Meet the Sistema Fellows: Lorrie Heagy Develops Active Citizenship Through Music Education


Lorrie Heagy runs Juneau Alaska Music Matters (JAMM), an El-Sistema inspired program.

Meet the Sistema Fellows: Lorrie Heagy Develops Active Citizenship Through Music Education

By, Jamia Wilson

In 2009, internationally acclaimed Venezuelan reformer Jose Abreu unveiled his desire to transform the lives of youth in the world’s most vulnerable and underserved communities through music education. His TED Prize winning wish was to “create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for art and social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the US and other countries.” His Sistema Fellows Program, a partnership with New England Conservatory added 10 more follows to their group of 40 diverse alumni in July, bringing Abreu’s dream closer to fruition.

Lorrie Heagy, 2009 Sistema Fellow and program director for JAMM: Juneau Alaska Music Matters, (an El-Sistema inspired program) provides violin instruction for over 400 elementary school students in Juneau, Alaska. We interviewed Lorrie about how Jose Abreu’s wish has impacted her life and the children she teaches:

How did you learn about the Sistema Fellowship?

I learned about the Sistema Fellowship as a subscriber to TED.  A friend sent me the link to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity” back in 2009. It was so inspiring that immediately afterwards I subscribed to TED to receive e-mail alerts of new talks.  About two weeks later, I received the announcement of the Sistema Fellowship through a TED e-mail.

What moved you to apply?  I wanted to be part of an international effort that recognized the important role that music plays in shaping the lives of children and communities, while at the same time, was very action-oriented toward creating programs that make instrumental music accessible to all children.

What inspired you to become a music educator? I remember as a child how much music brought school to life! In elementary school, being able to play the piano gave me the confidence to overcome my shyness and persevere with subjects I struggled with, like reading.  In junior high, music was an anchor against cliques based on who wore designer jeans. In high school, music helped me find small school families where friendships were built on common interests such as singing, after-school plays in the pit, early morning band practice and playing in the marching band.

Music helped me gain confidence, form meaningful friendships, find a sense of purpose, and experience the thrill of accomplishing something great through hard work and teamwork.  I wanted to help make that happen for as many children as possible.  That’s why I become a music teacher.

Jose Abreu developed El Sistema as both an artistic and social justice program. How is the work you’re doing transforming lives? The power of music and the social experience of playing in an ensemble motivates children to dream big, while also giving them the skills to actively pursue those dreams.Through their child’s involvement in JAMM, parents have noticed their children’s development of critical habits that we hope will serve them throughout their lifetime –persistence, focus, teamwork, creativity and the ability to pick themselves up when they first meet with failure.

Playing an instrument is challenging, but when children persevere and then feel excitement and pride while performing for an audience, they experience the rewards of not giving up. Allison Geary, one of our 2nd graders who has been in the JAMM program since it began 3 years ago said: “Music makes me kind of feel relaxed and feel like I’m going to grow up to be whatever I want to be.”

This year’s class of Sistema Fellows is the most diverse in the history of the program, and it is predominately women. How do you think this could impact gender equality in the music industry?

That I can’t answer.  I do know that El Sistema has renewed my faith in recognizing what we all share in common, rather than what divides us.  Music education in the US has a tendency to divide by ensemble. In Venezuela, folk ensembles, choirs and orchestras perform together.  These performances create intense emotional experiences for both musicians and the audience.  In Venezuela, we all felt connected.

I’d like to see more experiences like this happen in the US.  In our JAMM program, we continually look for ways for our ensembles – orchestra, rock band, concert band, guitar club, choir, and Tlingit dance and drumming – to perform together.

What is your favorite part about being a music educator in Alaska?

I love the diversity of our students and the state’s rich Alaska Native culture, which is so much a part of our school and community.  Also, Juneau only is accessible by boat or plane. Because of this physical isolation from the rest of the US, our community is very tight.  Everyone works together for the wellbeing of our children – not just their intellect, but also their social and emotional health. JAMM is a product of this collective commitment.

How do your location and its culture influence your teaching and the music your students play? Over 40% of our school is Alaska Native and mostly members of the Tlingit tribe.  One thing I learned from my travels in Venezuela is that folk music is very much a part of each center’s musical fabric – both feed the musical lives of children and model the universal aspects of music. Honoring the culture of your community is important, which is why JAMM includes Tlingit Dance & Drumming right alongside its orchestra and band. Also, because of Juneau’s remoteness, I’ve become more intentional about building capacity within the school through uncovering hidden talents among school staff.  For example, a school counselor instructs both Morning Guitar and Rock Band, a 2nd grade teacher who speaks Tlingit, teaches Tlingit dance and drumming, a 3rd grade teacher leads composition class using Garage Band, and a pre-school teacher who has a minor in dance education offers a creative movement class – all our integral components of our JAMM program.

How do you think El Sistema is changing the landscape for music education?

Dr. Abreu is very adamant that El Sistema is not a music program, but rather a social service program that develops exceptional human beings and contributing members of society.  I think all music educators believe this, but El Sistema has intentionally put into place structures that help realize this larger goal. That’s how El Sistema has changed the landscape for music education:

  • Ensemble is the starting point instead of private lessons
  • Peer-teaching is just as important as instruction from adults
  • Performance is on-going and in the community, rather than the traditional two concerts per year on the school stage.

When the goal is about developing active citizenship, it changes the way you teach.  In the end, your students will still accomplish exceptional music skills, but through a larger goal like citizenship, they’ll come away with so much more.

Inspired? Support Lorrie’s work at Juneau Alaska Music Matters.