Strength in music

Music education is about more than music or even education. At a personal level, and at a community level, it can provide strength and hope. Juneau’s Lorrie Heagy, who founded Juneau, Alaska Music Matters at Glacier Valley Elementary School, a steadily growing program, has shared stories of the power of music education in her life, locally, and as far away as Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.


Heagy discovered El Sistema, the program on which JAMM is based, attending a symposium for Yale Distinguished Music Educators. The topic was El Sistema, a music program from Venezuela.

“What was so unique about the philosophy was that it is music for social change. It’s really music being used as a vehicle to inspire a community, youth, to work together as a team to make amazing things happen through hard work and passion.”

As part of a grant to El Sistema Founder Jose Antonio Abreu as a TED award winner, in 2009 Heagy trained under Abreu as one of the first 10 of 50 musicians to participate in a fellowship with the intention of spreading the program beyond Venezuela. Heagy was able to introduce El Sistema in Juneau schools, starting with Glacier Valley Elementary School kindergarten classes, but now expanding to include education in more grades and at Riverbend and Auke Bay Elementary Schools. Heagy has also chosen to travel during her breaks to teach and share experiences with the program as far away as Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, a community devastated by the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Heagy specializes in an in-school model.

“Especially since there’s been so much research about what it does for the brain, how it prepares kids for school, focus, discipline, working memory… (Dr. Abreu) doesn’t even call El Sistema a music program, it’s a social service program, because of the skills it provides kids to be successful in life, and to be contributing members in their community. It changed the way I looked at music in schools.”

“Music serves so many purposes. One is preparing the minds of our young children through music, as a way to build stamina, delayed gratification, teamwork, perseverance — all these skills that help them to be successful in school and in life.”

Heagy shared her personal relationship with music and how her life was affected in an interview.

I was one of those kids who was saved by having music and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s something I find so compelling and I’m so determined to make accessible to as many kids as possible…” Heagy said.

“I was a slow reader. I still am a slow reader. When a school focuses on your deficits, it’s really hard to have the confidence and ability to persevere, if you don’ know that you have other gifts. And music was the one thing that I knew I excelled in, and I knew that if I could be good at this, then maybe I could be good at something else, as long as I practiced.”

She applied the skills that helped her learn music to learning to read, turning stories from her classes reader into lyrics she could sing to herself.

But music became perhaps more important in middle school and high school, when it provided her with strength and support during tough times.

“In middle school it was kind of a haven from all of the cliques, from who was wearing Calvin Klein Jeans and all of these sort of superficial parameters of what made you cool or in a group. In music, I could find my group of people.” Heagy said, “In high school… it was creating a family. My father died of a heart attack when I was in eighth grade, so music was like that other family that you could be a part of. It always felt like something that was challenging, so those at-risk behaviors teenagers have are immediately channeled into something positive. And it is a way for students to express and manage their emotions in a very powerful way for the rest of their life.”

Even now, Heagy credits music with helping her make friends and stave off depression in Juneau’s gloomier times.

Since training in 2009, Heagy tries to travel whenever possible to help train new fellows in Boston, or to work with programs internationally. This summer she visited the small community of Soma and orphanages in Taiwan. She visited Soma to demonstrate El Sistema in the classroom, while others, like former fellow Dan Berkowitz, focused on band and orchestra.

Heagy saw similarities between Juneau and Soma, as both are small communities that rely greatly on their coastal location and natural resources.

“It was very evident how much the community was still reeling from Tsunami damage.” Heagy said. The small community was hit hard by loss of life and loss of industry between the tsunami and nuclear disaster. “They’re a fishing community, but nobody will buy their fish. They also have rice fields, but because the water had come so far inland, the soil is damaged. This community is having a hard time economically, trying to find its purpose, and it’s dealing with families that are no longer there.”

In Soma, El Sistema is being viewed as not only an educational tool, but a way to rebuild after facing disaster.

“The Soma Children’s Orchestra Project (SCO) takes place in the city of Soma, one of the disaster areas of the East Japan Great Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011, and serves the area’s children who have suffered traumatic stress caused by that great tragedy. City of Soma’s education board operates the SCO with both technical and financial supports from Friends of El Sistema Japan, and it will be the key part of the reconstruction plan of Soma. On that mission, the SCO is implementing the life skill education initiative by instructing and engaging children in a classical orchestral music program inspired by El Sistema’s core values, such as teamwork, peer teaching/learning and joy.” wrote Rumi Naito and Yutaka Kikugawa of Friends of El Sistema Japan, explaining the launch of the program in Soma.

Naito, who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., wrote in an email interview that she had initially been uncertain about the usefulness of El Sistema, since she felt many of the issues it targeted in the U.S. and Venezuela were not applicable in Japan; now she is enthusiastic about its possibilities in dealing with coping with stress and bullying and excited that Japan’s traditionally conservative education system has seen the value of the program.

“Japanese children or even adults are known for its good humble attitude, hard working, and sincerity and loyalty. That’s true becauseJapanese education practices teach all those things and I think those

are great strengths and uniqueness Japanese people can have. However,those skills are not good enough to survive this difficult modern world for Japanese children as I exampled above. So, the use of El Sistema might become the creative solution with the following expectations for both children who are bullying and being bullied in those modern-day issues.” Naito wrote.

Naito wrote that she chose Heagy to come to Soma to work on their program because she found her lessons inspiring and full of joy.

“Her innate talent as a teacher captured Japanese children’s attention and fascinated all the teachers and the other adults participated in Lorrie’s sessions in Japan, especially by her joyful and witty teaching style. In addition, the thing that most impressed me about Lorrie was my finding that there always are a lot of her sincere learning efforts going on behind her profession, researching and trying new teaching practices and executing peer-to-peer teaching/learning efforts herself with the open-minded spirit.” Naito wrote of working with Heagy.

Kikugawa, though more reserved in his email interview, spoke highly of Heagy and El Sistema as well.

“I strongly believe in the core values of El Sistema, particularly, building teamwork, peer-learning and learning with joy. I am sure that these concepts can transform the children affected by tsunami and nuclear accident in Fukushima and eventually the whole community surrounding them. In Japan, school culture is so influential especially in a countryside town like Soma and in this sense, we feel compassion with Lorrie who also tries this music based social transformation process at school.” Kikugawa wrote.

Locally, Heagy receives a lot of positive feedback from parents who notice a real change in their kids and who are now feeling more involved in the school community.

“Parents felt the self confidence their children gained through the program affected their confidence in other areas.” Heagy said,”Parents were feeling more a part of the school through the performances and seeing the asset their child is, I think often times parents are called when there is a problem, but with music it’s always about celebrating what they can do.”

A woman whose grandson had been part of JAMM at Glacier Valley Elementary School wrote to Heagy about the impact on him.

“Connor’s father died almost five years ago, his mother is in the Marine Corps and is always deployed. Connor, in the past, has never been focused. Since starting violin, Connor is a different person. He likes to practice at home with his paper violin. He hums the song he is practicing at school. Violin has given him something no one can take away. They cannot tell him he is to small or too short. Violin gives him a little control.” Judy Breyer wrote. “The music makes him so happy, I will do what ever it takes to let him continue violin. So thank you so much, for bringing so much happiness to a little boy, with so many problems. It has truly made a difference in his life and mine.”

In music and through El Sistema, many are finding strength, building skills and improving lives. To learn more about JAMM, visit .


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