Alumni Spotlight


Allison Cowan

Allison Cowan

MTSU alumna Allison Cowan was chosen as one of the 2017 “50 Directors Who Make A Difference” by School Band and Orchestra Magazine, and her story is somewhat different than most.  Before coming to MTSU, she was on the violin performance track at DePauw University, and on tour in Europe with one of the college ensembles when she realized, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”  She left school and went into the business world for the next several years, first becoming a legal assistant, and then running her own corporation, eventually becoming a licensed private investigator with Kroll, a corporate investigations and risk consulting firm based in New York City.  She specialized in criminal background investigations, but outside of her corporate career she continued to teach privately. 


In 2000 she agreed to serve as the Music Director for the Tennessee Renaissance Festival and found she needed some musicians to participate in some of the Festival activities.  So she called her old high school band director and told him she needed some trumpet players, and his response – “Really, I need a color guard instructor.”  So he roped her back into the marching band world, which she took on in addition to her full-time business career.  “I was in my business suit during the day and would run over to the high school and teach a class for one hour and then go back to my business world.”  It was during one of these classes when she had her moment of clarity.  “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.  I love this.”  So she went home and told her family she had decided to quit her “lovely, lucrative career in business” and go back to school. 


With a six month old daughter, and without a steady job, Allison began working on her Instrumental Music Education degree at MTSU.  “I just started over.  By my second year I had inherited a small music studio and spent the next few years building that into about forty private students every week.  Plus, I started an orchestra program in Smyrna.  It was Dr. Nancy Boone who mentioned in her Intro to Music Education class early in my MTSU career that you shouldn’t discount the relationships you develop while at MTSU, that you should be very respectful to all the people you come into contact with.  You never know where that’s going to lead.  And she was so right.  So what happened to me was that there were really no full-time jobs out there for me when I finished at MTSU.  And so I said to myself, well I have this great private studio I’ve built up.  I’ve got my own orchestra going.  I’m just going to do that for the next few years until I see where I land.”  But as a result of relationships she developed helping out with the music program at Central Magnet School while a student at MTSU, she was able to land a couple of part-time jobs with the Williamson County School System soon after graduation.  These part-time jobs ultimately led to her current full-time position at Centennial High School. 


When asked what she liked best about pursuing her music degree at MTSU, she quickly responded, “The professors.  One of the unique things about MTSU, I call it the ‘Hidden Gem of Colleges,’ is the great diversity of people on campus.  You go into the classroom and you find the professors genuinely care about you.  They care about your story, and they really want you to succeed.  On top of that, these professors are coming from some of the top schools in the country.  You come to MTSU and you’re getting some of the best of the best in the country, and at a reasonable cost.” 


When asked about her most important experience while a student at MTSU, Allison’s response was somewhat unexpected.  “The lobby of the Saunders Fine Arts Building was one of my favorite places.  It’s the comradery that is built among the music students there.  It’s the kids helping each other out.  They were always inclusive.  You might see some stressing out about a conducting assignment, and in another area you might find kids stressing out about a sight-singing exam, and in still another area they might be working on a theory assignment.  In a lot of college situations there is a high level of competitiveness, but in the School of Music it’s not that way.  It is really about everyone coming through it together.  There is a positive dynamic there, but it’s not coming from just one place.  It’s all-encompassing.  It includes the students, the professors, and the staff.  It includes everyone.” 


Allison is convinced of the value of a Liberal Arts education.  “I took all my general education courses while at MTSU, and my Liberal Arts courses helped give me a broader view of the world.  You can’t truly understand some of the music we are playing in our orchestra rehearsals without understanding the history of the time and place it was composed.  A Liberal Arts education helps you develop the ability to communicate more effectively with others.  Communication is essential, no matter what career field you choose.  If you are unable to communicate effectively with people you are unable to succeed.  It also helps you learn how to more successfully find solutions to whatever problems you may encounter, how to step out from the crowd and create something new when appropriate.  In whatever career you choose, patience is important.  You’re going to run into a lot of frustrations in your work life, and it doesn’t matter how much you love your career, there are going to be aggravations.  In business and in education, employers are looking for people who can be the calm at the center of the storm, people who are not easily rattled, who can see the bigger, broader picture.  A Liberal Arts education helps you develop the ability to see that broader picture.”


And what advice does she give her students when it comes to choosing a college?  She encourages them to find the right fit, to find the college  environment that works for them.  And she speaks from experience.  “The first college I went to was a fantastic academic and musical experience, but it was not the right fit for me.  And it took me about two years to figure that out.  You want to find a college that will give you a wealth of opportunities, and you need to be involved in activities outside of your major.  Don’t just check the boxes so you can walk across the stage in four years. Get involved in campus life.  It will make a world of difference.  I came out of MTSU practically debt-free and got one of the best educational experiences I’ve ever had in my life.  And that’s a fantastic thing.”