Unique music program spreads to Juneau starting with paper violins

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tiny fingers of kindergarteners tore pieces of tape off a roll and connected a cardboard strip to a cutout of a violin with the help of a parent.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The students made paper violins Wednesday and Thursday night for a program called Juneau Alaska Music Matters. Lorrie Heagy, a music teach and librarian, started JAMM this year after spending the summer in Venezuela learning about their program “El Sistema.”

El Sistema is a free program and has served more than 1 million children in Venezuela. Families and children craft paper string instruments together there so students can develop respect, care and discipline for their instruments while building basic musicianship skills and singing, Heagy said.

Heagy and nine others from around the U.S. were the inaugural class of Abreu Fellows who traveled to Venezuela and Scotland for this music program. The eight participants are each forming a music program based on El Sistema. Joining Juneau in forming a music program based on El Sistema are Los Angles, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and Durham, N.C.

Heagy said she is particularly excited Juneau joins such prominent scenes in this endeavor and believes Juneau is the perfect place for this type of program because of the diversity in students.

All Glacier Valley kindergarten students will receive violin lessons three times a week. They will begin with the cardboard violin each student made. Heagy encouraged them to take ownership of the violin and treat it with care.

The students will take up the small mock instruments in class and practice holding them properly, using fine and gross motor movements, rhythms, holding the bow and when to play and stop. Heagy said they will sing the songs they’re “playing” so they get used to the movements and will learn to play in a group.

Heagy held up a small, brand new and shiny violin the school purchased for each student with a $10,000 grant from the Initiative for Community Engagement, or ICE, of the Association of Alaska School Boards. Heagy said violin instructor Xia Guohua — or Mr. Xia to his students — was in China this year and shared the details of the program with them.

“When they heard that, they gave us a really good discount,” Heagy said. “All of those brand-new violins have come across the Pacific Ocean to your child’s hands. They know that playing the paper violin is the next step to playing this.”

Sally Rue, director of ICE for the Association of Alaska School Boards, was excited about the program’s potential and made her own paper violin this week.

“We’re really excited about this and I can’t wait to hear you all at the end of the year,” she said.

Rue said this will help improve students’ social and emotional skills, which she said studies have shown are directly related to student achievement.

Teaching specialist Susan Sielbach said she’s been helping with the art side of the project. She spent a lot of time figuring out how to craft a violin parents could help their child make in one evening — without a lot of money, since the grant funds were all used in purchasing actual violins. And while the paper violins do have strings and bridging, they won’t make any musical sounds.

“I work to integrate art into the program,” she said. “This is an extension of what we’ve already done in the past. It’s another art form.”

Aside from their first paper instruments, the kindergarteners heard performances from a first-grade violinist, one in second grade and an 11-year violin student as examples of what they could do as they kept with it.

Parent Tiffany Mahle came with her daughter Makenzie, who excitedly asked her teacher daily if “today” was the day she’d get to make her violin.

“I think it’s great,” Tiffany said of the program. “I have high hopes. I hope she enjoys it and I hope it’s something she continues to do.”

Makenzie is most looking forward to playing violin and wants to learn how to play Hannah Montana songs.

Tiffany said she didn’t really have an opinion either way on the paper violins, but thought it was better than her young daughter potentially ruining a real one.

Parent Larry Blatnick helped his daughter Marla Cabrigas-Blatnik make her violin.

“I’ve been impressed with this so far,” he said. “It’s great (at this age) because it gives them an introduction to music, to explore their creativity and I think a degree of independence. What I like about them building it, is they understand what goes into it.”

But Blatnick saw something even more important than the music aspect of the program.

“I think the one thing I see in the program today, that isn’t music related, is it brings parents and their kids together and they have a common project to work on,” he said. “To me, that’s the most important thing so far. I understand it’s to emphasize music.”

Students will perform their “paper orchestra” songs in October and will receive the real violins to play on for the rest of the year.

“There’s a real excitement here among the parents, staff and students about the violin program,” said teacher JoAnn Steininger. “Parents are thrilled that their young child will have this opportunity as part of their public school education.”

For more information on Lorrie Heagy’s travels in Venezuela and Scotland and JAMM go to www.juneaumusicmatters.blogspot.com.

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

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