Juneau teacher wins fellowship to study abroad

Heagy to travel to Boston, Venezuela to learn to help at-risk youth through music

Posted: Friday, October 02, 2009

A circle of second graders holding sticks count time as they do African dance to an Australian aboriginal beat. As the music quiets, they squat down, waiting.

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Klas Stolpe / The Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / The Juneau Empire

"Now ... suspense," says music teacher Lorrie Heagy. "Like, 'You haven't seen anything yet.' Improvise. What is that?"

"Think it up!" comes a chorus of voices.

Innovative teaching methods like that have helped Heagy, a music teacher and librarian at Glacier Valley Elementary School since 2002 and former Juneau Community Charter School teacher, become one of 10 musicians awarded a yearlong international Abreu fellowship at New England Conservatory to study "El Sistema," a music education program that originated in Venezuela and focuses on serving at-risk youth or under-served populations.

Today is Heagy's last day teaching at Glacier Valley. She leaves Juneau on Saturday.

In her first semester in the program, Heagy will be in Boston studying El Sistema's implementation in Venezuela and models for the United States. She'll undergo training in music, music education, child development, business, technology and communications.

Her second semester will begin with a two-month observation and study in Venezuela.

When the program ends next June, Heagy hopes to bring what she's learned back to Glacier Valley and Juneau. She said she's already started talking to people here about different ideas for implementing the program when she returns.

Some of those ideas are starting kids playing music as early as possible, using undiluted original music - such as original Beethoven - at all levels, peer mentoring, and "passion before precision." She'd also like to introduce kids to stringed instruments at a young age.

That's something on which the El Sistema method focuses, teaching some kids as early as age 2.

Heagy is already implementing some aspects of the program, such as familiarizing students with publicperformance.

"I know how it has made a difference in my life having music," she said. "When I talk about the skills artists acquire, you end up applying those same habits to all aspects of your life. You're always reflecting, looking ahead, focused on the details, loving collaboration and working with people. ... I keep telling the kids, it's not easy to play an instrument. It's hard. But things in life are hard, too. So if you stick with it, you'll find you'll be able to stick with other things that aren't so easy."

With grants and dedication, Heagy has already brought African drums and other instruments to the school, started the nationally acclaimed Art is Elementary program, started an instrumental band program at the school that the district now funds for many schools, and has helped children of limited financial means gain access to music and musical instruments. She was selected as a 2009 Yale School of Music Distinguished Music Educator, where she was introduced to El Sistema.

She also teaches at University of Alaska Southeast in the master of arts in teaching program in elementary education, and at the Basic Arts Summer Institutes for Alaskan teachers, according to the school district.

Heagy, however, spreads the credit.

"It's really this community that has made this opportunity happen," she said. "It's the combined efforts of so many community members, the kids, the staff, the parents. ... Glacier Valley is my family."

Some of those "family members" said Heagy's passion, vision and follow-through stand out.

Glacier Valley physical education teacher Susie Denton and parent volunteer Katrina Laneville said Heagy has the capability to enact and see the end result of what can initially be an inspiring but daunting vision.

They said she's opened up a whole world of art - including dancing, drama and more - for kids.

"She gets kids to fall in love with music," Denton said. "She makes it fun for them.

"(Art is Elementary) started with her vision, and now it's huge. And now she's going to go away to this program and come back with another vision, and it's going to be huge. But we can do it."

Heagy plans to blog about her experience at juneaumusicmatters.blogspot.com. More information on El Sistema is available at elsistemausa.org, and on Glacier Valley's Art is Elementary program at www.jsd.k12.ak.us/~heagyl/ArtisElementary.

A trailer for an upcoming movie about El Sistema is also available on YouTube.

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