Singing the praises of MacEwan’s music program



Singer-songwriter Cynthia Hamar wanted to expand her musical horizons. 

After releasing three albums (and raising three musical children), she decided to enroll in a Bachelor of Music degree at MacEwan University. She wanted to learn new skills and polish up her vocal and songwriting talents. She’s finishing up her fourth year, majoring in recording and production, and now has the knowledge to set up and work in her own studio. 

“It’s been such a blessing to be here,” she says. “It’s a smaller program, so you just get to know your professors so well. I feel really enriched.” 

Hamar says she feels more confident and creative as a musician, thanks to courses such as ear training, songwriting and performance ensemble. She’s always had a distinctive voice—she can sound like a gleeful little girl and a gruff 80-year-old at the same time—but only now fully appreciates her individuality. 

“I realize that’s my strength—I’m unique,” she says. “I feel MacEwan honours that: ‘Look at what you can do. Nobody else can do that.’”


Enhancing Edmonton’s music scene

Hamar, who splits her time between Edmonton and Entwistle, released her fourth album, Joint & Marrow, in 2022. She’s the latest in a long line of MacEwan students and teachers who have enhanced the soundtrack and vibrancy of Edmonton’s music scene—and beyond. (The University of Alberta’s Department of Music is another major player.) 


“Why is Edmonton such a strong music city? I honestly think it has a lot to do with MacEwan,” says Allan Gilliland, the university’s Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications.


He’s also a renowned composer—his works have been performed by ensembles and orchestras around the world, including the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. He started playing trumpet with MacEwan’s Big Band in the 1980s, then teaching at the institution in the ‘90s. “I think MacEwan is a leader in post-secondary popular-music education,” he says. “There are few rivals—Berklee [College of Music] is one of them.”


A man with glasses stands on a staircase.
Alan Gilliland inside of Allard Hall. Courtesy of MacEwan University.


Making an impact across Canada 

Over the last 50 years, an estimated 1,500 students have gone through MacEwan’s music program, which specializes in jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop and country. You’ll find grads (and almost grads) playing in local bands or performing on Broadway or recording as hired session players or running their own studios. Some are well-known names in the local and Canadian music scenes. At least a dozen MacEwan students and teachers have either been nominated for or won JUNO Awards since 2004, including:

  • country-roots artist Corb Lund

  • pop singer and TikTok sensation Jessia 

  • drummer Ryan Vikedal (during his time with Nickelback, Alberta’s rock juggernaut) 

  • guitarist and associate professor Jim Head 

  • singer-songwriter Chloe Albert 

  • drummer Duran Ritz with alternative rock group Rare Americans

The McDades, featuring alumni (and brothers) Jeremiah and Solon McDade, won Best Roots and Traditional Album of the Year for their album, Bloom, in 2007. Their latest album, The Empress, is nominated for Traditional Roots Album of the Year at the 2023 JUNO Awards in Edmonton. 

The siblings both finished a two-year diploma in 1998—when MacEwan was still a community college—and went on to study at Montreal’s McGill University.

The McDades performing a song from Bloom.


50-plus years of music at MacEwan 

Nowadays, when Jeremiah isn’t busy with The McDades or other music projects, he occasionally leads master classes at MacEwan. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, playing (and teaching) saxophone, violin and other wind instruments. 

“It’s a nice, tight-knit program,” he says. “You get more instruction and one-on-one time than most other programs. They gave me a good foundation, preparing me for McGill. Plus, you meet a lot of people that end up staying in Edmonton and continuing in music, so it helps with networking.” 

Launched in 1972, MacEwan’s music program initially offered a two-year diploma. In 2009, the college became a university, and two years later, the first cohort of Bachelor of Music students enrolled. The four-year program offers four possible majors: recording and production, performance, composition and general. 

In 2017, MacEwan’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications—including music, theatre and cultural management students—moved from its orange hub in west Edmonton to Allard Hall, a $180-million, five-storey building in the heart of the city. It features state-of-the-art facilities, including a 415-seat theatre, a recital hall, practice spaces, recording studios and MacEwan’s record label. It’s also home to the local branch of the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, which provides free lessons to children and teens.


Three students walk along the sidewalk in front of a glass-covered building on the MacEwan University campus.
Allard Hall, MacEwan University’s new facility for the Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications. Courtesy of Ema Peter and Reimagine Architects.


All in the family 

Singer-songwriter Mallory Chipman was one of the first graduates of MacEwan’s four-year degree.  

You might say Chipman was destined to study at MacEwan. Her aunt and uncle are alumni. Her late grandfather, legendary jazz pianist Tommy Banks, was a chair of the program and also taught classes. He won a JUNO in 1979 and was nominated again in 2016.


A man with white hair and glasses plays a piano with his young granddaughter on his lap.
Jazz great and Edmonton icon Tommy Banks, left, with his granddaughter Mallory Chipman. Courtesy of Mallory Chipman.


 A woman, wearing a sleeveless top, grips a microphone with her right hand as she sings into it on stage.
Mallory Chipman, centre, performing on stage. Courtesy of Andrea Shipka.


Confidence and versatility 

Chipman says MacEwan gave her the tools to be versatile in any musical setting and helped her establish effective practice habits. 

“Those tools include just having the language and theoretical understanding,” she says. “They help me understand music in a way that is easier to talk about, that feels a little bit more tangible. I can go into any jam space, any recording session, any rehearsal and I can sight-read the part, if they have a [music] chart for me or I could use my ear because it is pretty well trained.” 

Chipman also released her first two jazz albums—Nocturnalize (2016) and Rags and Feathers: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen (2017)— on MacEwan’s label, Bent River Records. Think of it as a learning lab—where music students are taught the technical side of recording and producing songs.

“The industry is changing so much so quickly,” says Paul Johnston, a bassist, producer and the Head of Recording at MacEwan.

”We’re preparing students for an industry that isn’t going to look the same when they graduate. We’re teaching adaptability and the recording program is a big part of it.” 


A violin player, a violist and a cellist read off music stands and play their instruments as they sit in a recording studio with rugs on the floor.
Violinist Joanna Ciapka-Sangster, violist Clayton Leung and cellist David Bordeleau warm up before recording a song for Bent River in one of MacEwan’s studios.


Promoting collaboration and communities

Bent River is the only university-run label of its kind in Canada. 

It also incorporates some of MacEwan’s other disciplines. Design students create album covers and liner notes. (Some have won Western Canadian Music Awards for their work.) Arts and cultural management students learn about the ins and outs of running a record label and promoting album releases. 

Rose Ginther is the Associate Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications at MacEwan. She’s also the former Chair of the Arts and Cultural Management program. Its students, like MacEwan’s music grads, are part of the backbone of the arts communities across Canada. At least three of its alumni head local cultural institutions—the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, Sherwood Park’s Festival Place and St. Albert’s Arden Theatre.

“The kind of work they’re doing, they’re not just building capacity in the arts, but in the community,” says Ginther. “They’re impacting lives in ways it’s impossible to quantify because it’s qualitative, right? They’re making a difference in people’s lives every single day, in kids’ lives, adults, and senior citizens; in all kinds of different organizations from the amateur to the professional; in every city across the country. It’s awesome.”

Fostering the arts and building communities for more than 50 years—MacEwan’s legacy is music to our ears.