan says MacEwan’s comprehensive program “allows the student to adapt to whatever they encounter in the music world”.

Many students in classically centered University programs get frustrated by the rigidity of reading every note from the page and miss out on learning the art of improvised jamming.  Not the case at MacEwan, as Gilligan goes on “we have coffeehouses almost every night where the faculty encourages the students to jam with each other, it’s a very people-focused program that embraces improvisation”.

Laura Swankey, a current Diploma student says “we focus mostly on contemporary and jazz music in our classes, and there is practically no classical music studied in this school aside from theory. In the performance major you are able to focus on the style that you choose much more so in your second year, although you are expected to demonstrate an understanding of a wide variety of genres”.

Diploma student Thomas Hay illustrates the focus of study is guided by the major instrument of choice, “as a saxophone player, the main focus for me would be jazz, since horns are typically not used in folk music.  However, if you are in the comprehensive major, are taking general ensemble, and play an instrument that fits into the folk/roots/blues idiom, you have a lot more freedom to pursue studies in that genre”.

Located on its own west-end campus at the Centre For Arts and Communications the study environment is highlighted by a full soft-seat concert hall, rehearsal spaces and cutting-edge recording studios. Gilligan is thrilled by the opportunity to teach in “very exciting and vibrant facility – full of art, music and creativity” that offers so many resources to students, teachers and the community.  Alberta’s vibrant music community is rapidly becoming a hotbed for emerging folk and country music in Canada, and Gilligan says that MacEwan provides “an instant connection to the scene”, as students are introduced to industry contacts from SOCAN, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, FACTOR, and other representatives from label and music management.

The academic schedule allows for a bit of gigging outside of school and at some premiere Edmonton venues such as the Haven Social Club and the Yardbird Suite among others.  Ms.Swankey says “I write and gig mostly with a friend who is a Composition major, as well as continuing to work on my own music. We play mostly acoustic stuff with a heavy folk influence. It is difficult to find times to regularly jam because school is so intense for both of us, but we make the time when we can. Students are definitely encouraged by faculty to jam and experiment musically with each other”.

Graduates of MacEwan’s diploma program include songstresses Colleen Brown and Ann Vriend and hurtin’ Albertan Corb Lund among many others working within the folk/roots community.

West of Toronto, prospective students seeking a degree program in music outside the classical forum have until now had only one choice at the University Of Manitoba’s B Mus program, which concentrates heavily on only jazz. Even in Toronto, with its much greater population base, Humber’s Music Program offers only an applied degree, which may limit graduates to continue into teaching in the elementary and high school system.  MacEwan’s new academic degree program opens up Western Canada as a great place to play and study music with a practical perspective and keen ears on the future of the music industry. MacEwan was rated at the top of this year’s Globe And Mail’s Canadian University Report as the best small University for level of student satisfaction, faculty-student interaction and quality of education.

Applications are currently being accepted for auditions for entry for the fall 2011 degree program at MacEwan; two rounds of live auditions will occur in February and in April, with deadlines for application January 14th and April 8th respectively.   Applications to audition are required to include an unedited DVD performance of two pieces in contrasting styles, one of which can be an original song.  Existing commercial CD recordings are not accepted at the pre-screening level.  Prospective students wishing to study the degree program rather than the diploma program must have a %65 academic average upon graduating secondary school.  In each of the six instrument groups, MacEwan will accept 5 students to the degree program, and 15 in the diploma program, all who will study together a common first year.

More details and information about the MacEwan application and audition process

Ralph Stanley may have an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University, but you still can’t work your way through the school system to get an academic Ph.D. in Bluegrass.  MacEwan’s Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music degree program might get a bit closer by offering students a fully comprehensive practical music education guided by the student’s own musical interests, with the evolving music industry in mind.  In a time when university Bachelor’s Degrees are as common as high-school diplomas once were, Laura Swanky says “I absolutely think that music is a practical education, I don’t think you need a degree to succeed in music, but being having a degree in anything will open doors for you”.

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