Brent graduate students 2019 IICSI cohort Community Building through Formal and Non-Formal Music Learning: An Interview With My Father

By Brent Rowan

This podcast, “Community Building through Formal and Non-Formal Music Learning: An Interview with my Father,” was completed as part of Brent Rowan’s Major Research Project for the Critical Studies in Improvisation program at the University of Guelph.


One part of my autoethnographic study to better understand my own musical development and facilitation skills was to conduct an interview with my father. I wanted to further understand where he came from in terms of his musical development and how that impacted the beginnings of my own musical development. This interview shed light on the role music played in my father’s life, how his musical ability was developed, and how he used music to accompany the building of community. Whether he was accompanying the congregation at church, the girls at school, a square dance event at university, or entertaining at a community party, my father drew on the skills he developed through his formal private music lessons and his non-formal musical experiences such as jamming with his father on guitar, or learning songs by ear with his cousins. Listening to his audience and improvising the content according to what he heard was a key component of how my father ensured that he contributed to building the community’s spirit. As I learned about the improvisation, accompanying, and listening skills that my father used, I noticed many parallels to the skills I rely on for my own pedagogical practice. These parallels and my father’s description of his experiences are presented on this podcast.

You can listen to the podcast and read its transcript below.


[Legend: N = Brent’s narration, B = Brent’s voice in the interview, D = Dad’s voice in the interview]

D: The first place I ever remember being playing at anything was when I was about 5 years old, I remember and my dad used to play the violin.


N: On May 11th 2020 I interviewed my father. I wanted to develop a better understanding of my musical upbringing. Currently I am doing research for a Master of Arts in a program called Critical Studies in Improvisation at the University of Guelph. My study is an autoethnography focusing on my facilitation techniques as I work in Community Music contexts, or simply put, I am studying how I do what I do.

My memory of music in our home was that Dad was the church organist on Sundays but also liked to play what I thought was pretty old school dance music, like square dance songs, on the family piano.


I also recall my brother, sister and I sitting around the piano with my dad playing along with various songs mostly out of books of some kind that were sitting around. It could be hymn books or the Reader’s Digest Family Song Book.

So in order to learn more about my dad’s musical influence on me, I thought I would ask him some questions about the role music had played throughout his life.

The interview was arranged to be done on Zoom as we were right in the midst of the first lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. Setting up a zoom interview with my 81 year old father was an all-day challenge, but after some socially distanced technical support from both my brother and I, we were able to make a Zoom connection. (Zoom sound effect)

B: Thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview. I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with music in your life. Do you have any questions?

D: Not at the moment. I’ll need to know a little bit about it before I can figure out a question.

N: Ok that is great Dad but actually I am going to ask you questions.

B: But I’ll read the question out loud. Talk about your musical upbringing, lessons, musical experiences, music in your family and/or community.

D: Ok.

N: After 14 seconds of silence I asked.

B: Are you there?

D: I am primed and waiting.

B: No, I just asked you the question, you didn’t hear it?

D: No I didn’t hear a question

N: I guess technically he was right. I didn’t actually ask a question, I just asked him to talk. I recall reading a quote from musician and facilitator Pheone Cave who was talking about facilitation techniques where she says “in short essential qualities are described as patience, patience, patience and empathy, empathy, empathy” (Higgins & Willingham 115).

D: The first place I ever remember being playing at anything was when I was about 5 years old, I remember and my dad used to play the violin. He learned, I think his mother gave him a violin when he was young and he just picked it up and no lessons at all and with his ear he learned to play jigs and reel square dance tunes.

N: Turns out I just need to slow down to his pace and just encourage him to keep going.

D: Well then he got me a guitar, he taught me some chords and so I learned to play with him and he would play the square dance tunes and I would chord with him and the first thing we did was when I was about 5 years old. I had just started, or I was just starting public school and we had a Christmas concert and one of the items on the program was to have ah my dad and me play a number and so I remember the first time he could play ah good square dance tune and I could chord to him and oh that went over quite well cause here’s this little kid and his dad playing a tune and that was the first thing that I could ever say that I played out. Music:

N: So my dad’s first teacher was his dad who had no formal musical training and just played by ear. As I listen and reflect on my father’s words in this interview I find this reference to formal music lessons a familiar theme from time to time.

D: Dad was not an accomplished fiddle player but he knew that, he knew the tunes and he knew the time and he was he would have been very good if he have had lessons and all that I am sure.

N: It would appear my dad had an excellent balance between formal and non formal music learning experiences. In my community music work this is something we discuss quite frequently. The idea that learning that happens outside of formal music lessons holds just as much value as the learning that happens inside formal music lessons.

D: My music teacher was um an ardent classical teacher. She liked classical music, she didn’t like that other stuff that uh people played. So I had to learn on classical. I got that I did not appreciate classical.


N: I have often wondered what kind of music my dad would listen to by choice. As we will hear throughout this interview prior to starting a family my dad played a wide variety of musics. One theme that seems to be common in each style was that the role my father played was that of accompaniment. He always seemed to gravitate towards music with a purpose.

D: In the church that we went to any kid that played the piano or anything like that would be asked to play for hymns for the Sunday school, and then afterwards we’d ah play a march to get the kids back upstairs, and ah a bit of experience in playing for kids marching and whatever they like and that is where I first started to learn how to accompany and to for people singing which was great. Well then that was alright cause that wasn’t classical stuff so hey there’s good music there.

N: This began the path to my dad becoming the church organist a few years later which technically he still is over 65 years later. I say technically because COVID-19 has cancelled church for well over a year and his declining mobility due to age and a large decrease in activities has made it difficult to continue as the official church organist.


D: Well then when I went to high school at noon hour the girls in the high school, after they had their lunch they would go into the auditorium and they get somebody would play the piano and the girls would dance. No boys would come in it was just the girls. They would dance, somehow or other I got to kinda interested in not the girls but in the music and ah that started ah fiddling around with some of these tunes and dance tunes they had and so they said can you play for us, play this, I learned to play them by ear, that’s how it was and that’s where I got involved with ah the dance music.

N: The auditorium that he is referring to was converted into the music room when the high school went through a massive renovation and that was the music room that my siblings and I learned all about instrumental music. For my dad it really was his high school music room too.


N: With all of the formal training that my dad had at this time the skill most valuable to him was the one passed on to him by his father – learning to play music by ear. For me this is an excellent demonstration of how non-formal learning really helped build a community. The girls in the school really just wanted to dance together and have some fun at lunch time but of course this would not have been able to happen without my father’s ability to learn their music by ear. He had to listen to their requests, learn the songs and accompany these girls so that they could have some fun dancing.


D: Well then later on my cousins, they were ah musically inclined and then we would start fiddling around together and start playing these dance tunes, and ah people in the community would have a party sometime and they’d have to they would want some music so they would ask the Rowan boys to come and play. Following notes was not the way to play or to learn. We’d just hear it on the radio or we’d hear it somewhere or whatever and pick up the tunes and play them by ear.

N: Another mention of learning the popular music of the time by ear – but…

D: because I had my grade 8 and because I could read music fairly well I started getting copies of these, ah, modern tunes as we called them and then I’d take them and when we’d have a get together we’d go over some of these tunes and learn them

N: I notice the parallels to my own musical life. My father was a conduit for learning the modern tunes he referred to with his cousins. Because he could read music and learn songs by ear he knew how to teach his ear learning cousins these modern songs. Dad spoke the language of formal and non-formal music learning. In my career as a community music facilitator I often find myself improvising how I speak to people about music. Listening to how each person speaks about music helps me understand what type of musical language I need to communicate with them. Sometimes I rely on my very early classical theory, other times my formal jazz education and sometimes I just sing a part and say it goes like that!

D: and then we’d get a few of these tunes that ah the three of us had learned to play and we’d start playing and people by gosh would get up and they thought this was alright and they’d try to dance and they did…. Well it just developed from there and I guess it was about four, five or six years, we got a little bit better and ended up going out to different places and playing like some of the local bands did around.

B: What years was that?

D: So you, what was that?

B: What years.

D: What years?

B: Ya. Like 19???

D: Ok when I was of high school at 17 or 18 so

B: So 55-56 somewhere in there

D: Ya 56 I graduated from high school so it would be around that time

N: Very early in my career I was teaching private lessons and playing whatever freelance jazz saxophone gigs came my way. For the most part these were events in the community that wanted to have music. I wasn’t always playing for a dance like my father but the idea that I was playing music and earning money at a community event just like my father intrigues me because it was a part of his life that he did not really talk about, or if he did I was not listening as a youngest child!

D: The rest is history because when we started, well I went to the OAC for a few years and ah I got involved with a group in there and it was more or less a square dance band and ah we played a lot of functions at the OAC.

N: The OAC stands for the Ontario Agricultural College associated with the University of Guelph.

D: when ah we finished that the Leahys took over.

B: Oh.

D: And I always thought oh that’s good they got a good band like that, they replaced us.

B: Right.

D: You know the Leahys, (chuckles), they are professional players, they’re excellent.

N: And with that my father defines what he means by a “good band”, “they are professional players” and “they’re excellent”. And there is no regretful tone here either as essentially he and his bandmates were graduating and leaving the school. I guess another question for my father would be if they replaced you with professionals, doesn’t that mean you were a professional? Or more to the theme of how my dad learned music we could ask the question. How does a professional learn music? Is it through formal music lessons or non-formal community band jam like sessions? It would appear that while my father didn’t think of himself as a professional he definitely benefited from a wide variety of learning experiences throughout his life. I feel that these were the types of musical experiences he was able to create in my life as well, thus laying the ground-work for me to become a professional community musician. More on that development in the next podcast as we will continue listening to the interview with my father which continues with this question.

B: What role did music play in the home?

D: Well ok ah…