Meet Dr. Thomas Rowell, Creativity is His Middle Name
Posted on July 29, 2020 by Amber Day
Dr. Thomas Rowell is the coordinator of graduate studies in music, coordinator of vocal studies, and directs USA Opera Theatre. He teaches studio voice, vocal diction, vocal pedagogy, opera history, and song literature. Dr. Rowell has served at the University for nearly 17 years. He typically maintains a very active performing schedule as a recitalist and soloist with roles at regional opera companies. However, the recent pandemic has forced Rowell to be creative and specifically creative with his courses offered at South.
“The transition to online teaching was most challenging for me with voice lessons, of course,” Rowell said. “The buzz word in my field right now is ‘latency,’ because of the lag time between a pianist and a vocalist in a Zoom lesson, which makes it impossible to have both in sync. We have made the best out of the situation, even though it’s not nearly ideal for refining a singing voice through the internet. Opera is still something we can’t come up with a solution to produce online, but we’re working on it.... My biggest regret about the spring is that we didn’t get to do our production of ‘The Mikado.’ Fingers crossed it will happen in 2021.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been technological developments in how musicians work together to make music in real time.
“Hopefully, some of those innovations will create a more practical experience for the students and us very soon,” Rowell said. “I will most likely continue to teach voice lessons remotely due to the fact that singers are ‘super-spreaders’ with the amount of aerosol they project when singing, and there’s still not a safe solution to teach in-person voice lessons until we have a vaccine. We’ll have to see about opera.’”
Rowell earned a M.M. in Vocal Performance from Austin Peay State University in 1992, and a D.M.A. in Vocal Performance with a secondary emphasis in College Administration from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1998.
“I started teaching in 1988 as a K-12 music specialist before I moved on to teaching at the collegiate level in 1998,” Rowell said. “I taught at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and was chair of the Fine Arts Department and director of choral activities at the University of Mobile before coming to South.”
Rowell truly has a passion for teaching. And his journey to a career in music and teaching is quite interesting.
“I love just about everything I teach,” Rowell said. “Each class, whether it’s voice lessons, vocal diction, song and opera literature, opera rehearsals, or vocal pedagogy brings its own challenges and rewards. They’re all very unique.”
Rowell finds ‘Vocal Pedagogy MUE 448’ a particularly rewarding class. "It’s the course in which I teach the students how to teach voice lessons. It’s the class where everything they’ve learned in their individual lessons and vocal/choral classes comes together, and they have the big ‘aha!’ moment when they see how everything they’ve been taught works together.”
Rowell began college as a business administration major, and that’s where he was headed—the business world.
“I had a less-than-rudimentary knowledge of the technical aspects of music when I went to college,” Rowell said. “I knew I couldn’t pass an audition to be accepted as a major. I had piano lessons for a few years, but my ear was so strong I bypassed the ‘reading’ of music and could hear something and then play it fairly quickly.”
Rowell became a music major after joining choir in college his freshman year. Prior to that, Rowell had never been in a choir. The rest is history. Rowell said he had many people invest in him during this journey.
“I am in no way a self-made man,” Rowell said. “I will say that my undergraduate and graduate music professors were the biggest influences in my wanting to teach music. I revered many of them and saw what a positive impact they had on young adults, and I wanted to follow their example and make a difference in the lives of students.”
The professional singing happened for Rowell later in his career.
“And that’s a long story for another day,” Rowell said. “Suffice to say that I made up for lost time once that pathway of opportunity intersected with my preparation for it.”
Rowell has appeared as tenor soloist with Nashville Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, Mobile Symphony, Northwest Florida Symphony, Johnson City Symphony Orchestra, Mobile Pops, Baldwin Pops, University of South Alabama Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble, University of Alabama Orchestra, Bluffton University Orchestra, and Choral Society of Pensacola. He has performed more than 30 operatic roles with regional opera companies such as Mobile Opera, Pensacola Opera and First Coast Opera (St. Augustine). Internationally, Rowell has performed in Europe and Asia both in operatic roles and as soloist.
Most recently, Rowell performed the roles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio with First Coast Opera, Tinca in “Puccini’s Il Tabarro” with Mobile Opera, and originated the role of John C. Calhoun in George Mabry’s chamber opera “An Elegant Obsession.”
Rowell is active in the Alabama Chapter of National Association of Teachers of Singing, having served as registrar and chapter president. He has served as registrar for the Southeastern Region of NATS as well.
Rowell talks with students as they decide whether or not to major in music.
“The first thing I want to know is why that student is interested,” Rowell said. “Is it because they had a great high school experience with it and they truly feel that that is what they’re made to do, or is it that they think that’s the only option they have as a skill? When a student is grappling with that decision, I make sure that I tell them, ‘You need to find your bliss and go with it.’ If it is music, great; if it’s not, then let’s find what that is.”
Rowell is proud of his students and their success.
“I can think of so many students over the past 17 years who have made me incredibly proud,” Rowell said. “Of course, Nicholas Brownlee is one that is at the top of the list because of how far he’s gone in the operatic world. But, I’m equally proud of him because he’s managed to keep his feet on the ground and not let that success change who he is, and he continues to grow.”
Many of Rowell’s students have won or placed in state, regional, national and international vocal competitions. Two of his former vocal performance graduates recently finished their doctoral degrees and have begun university-level teaching in Mississippi and Oklahoma. One of his students at South was on the 13th season of “American Idol,” and another former local student was on the 11th and 12th seasons of “The Voice.”
As a singer, Rowell has had many accomplishments over the years. One was performing the role of Judge Danforth in Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “The Crucible” with Mobile Opera. Another was singing the National Anthem at the premiere of Ken Burns’ documentary “The War” in the Mitchell Center in 2007.
Rowell’s closest thing to a hobby outside of music is genealogy, which he has pursued for the last 30 years.
“I also like studying languages in my spare time so that I can improve that aspect of teaching singers,” Rowell said. “I’m pretty good with arts and crafts, and I’m not afraid to try my hand at anything in that realm. But, I’m also not afraid of trying to figure out a car repair or DIY home projects, either."