Paper violins reach out worldwide

Glacier Valley doubles student involvement

Glacier Valley doubles student involvement

The first week of school for kindergartners at Glacier Valley was a little unique this past week. They began a second year of paper violin tradition — but with special guests from Los Angeles and New York.

Parents and their children took pieces of cardboard to craft the body and neck of their own paper violins. The students will spend the next two months adding pieces to the body as they learn about the instrument, and will also learn how to hold it and grip it before they are given the more expensive and breakable version.

Before the families crafted the paper violins with school staff, they got a little musical treat. Ten of last year’s inaugural paper violinists performed “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “Boil Them Cabbage Down” for the new class. These students had practiced in small group sessions with Mr. Xia GuoHua, who teaches violin in town.

This year, the first-graders (who started violin last year) will continue on with their lessons as a new class of kindergartners gets the experience.

“There are 120 total who will have 90 minutes of violin as part of their school day,” said Lorrie Heagy, music teacher and librarian. “We’re going to be moving into afterschool.”

The current plan for next year is to have the second-graders (the students in the third year of the program) continue on with the violins in an afterschool program.

“The hope is to get kids into the transition of afterschool opportunities and see if we can build on that next year,” Heagy said.

Part of that transition comes this year with other music opportunities.

There is Tlingit dance and drumming or violin on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Valley Lumber also donated 20 5-gallon buckets for drumming purposes.

Funding for the violin program came through the Alaska Association of School Boards. The Douglas-Dornan Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation have also donated funds toward 12 cellos for the students. Other support has come from Alaska State Council on the Arts, Classics for Kids, Juneau Community Foundation and the Juneau School District.

Heagy started the program — called Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM) — with the blessing of Glacier Valley last year after participating in the inaugural Abreau Fellows group to Venezula learning about their El Sistema program that incorporates families and entire communities in music and how it relates to other elements of education.

Three of those inaugural fellows came to Juneau on Thursday to watch Heagy and her team in action.

Christine Witkowski is the music director for YOLA (Youth Orchestra at Los Angeles) at HOLA (Heart of Los Angeles), which is in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra. Dan Berkowitz also comes from the same place, and manages the YOLA program for Los Angeles Philharmonic. YOLA has two afterschool programs, one at the Expo Center in South Los Angeles and one in the Rampart District.

This time last year, two days before Heagy was to start her own kindergartners on their first paper violins, she was in Los Angeles training YOLA’s teachers in the El Sistema program.

“We try to keep our programs and kids connected so we don’t end up as a tiny bubble, so we remember we need to stay connected,” Witkowski said. “I’ve already gotten so many ideas. We’re able to give feedback and we’re able to take ideas of what she does. A lot of my kids have never seen the ocean. We live 14 miles away (from the ocean) but because of poverty they don’t get out. It will be really neat to say I’ve been to Alaska. It really opens up their doors and see what’s possible. Being able to take lessons from her students and take them back to our students and connect them in that way is really special. It’s also special for kids in Glacier Valley to know that people from all over the country are coming to see them because that’s how important and special they are.”

Witkowski praised Heagy’s work, saying that she has the “best classroom management” Witkowski’s ever seen and likened her to a “child whisperer.”

“She’s able to connect with every individual child and the whole group at the same time,” Witkowski said. “I’m really, really impressed with Xia and Lorrie and how they work together as a team. The attention of their first-graders and the focus of their first-graders is amazing. That’s something only music really demands and really teaches.”

Witkowski, who works in the Rampart District, said they have 100 students and the program has been life-changing for their families.

“We’re actually going to be doing the same paper orchestra with our incoming class,” said Berkowitz. “Last year we had 55 first-graders. We’re bringing in another 20 first-graders this year and doing the same process. We’ve also got ideas to bring back to our teaching staff. Also seeing it happen in different parts of the world is exciting. When we went on to Venezula we thought it was a very important piece to bring back. This layer of building an orchestra as a community brings a sense of ownership. That spreads out to their family and extends to the community. It’s exciting to see it happen all over.”

Berkowitz agreed the impact is huge on the community. He said the YOLA at HOLA program especially emphasizes it with kids coming into the program from Filipino, Latino, Korean and African-American families and all working together naturally.

“It brings back that this is normal to us, it’s not separating them but bringing them together,” he said.

Alvaro Rodas came in from Corona, New York.

“It’s a completely grassroots program that I started,” he said. “I am trying to work in cooperation with music teachers. They help me recruit kids, they encourage me. This neighborhood is mostly a Hispanic population. There’s a lot of illegal immigrants. There’s a lot of very young kids. At Corona, it’s famous somewhat because they have what’s supposed to be the largest elementary school in the nation. It has one of the longest waiting lists to get into kindergarten. There’s no community music programs. The community, the neighborhood has been very welcoming to this program.”

Rodas said the community tends to be “famous” in the area for all the wrong reasons — illegal immigration, prostitution, domestic violence, poverty — but this program offers a glimmer of hope and positivity.

Rodas said his program is about 90 percent modeled after the “Alaska experience” and he’s about to start his second class. Last year he had 28 students in the program and expects a similar number this year. By 2014, Rodas wants to reach a lofty goal of including 500 children.

The first class mostly used paper violins, but a few started with paper violas and cellos, thus they call it a paper orchestra.

Rodas’ program serves children aged 4-7 in an afterschool scenario.

“It’s something very uplifting,” Rodas said. “People really need that news for the community. There are a lot of children having difficulties getting into the schools. Anything that helps the school system, anything that helps the teachers ease their work, it’s highly beneficial. Especially at this moment in Corona.”

Between Heagy’s model, Rodas and the YOLA crew, they have forged a continuous partnership to strengthen the international El Sistema program.

The Los Angeles program has even crafted a “Paper Orchestra Cookbook” and information on how to start up a similar program. Half of it includes the YOLA students and the other half features Juneau’s children.

It can be found at http://bit.ly/fc59Ge.

Heagy is a believer in the program not only for the arts element, but also because of research that shows students who are involved in music do better with reading and math. One article she refers to is http://bit.ly/1twol.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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