Meeting Community and Campus Needs through Service Learning and Beginning Music Theory

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This is a story of making connections. Several years ago, the entire faculty at Birmingham-Southern College was charged with redesigning the curriculum to strengthen it, and to take the opportunity to think creatively and deeply about how to accomplish this. Our idea was to invigorate the intellectual culture of the college, and to engage students as soon as they arrive on our campus. We developed the Foundations Program, a part of which are the First Year Foundations courses that are for freshmen only.
To provide you with some background on the Foundations program, I give below three important goals of our program. These are excerpted from the materials and guidelines that we developed at Birmingham-Southern College as we began to design these new courses.1

1. We seek to establish a sense of intellectual connection, both internally and externally. We want students to understand the intellectual connections among disciplines and to establish connections with the world outside academia.

2. We seek to establish a sense of intellectual engagement, both individually and corporately. Individual students become more engaged with the material of their courses when they devote time to intense reading, writing, and thinking outside of class and, thus, come to class prepared to contribute to corporate discussion.

3. We seek to establish a sense of intellectual community, both locally and globally. We hope to create a sense of identity within a community both within the classroom, and within the wider group of scholars in a field.

Some additional goals we, as a corporate faculty, developed for the First-Year Foundations experience include: collaborative learning practices, community involve- ment, intercultural emphases, oral communication; peer teaching, quantitative methods, service learning, technology use, values clarification, and writing. Our idea was to try to incorporate as many of the above teaching techniques, in addition to traditional techniques, as would be beneficially applicable to our newly created courses, in order to establish the intellectual connection, engagement and community described above. As I began to create a course that would address the above criteria, I developed several new courses from scratch—Culture in the West, Women in Music, and Music Technology—before making the connection that I could redesign a pre-existing course that would meet the Foundations goals, thus keeping that course in the first-year curriculum and solving my problem of adding another course to my load.

As unlikely as it seems, I realized that, among all the music courses, my Fundamen- tals of Music Theory course would make a perfect First-Year Foundations course. This is a course that must be taught each semester, and often must be covered by adjuncts due to my teaching assignments.

From this excerpt from my syllabus, one can see that it is a beginning music theory class designed for the non-music major and for majors who need to develop basic skills.

MU 150 1Y - Fundamentals of Music Theory
Course Objectives

Required Text and Materials: Theodore A. Lynn’s Introductory Musicianship,
7th ed. Also: notebook, music paper, regular paper, and pencils.

Objectives: The overall objective of this class shall be to provide the student with a basic working knowledge of music notation, rhythm and meter, scales, key signatures, intervals and triads, by means of lectures, drills, readings, and homework.

This is a typical “pre-college” level theory course, serving as a gateway course for non-majors and a remedial preparation course for majors. The typical class makeup is under prepared music majors, musical theater majors, and kids who play in rock bands and want to continue learning about music for themselves.
In this course, students normally learn the rudiments of reading and analyzing music: scales, chords, basic rhythm, and beginning musicianship skills. Typically, stu- dents demonstrate acquisition of these skills in my class by writing a simple song with accompaniment by the end of the class.

The Foundations Redesign:

The key to this redesign was realizing that the songwriting aspect of the course cre- ated a product that could find an application in the surrounding community. It enabled me to add a special service learning component in which my students work in pairs with elementary school students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary school to create a youth opera.

MU 150 1Y - Fundamentals of Music Theory
Revised Course Objectives


Required Text and Materials: Theodore A. Lynn’s Introductory Musician- ship, 7th ed. Also: notebook, music paper, regular paper, pencils, and a separate reflection journal kept on Microsoft Word.

Goals: In keeping with the aims and goals of the 1Y program, students will creatively apply learned theoretical concepts of music to the society that they find themselves in, through service, collaboration and peer learning.

Objectives: The overall objective of this class shall be to provide the student with a basic working knowledge of music notation, rhythm and meter, scales, key signatures, intervals and triads, by means of lectures, drills, readings, and homework.

The student will further demonstrate this knowledge by working in a small group to successfully compose a simple song. This shall be done in collaboration with elementary school children through a service-learning component of the class. This service-learning component will involve five contact activities with the elementary school children, including a mandatory trip to the Birmingham Children’s Theater that will take place outside of class time. All other contacts will be scheduled during regular class hours. Additional assignments toward the attainment of this objective will include keeping a reflection journal and attending four required common hour events related to music and/or creativity.

A number of components were added to the syllabus to make the redesign meet the 1Y goals: First, students would now work in small groups with their classmates to create their songs. Next, the service learning component of the class requires the college students to work with local elementary school students on the project. The elementary school students write the lyrics for the songs, with coaching from their college-level partners. Ultimately, these lyrics are set by the college students, creating a youth opera for the elementary students to perform. Lastly, for a writing component and for values clarification, my students keep a reflection journal regarding the service learning aspect of the class and their experiences.

Learning through Service

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, Kristin Harper, Director of Service Learning at Birmingham-Southern College provides the following definition of Service Learning:

Service Learning is a supervised experience uniting academic study with service so that the formal study informs the service and the service in turn enriches the learning. It integrates the accomplishment of a public task with an educational purpose.2

To set the scene for you, Woodrow Wilson Elementary School is a K-5 school with a 2006-2007 enrollment of 281.3 It is located two blocks away from the Birmingham-Southern College campus, within walking distance. During 2006-07, approximately 96% of the students qualified for the free lunch program, which is a good indication of poverty level incomes among the students’ families.4 Almost all of the students are African-American. Woodrow has wonderful teachers, but generally lacks the resources needed to provide these students with any type of enrichment activities outside of a literacy curriculum. In the past, their music program has ranged from non-existent to a weekly visit by a teacher who was assigned to cover multiple schools.

Birmingham-Southern College is a small, private, liberal arts college in which most of the students come from privileged backgrounds, and although our efforts recently have greatly increased campus diversity and international presence, most are white. There is a very strong commitment to leadership, activism, and service learning among our student body.

Revising the Course

To make time for my youth opera project in the Fundamentals of Theory curricu- lum, I had to replace five regular class sessions with the following five activities with the elementary school kids. On the first visit, the elementary school students and my freshmen watch a youth opera together on video, talk about what opera is, and select the topic of the opera. They also meet together in groups of four (two BSC paired with two Wilson students) and begin to get to know each other. On the second visit, we all attend the Birmingham Children’s Theater together. This is often the first trip these elementary school kids get to BCT, whereas most of my students attended every year when they were children, so it’s a good reality check for my students. During the next two visits, my students coach the elementary school students in their small groups to create the lyrics for their opera. At this point, my class has already created a rough plot and divided it up into general song subjects, so all of the groups are clear on their top- ics. My students then refine the lyrics and set them to music, applying the basic course concepts they have learned all semester. On our final visit, which is the last day of the semester, my students present the elementary school students with hard copies of the finished song, and we have a Christmas party. Often, this turns into an impromptu per- formance of many of the songs by my students, sometimes with the elementary school kids.

The success of this approach stems from the fact that my students clearly observe the community that our campus is situated in, and work with these children for the whole semester in a collaborative effort for a successful final project. Thus, students creatively apply learned theoretical concepts to the society they find themselves in, and also learn about that society in the process. Also, they are doing what I want them to do: make music. 

Maximizing Resources

One additional important component that makes this project possible is the Vail College Fellows Program. The Vail Fellows Program is a competitive award made yearly that enables undergraduates at Birmingham-Southern College to work with faculty partners on special research or teaching projects for a semester or a year. In my case, The Vail Fellow is an upper-level music student, who serves as my teaching assistant for the freshman class. This student creates connections during the fall term by acting as a tutor, occasional lecturer, and liaison between the freshmen and other upperclassmen. The Vail Fellow assists me by taking half of the class and giving a lecture on writing for children’s voices, while I give a brief tutorial session on Finale to the other half of the class, and we have a brief unit on song writing where we set a simple poem together as a class. During the spring term, the Vail Fellow goes back to the Woodrow Wilson classroom and works with the students there to learn, stage, and eventually perform the youth opera that they helped create during the fall, bringing the project full circle.
Ideally, this youth opera is performed both at Woodrow Wilson Elementary at a PTA meeting, and then on our campus, serving as a field trip and culminating event for the fifth graders as well as my students. It is very special for all of the students involved. To date, we have successfully created and presented the following youth operas:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow–2001-02
The Wizard of Rap–2003-04
Romeo and The Beast–2004-05
High School Musical: Beauty Meets Shrek–2007-08

In order to select the story line for our opera, the elementary school children pro- pose and then vote for their desired story line. Many of the unusual titles above were created because of tied votes on two story lines, such as Romeo and Juliet and Beauty and the Beast, which ultimately became Romeo and the Beast. Because the elementary school children are responsible for creating the lyrics, we do our best to honor any and all ideas that they feel strongly about, and we work out suitable plots later in the semester. The lyrics created by the children range from poetry to narratives, and one of my challenges is to teach the freshmen various tricks in setting texts to music to make them work. Below is a typical example of the types of lyrics we receive. This song is the “Finale” from Romeo and the Beast, 2004: “Mom, Dad, the Curse is Reversed.” The BSC students did a particularly good job in setting this work and using Finale software, although it is clear that they are beginners and still have much to learn.

“Song XII”

Written by: Barry Houser, Willie Burch (Woodrow Wilson)
Drake Roberts, Christine Parker, Emily Knighton (Birmingham-Southern College)

Mom, Dad, the curse is reversed.

Now we want a wedding, so let’s rehearse.

Be nice to the Smiths, be nice to the Jones.

Can’t we all just get along?




Hooray! They really are safe!

They’re both in love and in love they’ll stay!

The Jones and the Smiths have ended their feud.

So let’s jump up and dance and scream WOO-HOO!

Let’s rock and roll! We’ll keep partying till we’re old!

Repeat chorus.


Making connections: Existing Needs, Existing Resources

This project is successful because it connects so many needs to existing resources that can begin to meet those needs. First, there are the needs of the new Foundations cur- riculum. How does this course meet the goals of that program? This course was always strong in quantitative methods. Now this revised course has additional strengths in the following areas: collaborative learning practices, community involvement, intercultural emphases, oral communication, peer teaching, service learning, technology use, values clarification, and writing.

This course establishes a sense of intellectual connection, both internally and externally.

Clearly, we all want our students to become engaged with the material in our courses, and to feel a sense of personal growth because of that engagement. Because most of my students do not have any theory background, they are diligent in learning the course material so that they acquire the skills necessary to write simple pieces of music by the term’s end. Because they can see the application and imminent test of their newly acquired skills in the form of this youth opera, these students are excited, nervous and serious about learning music theory, and subsequently rise to the creative challenge of the course. They immediately connect to the material in a meaningful way as individuals.

Externally, my students establish connections with the world outside academia through the service learning component. In particular, the connection that they develop with these children over the course of the semester is a strong motivating factor. From their elementary school partners, they receive a true application of the theory they are learning, an understanding of the needs in their community, a broader, more creative sense of how their individual skills and talents might serve that community, and ongo- ing values clarification through the repeated meetings with this outside community and through guided reflection. One student, in a regular reflection journal assignment, wrote that her work with the elementary school students had inspired her to volunteer weekly to read to children at her local library. I am sure, and have in fact observed, that many of these students seek greater ways in which to participate in service learning and leadership long after this course is over.

On campus, my students also attend four required Common Hour cultural events relating to music throughout the semester and spend time in class analyzing the experience. Hopefully, they talk about these experiences with other students outside of the class who attended. Lastly, this course ideally links to MU 123, a course in music history and appreciation that incoming music majors are required to take as freshmen. Additional cross-disciplinary areas of connection include any course they may be tak- ing dealing with poetry or drama, or elements of creativity, and students often discuss these complementary classes during our course.

An additional intellectual connection that should not be underestimated is the quick connection my students make with me. Because I am a composer myself, who has experience with children’s opera, I use my own talents to guide my students’ final product, and they feel more secure that they will receive the information they need to be successful.

The students make a connection with other important campus programs and with an upperclassman. Using the Vail Fellow program, which emphasizes faculty/student joint research, enabled me to have the potentially finished product of the performance of the youth opera with little time commitment on my part. It also met the need of the Vail Scholar, who wanted this type of special, intensive teaching experience. It enabled the freshmen to have at least one special upperclassman to connect with on a personal and academic level. Lastly, it enables BSC to offer an enhancement to the practically non-existent music program at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, for at least the one class we work with.


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This course establishes a sense of intellectual engagement, both individually and corporately.

Students are highly engaged individually with assimilating the course material early in the semester, but it is through the synthesis and application of that knowledge in the creation of original works that the students develop that sense of ownership of the material that signifies true engagement. Through small group interaction in this creative process and even performance (based on the combined class’ abilities), a cor- porate sense of ownership within the classroom as well as with the elementary school classroom is achieved. Beyond this, the class’ identity as a unit in working with area school children contributes to a sense of both individual and corporate engagement. By sharing their experiences and newly acquired knowledge with their young counterparts, BSC students don’t simply own but pass on the information from the class to the benefit
of others.

This course establishes a sense of intellectual community, both locally and globally.

Group activities that promote a sense of intellectual community outside the class- room locally include small groups’ creative activity and class attendance at commons and other musical events. More globally, these activities include attending a musical event with their elementary-school partners and working in their community’s school. My students meet existing community needs by providing at least one class at Woodrow Wilson with an enriching musical experience that they have ownership in from the very beginning. For this same class, they provide a brief tutoring exchange that emphasizes the elementary school students’ writing skills, and a cultural experience by attending the Birmingham Children’s Theater that the Woodrow students would not otherwise have. While the service that we provide is not what might normally be thought of as service, it is certainly helping the elementary school students by providing them numerous creative and cultural opportunities. Linda Miller, the teacher I work with at Woodrow Wilson, remarks often at how surprised she is that the students who are most reluctant to work for her will open up and work both creatively and energetically on this project, demonstrating real ability and potential, often for the first time in her classroom. Mem- bership in the larger community of scholars is established directly through a hands-on introduction to the methodologies of music theory and to a lesser extent composition. Students’ exposure to the discipline of music theory gives them a rudimentary under- standing of what is required of composers, performers and music scholars in general.

A particularly gratifying connection was made by Kirstin Anderson, the first Vail scholar to serve as my teaching assistant. Kirstin questioned her own musical direction during her time at BSC. She took exactly the skills she received from the Vail experi- ence and went to teach music at St. Elysius School in Harlem, NY. She recently finished her master’s degree in Music Education from Columbia University. BSC sponsored an interim in service learning to work with Kirstin at this school several years ago.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that it is not only my students who have learned from this experience. As a composer, I always feared that I did not have much to offer a traditional service learning program. One of the things I have learned is that it is my leadership, and the fact that my students regard me as an expert, that gives them the courage and faith that they will themselves be successful in their endeavor. Something else I have learned is that my talents can apply to enriching the lives of others in less narrow ways than I once thought, and I do not need to move very far beyond what I am already doing to accomplish that.



Harper, Kristin. “Re: blurb for presentation.” Personal email. July, 24, 2007.

Harper, Kristin. “Re: Woodrow statistics.” Personal email. June 30, 2008.

First-Year Foundations Courses: Common Goals and Features. Birmingham: Faculty Forms, Birmingham-Southern College Intranet, 2001.



1Notes. First-Year Foundations, 1.

2Harper, Re: blurb, 1.

3Harper, Re: Woodrow, 1.


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Last modified on Monday, 01/10/2018

Dorothy Hindman

Dorothy Hindman (b. 1966) is a professional composer whose works are regularly performed throughout the United States and Europe. Her commissions include works for soloists, small and large ensembles, and commercial productions. Critics have hailed Hindman’s music as ‘intense, gripping, and frenetic’, ‘sonorous and affirmative’ and ‘music of terrific romantic gesture’. Each of her unique pieces explores her ongoing interest in issues of musical perception, beauty, timbre, contextual meaning, and profundity.

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