Engaging Sounds: Music and Service Learning at DePaul


Ann Marie Nola, a DePaul freshman who majors in communication, engaged in service-learning  through her Composition and Music Theory class in 2013. She worked at Centro Romero, a community-based organization on Chicago’s north side that serves the immigrant population through a range of programs, many of which focus on education. While involved in service-learning, Nola learned firsthand how music can have a positive impact on academic performance.


“I know that music can trigger the brain and help students with cognition,” she says. “While kids did homework, I would have these playlists – I played Frank [Sinatra], Ella [Fitzgerald], Chopin. When they tired of that, I played hip hop or pop.”  


As the weeks went on, she says that students got to the point where they could finish their work more quickly – and the quality of their work would be strong. “In the beginning,” she says “it was crushing to see how little these kids knew about music. But then I could see how quickly they got interested and how it benefited them. It was mind-boggling.”


Nola’s experience is one among many that DePaul students are having these days as they link music and service learning at nonprofit organizations in Chicago. Music instructor Jeff Kowalkowski has taught numerous service learning courses in recent years, including community audio art. He has been involved in service learning-related activities since the late 1980s, when, as a sound engineer, he shared his knowledge with students from a Chicago charter school. “It snowballed from there,” he says.


Kowalkowski was a music major at DePaul; he finished his bachelor’s in music in 1989 and master’s in 1991. Later, he received a doctorate in music composition from Northwestern University in 1996. He is an accomplished composer who has often composed experimental music. Kowalkowski also served as artistic director of the Milkwood Foundation, a not-for-profit sound art production company he founded in 1998. The Foundation is in the process of dissolving and folding into an experimental sounds studio.


For many years, Kowalkowski says he has been thinking about music in ways that connect with service learning. “I was really influenced by a book called Silence by John Cage -- it brought up issues about the relationship between artists and reality,” he says. “The book challenged the traditional view of the composer as demigod, all-controlling seer of the divine. In reality, art is often about collaboration and issues that we face as a society.”Professor Jeff Kowalkowski


Community Partners


Collaboration and focus on communities are essential to service learning at DePaul. Nonprofit organizations often want to tell their stories in a number of ways in print, broadcast and Internet formats. However, many don’t have the resources to tell their story. DePaul students, Kowalkowski says, go to these organizations with the goal of learning about what they do and completing a specific project. ”It’s not just that they’re making a demo for a class,” he says. “They are trying to make recordings that are powerful beyond the moment they are made.”

Professor Jeff Kowalkowski


Kowalkowski’s music classes have linked students to nonprofits working on social issues over the years, including SER Central States, which promotes economic self-sufficiency and upward mobility for low-income residents through education and employment. In the last year, DePaul students have worked with former gang members who take a GED (General Education Diploma) class through the organization; many now have children and are seeking to make a change in their lives.


Kate Schedlin, a GED teacher with Youthbuild, a program of SER Central States, says that the organization’s experience with DePaul students and service learning was beneficial in a number of ways. She says DePaul students worked with her students to develop videos about their lives. “Our students visited DePaul’s campus, where they walked around with DePaul students. It also showed them that they could study something like music in college, and even make a career out of it. I think the opportunities are endless for a longer-term relationship focused on service learning.”

“The kids who come to Central States may not have been to college before, and then they meet with students their own age,” adds Kowalkowski. “Before students in this program recorded anything with our students, sometimes they just hang out, sit around with DePaul students, talk and play music. It’s like they have a kind of ‘public iPod’. The next time they meet, maybe they’ll say ‘I made these lyrics, I made this beat’. On a practical level, our students learn how to use audio editing software efficiently.”


Students have also worked closely with the Supportive Housing Providers Association (SHPA), a statewide membership association of nonprofit providers of supportive housing – affordable housing plus services for individuals and families who have been homeless and/or have special needs. DePaul students recorded testimonials from people who had benefited from the program and then underscored those recordings with music.


Jhonna Lowe is resident education and advocacy coordinator for SHPA; she organizes consumers on advocacy issues, which often include funding for permanent support housing. “I contacted the Steans Center with the idea that we wanted to have residents tell their stories,” Lowe says. Sergio Elahi, Academic and Community Development Coordinator at the Steans Center, referred her to Kowalkowski. “Six or seven DePaul students worked with about as many residents,” she says. “They created this really great project. It was not just a way to tell their story – but an advocacy tool that we can use to advance this issue.” The organization’s clients are a mix of men and women who are typically (though not exclusively) from about 40 to 60 years old and live in various parts of the city. The people served by SHPA face various issues, including poverty, substance abuse and challenges related to education, employment, health and other concerns. SHPA plans to share these recordings with various audiences, including legislators and members of the supportive housing community in the state.





Josh Baigleman, a senior who is majoring in environmental studies, worked with SHPA through the community audio art class. Baigleman has played music for all of his life and has engaged in a variety of music projects. “We met with formerly homeless people, they were part of the organization’s housing program,” he says. “It was an opportunity to hear their stories directly and get insights into their experience and how the organization was helping them.” Through the class, Baigleman and other students reflected the experience of SHPA’s clients by creating audio pieces that shared their stories. “What the project did was condense their stories down into an audio piece that communicated why this program is necessary. We used audio production programs to time their words with music. We tried to use music that captured the duality of the deep-seated pain they’ve experienced – but also the hope and peace they get from being linked up with SHPA.”


“It’s important to reach out to people who have a story, and express it through creative means if you can,” Baigleman says. “A lot of people don’t have an opportunity to do that on a regular basis.” Baigleman, however, adds that creating an audio recording was not just about getting to know the organization and the people it serves or fulfilling class requirements. He also says that Kowalkowski gave students the freedom to develop their work. “As long as the baseline of the project was completed, that gave us the opportunity to develop our own skills. That made a big difference,” he says.


Like Baigleman and Nola, DePaul graduate Coleman Zurkowski says a service learning music class had a big impact on him. Zurkowski recalls public concerts performed by his DePaul music composition class in the Pilsen and Wicker Park communities of Chicago (the class was taught by Kowalkowski). There were about 30 people in the orchestra, which he said at first sounded like it was playing “free jazz.” Zurkowski played a melodica, which he describes as a clarinet with piano keys – an instrument that was originally invented for children to play.  “At first it was nerve-wracking, because we had no idea how people were going to react,” says Zurkowski, who is now pursuing a master’s in music composition at the California Institute of the Arts outside of Los Angeles. “I was worried that our performance would, in some way, offend, but they really enjoyed it. We just had people in the audience come up and play – and that was what was special about it.


Zurkowski says the experience “changed the way I thought about music – it definitely made it more accessible. I remember that there was a little boy who was pretty scared of the whole thing because a lot was going on and it was so loud – and then he got up there and played the tambourine. We all listened to him, and the music built on the rhythms he played on the instrument. It really connected us. This boy was maybe nine years old, and he was into the music, creating and leading this group of people. His smile was huge.”