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Know Your Madisonian | Chelcy Bowles

Know Your Madisonian: Chelcy Bowles

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Chelcy Bowles

Chelcy Bowles is a co-founder of the Madison Early Music Festival, which runs this year from July 6-12.

New knowledge and old music are passions for Chelcy Bowles.

Bowles, a professor of music and director of Continuing Education in Music at UW-Madison, is a co-founder of the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF), which this year runs Saturday through July 12. The festival brings in world-class musicians to lead workshops — regularly reaching a capacity of about 100 participants — and offers a week-long series of lectures and concerts for the public. Ticket prices and a full schedule are online at:

A Texas native, Bowles has a background in public school music teaching and teacher education. She came to Madison for her multi-faceted “dream job,” which includes coordinating a wide range of music classes for adults through the UW’s community adult music education program.

Q: What is the Madison Early Music Festival?

A: It’s an intensive week of celebrating music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. Every year we choose a different topic — it might be a geographical area, a composer or an event. This year, we’re focusing on a festival that took place in Stuttgart in 1616. It was a princely christening. A huge festival was typical of state events during that time. Fabulous music was written by the best composers of the day.

During our all-festival concert, for example, when all our workshop participants and faculty artists perform together, we’ll perform a big Mass. We have something really special Thursday night: the German vocal ensemble Calmus Ensemble Leipzig. They’re young people, and they’ve won numerous prizes. 

Q: Tell us more about your job.

A: Of course, I’m totally dedicated to music for children and youth. But I’ve always been very dedicated to music education for adult learners, because I feel that’s an area that we as a profession don’t address. And throughout our country there are few opportunities, really, for people to begin learning music as adults or to resume playing after they’ve been away from it for awhile. My job is literally the only one of its kind in the country. Even though I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, I really have to pinch myself — because I get to spend my career now focusing on this.

Q: Why is music education important for adults?

A: I think in our country we underestimate that particular aspect of what’s unique to humans — the instinct to create and express ourselves through the arts. The schools attend to that, but once students graduate from high school, we don’t necessarily provide those opportunities. We spend most of our lives as adults. We are really driven to make music and make art, and I think we need to tend to that aspect of ourselves as humans, just as we have to make sure we’re healthy physically.

Q: You perform around town?

A: I’ve always been a harpist. I played mainly classical and historical music for years and years. The last decade I’ve concentrated on Irish traditional music. So I’ve been an adult learner myself — because it’s really a completely different form of music learning (by ear). You learn from other musicians, really. I play in an Irish traditional music session at Brocach Irish pub on the Square every Wednesday night. Occasionally, I play with MadHarpers, a group of people who are at all levels, and we just have a lot of fun.

Q: Has being in the seat of an adult learner given you a different perspective on your job?

A: Absolutely. It’s taught me that there are many, many different ways to learn. And adult learners come with a lot of musical experiences and background and expertise. I think we have to respect what people have learned in their lives — and the fact that they’ve learned a lot about themselves and what they want and the way they learn.

— Interview by Gayle Worland

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