Columbia Students Win 'Sound Opinions' Scholarships

graphic of graduation cap
Six students win scholarships thanks to arts criticism and songwriting competitions, earning them spots on the popular podcast hosted by Associate Professor Jim DeRogatis and fellow music critic Greg Kot.

Not every young songwriter and musician is interviewed by legendary music critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot much less has their hammering guitar style favorably compared to that of Kurt Cobain. But that’s exactly what happened when the long-time radio and podcast hosts of Sound Opinions — a show featuring music news, reviews, and interviews — invited rising Senior Spencer Ball, a Music major, to a recent podcast.  

“I always find it interesting to hear what other people hear in my music,” Ball says. “And to have my work compared to someone like Cobain, a self-taught guitarist like me, that’s super cool.” 

Ball was one of six Columbia students to compete in — and win — Sound Opinions’ recent arts criticism and songwriting competitions. As winners, they earned scholarships as well as spots on a bonus Sound Opinions podcast, with DeRogatis and Kot interviewing them and featuring their work. The other students recognized for their outstanding work include writers Will Lovell, Avery Heeringa, and Hannah Flores, and songwriters/musicians Belmaris and Ultra-Violet Archer. 

The idea for the scholarship competitions came from Miles Taub of the Goldschmidt Foundation, which has supported Sound Opinions for years and funds the scholarships. 

“When the program recently moved to Columbia College Chicago, it gave us the opportunity to directly assist students who were interested in criticism of the arts and thus began the Sound Opinions Arts Criticism award,” he says. “With the success of the writing award, we thought it might be interesting to offer a similar competition for music creators and that began the Sound Opinions Music award.” 

For the Arts Criticism award, DeRogatis — an English and Creative Writing associate professor at Columbia — recruited submissions from one of his honors writing classes, with Kot also reading the 650-word essays and selecting the three winners.  

Lovell reviewed Drive Like Jehu’s 1994 album “Yank Crime” while Heeringa wrote about Lana Del Rey’s recent album “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd?”  Flores focused her writing talents on a different medium and critiqued a photograph by Chinese street photographer Fan Ho called “Approaching Shadow.”  

“You guys are excellent writers,” DeRogatis says on the podcast. “If we’re lucky, someday we’ll end up working for talented students like these.” 

For the Music award, DeRogatis tapped colleagues in Columbia’s Music department to identify student songwriters to submit their original compositions to DeRogatis and Kot for consideration, with Belmaris, Ultra-Violet Archer and Ball making it to the winners’ circle.  

“Honest to goodness, these all would have been buried treasures,” DeRogatis says on the podcast, referring to little-known musical gems they often feature on their show. 

The overall experience provided the students with valuable lessons in the creative fields they plan to pursue professionally. For Heeringa, now an aspiring music writer thanks to the influence of DeRogatis, the competition helped hone his writing and critical thinking skills. 

“I think I developed a really great skill of being able to say what I want in a short number of words, which is the hardest thing to do, especially when I have so much to say about music,” Heeringa says. “And by writing my piece, I learned to dig deeper … I think I listen to music differently now and think more about why I like a song or what makes me connect with the music.” 

Because of the favorable response from students, the Goldschmidt Foundation hopes to continue the competitions in the years to come. 

“We are very pleased with both programs and look forward to continuing to support them,” Taub says.