When I returned to Anchorage in 2016, one of the first things I did was ask around about starting a music education program. I had been inspired by a program called El Sistema. You may have heard of it – founded in Venezuela in 1975 for social change through music, it is a music education program that has spread across the globe and produced success stories like Gustavo Dudamel, Music and Artistic Director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
I was happy to find that Alaska already boasts such a music education program. Juneau Alaska Music Matters, or JAMM, is an after-school program supported by the community it serves, connected to a cohort of sister programs through Carnegie Hall’s PlayUSA, and plugged into the global Sistema movement via the L.A. Phil and the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA). Like the program that inspired me, here was an opportunity for young people of all backgrounds to come together and work toward an ideal community grounded in creativity.
I recently had the privilege of meeting the founder Lorrie Heagy and the executive Meghan Johnson. Their work is ongoing, but deserves some special attention right now, because JAMM is finding creative solutions to music teacher shortages as well as working to build a pilot language and culture revitalization music program called Háa Tóo Yei Yatee at Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau.
A question may have come to mind as you read the last paragraph – if there don’t seem to be many music teachers in Alaska, how is JAMM going to staff the Glacier Valley Program? In a recent call, Mrs. Johnson shared with me that music is diffused through our communities in unexpected ways: Alaskan musicians aren’t always self-advertising, but if you keep your ears open, you find them. Perhaps someone steps forward who has played music for their church for years and who has experience in education. Perhaps someone who only plays privately and is an informal educator by trade wants to contribute.
Tapping into those resources takes flexibility on all sides. For example, JAMM sometimes relies on video conferencing to hold classes. New teachers, for their part, come to understand that JAMM’s goals extend well beyond music into the socioemotional and academic development of children. In other words, students not only learn to play the instrument they signed up for (mostly violin), they also learn to work together in groups and gain literacy skills. This local flexibility reflects the broader flexibility of the Sistema movement. Although the name ‘El Sistema’ literally translates to ‘The System,’ Mrs. Johnson describes the movement as having a “fluid architecture.”
Two examples of that adaptability stand out in Juneau. The first is a tweak to the motto of El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu, “passion before precision.” Passion is what led conductors such as Dudamel to focus on moving his ensembles toward the meaning behind the music, but putting passion in front of precision may not be what every community needs. JAMM adjusts the phrase to read “passion and precision,” enabling it to provide the appropriate amount of structure for their students from day one.
The second adaptation of El Sistema that stands out in Juneau is the integration of Dr. Heagy’s language and culture preservation efforts. Although there has been a violin program at Glacier Valley for twelve years, Háa Tóo Yei Yatee is different. In Língit, the name means “It is within us,” after the words of the late Língit elder David Katzeek. Few lifelong Língit speakers remain to carry on the language and cultural traditions of the Juneau area. In response, Dr. Heagy is learning Língit herself and working with the young musicians of JAMM to honor the heritage of the place they gather. One of the most beautiful manifestations of the intersection of language, culture, and music within Háa Tóo Yei Yatee is that musical directions are learned in Língit.
Both of these efforts represent the overarching mission of JAMM: to create a microcosm of an ideal society through music. That ideal society looks different to each person involved, but a few key points seem fixed. In Juneau, diversity is valued by offering the after-school program for free, choosing music from a diverse set of composers, and recognizing the relevance of local native language and culture. Across the globe, El Sistema’s beating heart is a passion for music, placing creativity and community at the center of ideal societies.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.