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Women's History Month: Laura Eakman - Conducting a Legacy of Harmony 

In the vibrant tapestry of Rockford's community, Laura Eakman emerges as a pivotal figure, weaving together threads of education, inclusivity, and musical passion. As the Executive Director of the Music Academy in Rockford, her journey from an eager young student to a shining light of educational leadership offers profound insights into the transformative power of music.


This narrative delves into the depths of her career and contributions, painting a rich, detailed portrait of her impact. 



The Overture: A Young Violinist’s Awakening 

From the tender age of five, Laura's musical journey began at the Music Academy with a violin. 


“I did like the Mendelssohn Club competition and played in [the Rockford Area Youth Symphony Orchestra] (now called RSYO - Rockford Symphony Youth Orchestra) and all of that,” Laura recalls.

 

Developing her talent inside the hallways of the academy at the then-called Rockford College Music Academy, it propelled her to the international stage. Laura has performed with the members of the New York Philharmonic. In 2009, she toured the Netherlands as part of the Camus Quartet, which she co-founded, as well as the Kylian Quartet, and Avant Duo. 


However, to truly reach the potential of her music career, Laura realized her heart was not on the stage. But, rather, a classroom. 


“As I went through college and I figured out that I really liked teaching versus performing - I always thought I was going to be a performer - I realized I feel more creative and better when I’m teaching.” 


The Movement: All-in On Suzuki 

For those who knew Laura growing up, they were aware she was not a fan of the Suzuki method. 

“When I first started teaching, I was like, ‘I’m not going to do Suzuki. That's how I was raised and I don't need to do that.” 


That mindset didn’t last and she unexpectedly became a fervent advocate. The Suzuki method, with its emphasis on creating a musical environment akin to that of acquiring language, fundamentally influenced Laura's perspective on teaching and music education. It wasn't just about the notes, but about cultivating a profound, holistic connection with music. 


“The more I started teaching, the more I saw how effective it was. I found myself… in my doctoral class, really defending Suzuki. I said, ‘Why am I the one defending Suzuki?’ I was so against it for so long. But, truly, musicality begins and ends with that listening.” 


The Sonata of Social Change 

Laura's professional trajectory is a mosaic of innovative endeavors and transformative programs, each marking a significant chapter in her quest to democratize music education. While working on her Doctorate of Musical Arts degree at the University of Colorado Boulder, Laura worked at El Sistema Colorado in Denver. The group offered free music lessons after school for low-income students under 18.


“I had this after-school group of amazing kids. I worked at Swansea Elementary, where every kindergartner and first grader learned to play violin during the day, which was awesome. It was a really cool experience for them and then after school they could continue their studies in a full after school program. Part of the reason for that is that it keeps them somewhere safe after school hours and then it also uses music to help their development.” 


At the time, Laura knew the program did amazing things for the community. But, felt more could be done to give kids even more tools to navigate through life. 


“It feels like we can be much more intentional about what we're doing with music. There are so many studies that show music improves social skills and math and reading and all of those things. But, how can we make sure that we're teaching these students so that they're really getting all the benefits from it?” 


That’s the question she sought to answer as she pursued her doctorate. Laura’s dissertation focused on music’s ability to “strengthen neural pathways and cut through some of the damage that is caused by chronic stress,” specifically those raised in the cycle of generational poverty. 


“I did develop all of these activities as part of my research and then they got the benefit of it because they're fun activities that are good for anyone. But they're also specifically designed for those students.” 


Crescendo in Kansas 

Laura’s talent made waves in education. A Kansas State violin teacher heard about her and asked if she would be interested in starting a music program there. 


“First, I said no.” 


But, fate intervened and Laura soon made the move with her husband to Manhattan, Kansas. In just two years, the program’s enrollment numbers went from 18 to more than 70. 


Laura eventually moved on and created the Suzuki Strings of Manhattan, a community school program focused on string instruments. 


“Not that we don't love traditional students, but it felt like the community needed more of that group class aspect and that they were really kind of wanting it. It was really successful.” 


Laura also ran a Summer Chamber Music Camp and conducted a local youth orchestra.


“The students there were wonderful and the families were wonderful and I miss them a lot.” 


A Symphony of Community Engagement 

After more than 20 years, Laura finally returned home when the Music Academy in Rockford named her its new Executive Director in 2022. In each of the roles Laura played in her past, she identified what the community needed and delivered. While she’s still working to identify ways to strengthen our community, there is one issue she is already trying to tackle.


“One of the complaints I've been hearing as we go out into the community is that… it feels a little exclusive and it is not exclusive.” 


One initiative underway is called Music Academy Leaves the Building.


“It is ten events outside of our building in the month of March… which is why I'm so busy this month. It's anything from string instrument petting zoos to a faculty recital specifically for children where they can move around and experience the music and not feel stressed and the parents don't need to feel stressed about, ‘My gosh, you’ve made too much noise or my kid is not sitting still or something.’” 


The Music Academy recently did an event at Peterson Meadows. 


“Just spread out in the community so that we're reaching people that we don't often.” 


Academy leaders took another step to shed the “exclusive” label. Laura, along with the Music Academy Board, made a change to its mission statement. It used to say, “… Instill in our students a lifelong love of music and the arts.”


“We chose to get rid of the word ‘our.’ It doesn't matter what we're doing, if we're out there and we're doing an instrument petting zoo, for instance, if there is one person that didn't know about violin and played one and loves it - we've done our job. I think that’s really a piece that has been missing.” 


The Intermezzo: Reducing Student Stress While Performing 

Recitals can cause many students at the academy to feel nervous. Laura says that’s completely natural. 


“When we get nervous, our body reacts in a certain way. Our brain reacts in a certain way and just to learn how your specific body and brain deal with nerves. That's great for performing. It never gets easier. But, you know how to better prepare yourself - my arm gets really shaky, so I need to make sure that my bow feels… really practiced in.” 


For Laura, recitals are less about a showcase of a student’s skills, but rather an exercise to prepare them for the real world. 


“Eventually, kids have to do things that make them nervous and that's good and they're better prepared for it.” 


Even in those moments when a student plays the wrong key, Laura calls it a learning opportunity. 


“We have to practice like, ‘Okay, I did play a wrong note. How am I going to make that sound like the right thing that I did?’ You do have to practice that and that's just improvisation, being flexible. We can be flexible! I've been saying that so much because it's hard."


The Interlude: Facing Challenges & Conquering Them 

The music industry, historically, has often left women underrepresented and underutilized. Particularly, in leadership roles. Laura’s journey is not an exception.


“I think that happens all the time in board meetings, especially when you've got more assertive men sitting next to you. I'll say something, but I'm just not loud enough or assertive enough…and then… nobody will respond… Then, the man sitting next to me will say it, ‘That's a great idea,’ you know, literally like that.” 


A common occurrence throughout Laura’s career has been men talking over her and other women. Yet, her resilience, determination, and even her performances have given her the tools to make sure her voice is heard. 


“My performing has really taught me to to suck it up and do it. To be brave and and just say what I what I want to say and not worry so much... I'm really fortunate, especially here [at the Music Academy]. Our board is so awesome and there are a lot of men on the board and they are so respectful and so deferential to my knowledge as a musician and a leader of this organization.” 


The Finale: Empowerment & A Legacy of Musical Unity 

Laura Eakman’s story is a symphony of perseverance, innovation, and community spirit. Facing and overcoming challenges, she has carved a path that many will follow, proving that music can indeed be a universal language that unites and uplifts.


Laura is still building her legacy at the Music Academy and in her hometown. But, the foundation is there as her contributions to music education in Rockford and beyond have not only enriched the lives of countless students, but also set a new standard for what it means to be an educator, mentor, and community leader.


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