Commencement Speaker for Spring 2017 Talks Empowerment
Jennifer Heemstra, founder of international nonprofit, encourages grads to leverage music for greater good.
Jennifer Heemstra always sensed she could make a difference, but didn't always know the power to connect, unify and heal was right at her fingertips.
In May 2017, the creator, director and pianist of the Kolkata Classics Hathor Series spoke about the power musicians have to effect change at the annual commencement of the MSU College of Music (See full speech). Heemstra also spoke about finding the will and the way through a personal journey of discovery that started at Michigan State University and circled the globe.
“Seventeen years ago, music meant something completely different to me,” says Heemstra. “It was all about perfect scales and round tone, an orchestra job or a university position, and generally being able to support myself without working as a barista.”
Heemstra graduated with honors from the MSU College of Music in 2000. After earning her Master of Music degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2002, Heemstra worked as a musician and lecturer at Case Western Reserve University for seven years before moving abroad.
In Rome, Heemstra started anew. She became acquainted with another culture and language. She learned the difficulties of living as an immigrant, and she learned resilience, street smarts and openness to other ways of life—all lessons that prepared her for her move to Kolkata, India.
In Kolkata, Heemstra came to fully realize the transformative power of music and founded a concert series and charitable trust with artists, city leaders and non-government organizations. Now entering its third season, Kolkata Classics has become a movement that empowers women, inspires impoverished youth, and builds bridges that span cultures and socio-economic groups through western classical music. Some performances are paired with health fairs to provide free medical and social services to women and children trapped in intergenerational prostitution or sex-trafficking.
“The greatest truth I knew, forgot for a spell, and then relearned in a deeper and more meaningful way in Kolkata is that music is transformative,” Say Heemstra. “It heals, brings hope, inspires, helps us cope, and makes us see the world with fresh eyes.”
Since 2014, Heemstra’s free series has touched the lives of roughly 60,000 people through 62 classical music concerts both within and outside Kolkata. Heemstra performs alongside other musicians she enlists from the classical world, including MSU alumni. Performances take place in concert halls, town squares, ballrooms and private schools. Many, too, are held in rural areas, orphanages, slums, and in Kolkata’s red-light district where more than 10,000 women and children are trapped in sex slavery.
In 2016, Heemstra received the Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad for her work. Recently Heemstra founded an American NGO (501c3) “The Pitch Pipe Foundation” to take her work beyond India.
“Jenny’s passion and determination is emblematic of the ability of today’s musicians to make a significant difference in today’s complex world,” says James Forger, dean of the College of Music. “She’s an inspiration and a truly outstanding MSU Spartan who brings life and meaning to what we mean when we say Spartans Will.”
Heemstra continues to reflect on the lessons she learned from living abroad. In Rome, she re-energized her passion, and in Kolkata, struck by the immense socio-economic divides of the city, saw an opportunity to use musical performance as a way to lift spirits and bring hope to new audiences. She says she often relied on the well-rounded education and entrepreneurial skills she had gained from MSU, as well as the cultural experiences that showed her the differences she could make.
“I drew on everything I had learned at MSU as I began to discover the power of music to influence society,” Heemstra says. “MSU taught me how to be a team player, how to communicate and listen to colleagues, and how to build and manage relationships. Most of all, I was surrounded by exceptional teachers and students. It was impossible not to learn if only through osmosis.”
Heemstra visited campus briefly before her commencement address to engage with students and faculty in discussions about her international and non-profit work. She hopes to return to campus in the near future to facilitate additional workshops through the College’s Running Start Program. Heemstra's ultimate vision is to establish a long-term feeder system that provides opportunities for artists and students from MSU to participate in the concert series. She plans to foster academic and musical exchanges between MSU and Kolkata.
While she says it’s difficult to distill advice into a single phrase, she believes musicians today must be willing to take risks, develop relationships, and learn to adapt. When they do, she says, they can be confident they can have an impact on the world in whatever way they choose.
“I love the motto Spartans Will,” says Heemstra. “Remember your MSU degree is your ticket to a global network of musicians, and determined, like-minded individuals. Value the relationships you've made here and make sure to answer to call.”
Jennifer Heemstra Bio
Pianist Jennifer Heemstra has performed as soloist and chamber musician, as well as theatrical accompanist and coach throughout the United States and Europe. She has performed in such venues as the United Nations Rome, American Embassy Rome and Cleveland’s renowned jazz hotspot Nighttown.
Heemstra earned a Bachelor of Music with honors from Michigan State University and a Master of Music in Piano Performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music. In Cleveland, she worked as a lecturer and staff accompanist for Case Western Reserve University, performed with the Cleveland Opera and Lyric Opera, and formed Gershwin 29, a cabaret of Golden Age hits.
In Rome, Italy, Heemstra directed musicals at John Cabot University. She also founded a summer music camp, taught at the American Overseas School of Rome, and maintained a private studio.
Heemstra moved to Kolkata in 2014 where she has performed for over 60,000 people in 62 concerts. In 2016, Heemstra created the Kolkata Classics Hathor Series to promote high quality western classical music to mass audiences regardless of socio-economic status. Named for the Egyptian goddess of health and music, this series features a health fair that provides free health screening to victims of inter-generational prostitution, and offers no-cost, zero-balance bank accounts to women.
Heemstra received the 2016 Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad. In 2017, she was a delegate at the Second World Congress Against Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in New Delhi, India. She is currently working to build Kolkata Classics into a sustainable nonprofit through organized benefit concerts. Most recently Heemstra has founded an American NGO, the Pitch Pipe Foundation, whose goal is to send musicians abroad in order to drive social change around the world. Initially, focusing on Trafficking in Persons in South Asia, Heemstra plans for the Pitch Pipe Foundation to expand from Michigan to every corner of the globe.