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Week of December 3, 2012

Faculty Spotlight

Jazz pianist combines love of music, nature

Although Ellen Rowe says she was born with perfect pitch, she continues to hone her skills with daily practice at the piano.

Primarily self-taught as a child, her high school band director insisted that she take jazz piano lessons in order to play in the jazz ensemble at the school. Without the discipline imposed by the lessons it’s now her responsibility to get up early, sit at the piano bench and start her mornings with music. “I’ve got to get in at least a warm-up. I’ve got to have some time to practice that I don’t allow anything to impinge upon,” Rowe says.

Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.

As associate professor and chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, she splits her time between teaching, administrative duties and her research, which is performing as a jazz pianist, composing, and arranging. “Organization is paramount,” she says, “as is discipline.” She teaches this to her students, who must learn “where the music they love comes from. We want students to have a good grounding in the traditions and history of the music.” Everything comes full circle — as Rowe teaches her students about the history of jazz, they teach her about new music, too.

“There’s a lot of contemporary music out there I wouldn’t have checked out. Rap, for one,” Rowe says.

As chair of the department, Rowe gets to know all of its students. She teaches Improvisation I and II classes, private lessons, Jazz Piano for the non-pianists in the program, and she directs the jazz ensemble.

Rowe also contributes her own music to the jazz tradition, with three CDs out and two more in the works. She has been performing with her trio and quartet at the Kerrytown Concert House for the last six years, as well.

“We still rehearse the melodies of the pieces, our intros, endings and transitions. But we’ve developed a rapport so that no matter what happens during an improvised performance, everyone is listening and able to respond,” she says.

She also finds inspiration in nature. An avid mountain climber and runner, Rowe has traveled the world to climb and run, and her album “Denali Pass” was inspired by climbing Mount McKinley. Climbing mountains in South America and running trails in northern Michigan sparked other pieces. Rowe recently completed a 50 miler and her next race will be a marathon on Catalina Island in California.

“It requires a bit of discipline,” Rowe says of running, “but it’s so important to me and I enjoy doing it.” She runs every evening — oftentimes right before she sits down to practice piano.

As a child, Rowe hiked with her family in New England, but as an adult she didn’t do any serious mountain climbing until the drummer in her group suggested it.

Rowe had to take classes to prepare for her higher climbs. “We learned how to travel on a glacier, use an ice axe, pull sleds, make a winter camp, and deal with accidents. At one point, they send you down a short, steep grade head first, on your back, and you have to twist around and plant your ice axe so you don’t continue to fall. It’s exciting,” Rowe says.

Rowe says she looks for “life experiences where you push yourself and challenge yourself” and has found it not only in mountain climbing but in teaching and performing music, too.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at


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Ellen Rowe, associate professor and chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, on what inspires her: "At the moment, the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai."


The Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design’s 2012 Juried Undergraduate Exhibition, through Dec. 21 in the Jean Paul Slusser Gallery, Art & Architecture Building.

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