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Arts are essential elements of education

Posted: September 30, 2013 - 11:00pm

Just when you may have thought the amazingly successful arts education programming at Juneau’s Glacier Valley Elementary School couldn’t get any better, that you couldn’t be more impressed with efforts there to instill artistic ability in Juneau’s youth, word comes about an exciting new development with Juneau, Alaska Music Matters (JAMM). JAMM was created in 2010 by Lorrie Heagy, the uniquely talented and supremely energetic Glacier Valley elementary music teacher and librarian who has spearheaded many positive developments including Juneau’s invitation to participate as an Any Given Child community with the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Heagy was named Teacher of the Year in 2011 by the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development.

JAMM’s latest accomplishment is having been selected to participate in a music education project that will span borders and really wrap across the globe. International Minifiddlers invites teachers and students from classrooms spread all around the world to explore and learn from Finland’s extremely high-standard musical education system. Classrooms in Alaska, Denmark (including its extraterritorial jurisdictions in the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Germany, Israel, and South Korea will tune in across vast distances to be a part of a learning process led by Geza Silvay, the founder of Colourstrings in the Finnish capital of Helsinki.

Using state-of-the-art videoconferencing technology, JAMM’s principal violin teacher GuoHua Xia will participate in the weekly Thursday morning sessions held at Glacier Valley, 30 of which will take place in the coming school year. Juneau is the only place in the United States to be part of Minifiddlers.

Minifiddlers is like nothing Juneau has seen before in its plan to incorporate distance-learning techniques to such a young student base with the use of the Colourstrings technique. The Colourstrings method is focused on the individual child and uses colors and pictures to make the learning process as accessible and effective as possible.

Lorrie Heagy has always been a visionary, and back in 2009 she received a fellowship allowing her to leave Juneau for a period to study new music educational models in Boston, Scotland, and Venezuela. Heagy returned with an ambitious goal, the creation of a new program at Glacier Valley, which is a so-called Title 1 School, meaning it has enough lower-income students to trigger supplemental federal funds to assist in meeting students’ educational goals. Heagy set out to create a pilot program providing free violin lessons three times per week to all kindergarten classes, over and above the general music education remaining available.

JAMM follows in the footsteps of a program called El Sistema which began serving the children of financially-challenged families in Venezuela where Heagy spent two months. Years of research have shown that learning to play a musical instrument at a very early age creates new skills that lead to success in many areas of education. Early music training also offers other benefits including the interactive, social benefits of working in an orchestral group, and boosting self-confidence, persistence, and focus. El Sistema struck Heagy as more of a social than simply a musical program, but one which might be replicated in Juneau.

JAMM is mandatory for kindergarten and first-graders, and voluntarily for second-graders after school. There would be no program without the involvement of parents and local musicians, or for that matter without the collaborative support of the Juneau Community Foundation and the Juneau School District. Plans exist to incorporate arts organizations, middle and high schools, and even the University of Alaska Southeast over time. In order for JAMM to achieve its level of success and stability has required donations of funds and instruments, as well as time. The program began with 25 violins shared between three classes for half-hour sessions. The initial $10,000 came from the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Initiative for Community Engagement. JAMM is now a presence at three of Juneau’s elementary school, K through 1 at Auke Bay and Riverbend, and K through 2 at Glacier Valley. JAMM will hopefully continue to expand to more grades at more schools with greater instruction time and even a greater array of instruments. JAMM is online at http://juneaumusicmatters.blogspot.com/, and donations can be made there.

Endorsement for the International Minifiddlers project has come from some highly esteemed musicians, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose name is familiar to classical music aficionados and public-radio listeners. Maestro Salonen, Principal Conductor & Artistic Advisor of the London- based Philharmonia Orchestra, recognizes the potential of International Minifiddlers to harness digital technology to take some outstanding Finnish music educational successes and share them in a potentially limitless number of communities, with remote places in the far north the first to be among the beneficiaries. Juneau is truly fortunate to have joined this process early on, and other Alaskan communities will wish to follow in the Capital City’s footsteps.

The science is unarguable: arts education directly increases the ability of the young mind to process and retain all types of information, from historical facts and scientific processes to mathematical equations. The efforts underway nationally to convert and upgrade so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) education into STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts, Engineering & Math) reflect the data about direct pedagogical positives as well as the behavioral benefits of arts education. International Minifiddlers is a logical and welcome step forward in the continuing march towards making sure all Alaskan students have the benefit of arts education every day in every classroom, for the future well-being of us all.

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