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Music education in prison sparks scholar's teaching research

One in a series of stories about DePaul University’s Class of 2019

Willord Simmons
During his studies at DePaul University’s School of Music, Willord Simmons researched creative ways that music is taught to prison inmates. Simmons argues these approaches could have a positive impact in traditional classrooms. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
CHICAGO — Music education major Willord Simmons shifted his thinking on a career path after assisting a University of Iowa associate professor last summer with research that focused on music programs in prisons. 

“At first I could only see myself teaching music to a class of students,” said Simmons, who will graduate this June from DePaul University’s School of Music with a Bachelor of Music in music education. But after observing music workshops that allowed incarcerated people to collaborate with musicians and create music reflective of their experiences, Simmons realized that rather than impacting a single class of students by teaching, he wanted to change how music is taught in schools and in different settings. 

Teaching music is “so vital to the education environment,” Simmons stressed. In many settings, music is taught using a traditional method, “where students sit in a classroom in front of a conductor or director who tells them what to do, giving them knowledge,” explained Simmons. 

In the prison workshops, a creative music approach was used, where, according to Simmons, “students explore what they want to learn. They break into groups and compose and at the same time learn how to play. I never thought I would be doing the type of work and research I did in Iowa.” 

This fall, Simmons will be back in the classroom to work on a master’s degree in higher education at Harvard University. He already has been admitted to a doctoral program in higher education at the University of Iowa, and was granted a one-year deferment. 

From flutist to researcher
Simmons, who was born and raised in Victoria, Texas, did some singing while in high school, and started playing the piano when he was 6, but it was the flute he chose to play during his audition to DePaul’s School of Music. 

“I admit I was nervous when I auditioned, and it’s been an adjustment coming to Chicago from my hometown in Texas,” he said. “At the time, my goal was to become an outstanding flutist and an outstanding music educator. 

“I was kind of quiet and didn’t know how to set myself apart. I started thinking about my strengths and weaknesses; and the different avenues I could take to work on my weaknesses and show off my strengths,” he said. “At DePaul I can explore myself within a community. I am surrounded by great musicians here, who have inspired me. That’s been transformational.” 

In addition to holding multiple roles including orientation leader in the Division of Student Affairs, Simmons became a McNair Scholar, a program designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. 

It was through the McNair Scholars summer research opportunities program that Simmons was accepted to assist with the project at the University of Iowa. Simmons explained that he assisted the researcher by formulating a quantitative method for documenting the effects of the music program by comparing disciplinary infractions against choir participation in the prison. 

“The hypothesis states if the incarcerated individual is active with the choir, they will have fewer infractions and might even have an increase in positive contributions to the prison community,” Simmons said. 

Simmons’ own research stemmed from observing how music is taught in the prison. He compared music education teaching methods in three Chicago schools to three music programs in correctional facilities, focusing on their use of creative music making strategies. 

His project, “Music Classroom or Prison: Unlocking Awareness of how Traditional Music Making can Restrict Creative Music Making,” argued the use of traditional music education styles with students limits creativity by failing to allow them to engage in musical exploration. Simmons endorsed culturally responsive teaching and creative music making in his work, which encourages improvisation and full expression. 

In the presentation of his findings last fall, Simmons made recommendations for teachers in music classrooms to incorporate the creative music making strategies that have proven beneficial to the incarcerated. 

“That has become my philosophy of teaching music,” he said. 

Graduating from DePaul with purpose
Now in his final quarter at DePaul, Simmons is taking courses to meet his gen-ed degree requirements. “I was heavy into music education and music classes my first and second year and really dove deeper into music education my junior year while preparing to student teach,” he said. 

He still plays the flute in the Wind Symphony and noted that after student teaching last fall at Lincoln Elementary with the middle school band, he “now sees teaching differently” when in rehearsal with Erica Neidlinger, associate professor and conductor of the Wind Symphony. 

“It's hard to know where to begin with Willord. He is exceptional in every way. He is a strong musician and an excellent student, a true scholar in his inquisitive nature and proactive work ethic,” said Neidlinger. 

“One of his most impressive qualities is his character and sense of integrity. He is truly one of the most inspiring human beings I have ever known. As an institution we strive to help our students be compassionate citizens of the world; Willord is an impressive example,” Neidlinger said. 

Jacqueline Kelly-McHale, associate professor and coordinator of Music Education at DePaul said, “Willord is an exemplary member of our school of music community who has demonstrated a commitment to the Vincentian mission through his work in the music education program and as a McNair scholar.” 

Simmons will graduate from DePaul with research and teaching experience, and a better sense of who he is and what he wants to do in grad school. 

“I learned what it means to teach music and how purposeful it is,” Simmons said. “I have the skills to teach, but I also have a responsibility to make things better.” 


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Carol Hughes​