Matt Heinecke imbues lifelong passion into Coronado school district’s music program
From as early as he can remember, musician Matt Heinecke has been captivated by the many sounds instruments make. So when he was offered the position of music director for the Coronado Unified School District in June, it was music to his ears.
Prior to his new position, Heinecke served as music director for the Coronado School of the Arts (CoSA), a public school-within-a-school on the campus of Coronado High School, focusing on music, theater, drama, dance, visual arts and graphic design.
Holding that position since 2007, Heinecke had always struggled with the fact that the CoSA program had no real “feeder” programs from Coronado schools. There were no comprehensive music classes at the elementary level and only one middle school band class. “We’d get a lot of students from Coronado Middle School who had dabbled in band but weren’t quite ready for the conservatory nature of the CoSA music program,” Heinecke said. “We were always recruiting off-island.”
But in January, the Coronado Schools Foundation provided major funding along with the Coronado Arts Education Foundation to begin a band program at the elementary level, including a string class and choir.
Heinecke expected total enrollment numbers to be about 20 but was thrilled to learn 60 students signed up at Village and 50 at Strand elementary schools.
Outside of teaching, Heinecke performs regularly at the local restaurants including Stake and Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge and books a number of private events and weddings. He also is one of the featured performers at the popular summer Coronado Promenade Concerts held at Spreckels Park. For him, music is a lifelong pursuit — one he’s still learning. And based on his own experiences, he said that it’s important to channel kids’ passion for it early on.
“I sort of live this parallel life between full-time teaching and performing as much as I can. But it’s great that students see me around town as a professional musician — they realize that they can pursue the same thing, and I love that I get to be the person who teaches them how to do it.”
His involvement in Coronado’s live music scene is certainly an added benefit to his students. Evan Agarwal, a senior CoSA bass player and guitarist who had Heinecke all four years of high school, now plays shows around town as well, thanks in large part to his teacher.
“Mr. Heinecke has opened doors for me and my classmates, giving us opportunities we would never have had otherwise,” said Agarwah, who, along with classmate Alec Ruiz de Castilla, performed at Spiro’s Greek Café this summer, following Heinecke’s introduction. The music teacher also helped the students build their set list and live performance skills. “The manager welcomed us with open arms because she knew she could expect Mr. Heinecke’s students to be quality musicians,” said Agarwah.
“He’s our mentor and our guide. His passion for music is evident in his teaching and it inspires that same love of music in us,” said Agarwal
Heinecke has found a lot of joy in the recent addition of elementary-level teaching to his repertoire, the age when his music education began.
As a third-grader, Heinecke discovered the main character, Ritchie, in La Bamba (a popular film at the time based on the life of Ritchie Valens), who carried a guitar with him everywhere and could swing it around and play it on a whim. He became enamored with the idea of becoming a guitar player and begged his parents to let him learn to play.
His mother, Meredith, has instant recall of the passion her son displayed when the family was walking through a mall and her son spied a sign hanging in a music store window, offering guitar lessons. “Matt stopped dead in his tracks and said, ‘Mom, you never have to do anything else for me in my whole life if you just get me music lessons.’”
Meredith said she and her husband, Walt, didn’t have a lot of money at the time, “But we realized music made Matt really happy. So we saved up and bought him a child’s guitar and lessons. We never pressured him — we encouraged him without pushing him.
“You have to watch for the passion, because that will take the child anywhere,” she added.
The couple had recognized other signs of Heinecke’s passion for music at an early age. His mom recalled that at age three on trips to the neighborhood pool, Heinecke, would repeatedly ask the lifeguard if he could blow her whistle to experiment with the different sounds he could make. And when Walt Heinecke would strum away on his 1956 Martin guitar — a treasured high school graduation gift he carried with him around the world during his service in the Navy — Matt was always close by, observing. “Matt would just watch Walt’s hands,” Meredith recalled. “Walt would let him touch the strings and sing along. It was really special.”
Heinecke said his father only knew a few guitar chords, but loved to strum a few familiar songs of the time. “He never really got past his fixation on the Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan. But I loved every minute of it as a kid.”
Walt Heinecke passed away in 2014. But his guitar continues to gently entertain: Heinecke chooses to play his dad’s Martin, now his, at weddings and more intimate performances because of what he calls its “mellow, earthy tone.”
By his second music lesson, Heinecke had mastered the entire songbook. “He was like a sponge,” Meredith said. He was soon flying through three music books a week.
But often an unchallenged student is a bored one, and Heinecke soon outgrew the lessons. “I was a kid with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll, but I was sitting there plucking away the chords to Row Row Row Your Boat. It wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined, so I didn’t practice, and I guess I just put it on ice for a while.”
Then in fourth grade, Heinecke moved to Coronado and his grandparents, who lived here, showed him the iconic Coronado-based film Some Like it Hot. When he watched Jack Lemmon play the saxophone, a new instrumental passion took flight. “It just looked and sounded so cool,” he said.
Soon he picked up the instrument and his musical passions were unleashed in multiple directions. That’s the same type of energy and discovery that Heinecke now wants to help his students, particularly the younger set, tap into.
“Their energy and enthusiasm reminds me of what it felt like when I blew into a sax for the first time and it made that huge sound. Finding ways to channel that excitement into something more meaningful is what I’m here to do,” he said.
Heinecke played sax through his middle school years and then discovered a new kind of cool — Guns N’ Roses — and his love of the guitar was reignited. “I saw Slash playing that electric guitar, and I just wanted to shred!” Shortly after this revelation, he learned of a GNR concert coming to town. “I begged my parents to go. But the band had a reputation for not taking the stage until midnight — and my parents weren’t having it.”
After some artful begging, his parents agreed to let him go in the company of his college sister’s boyfriend who was in college, as long as Heinecke finished all his homework and was not late to school the next morning. But Heinecke was more than eager to go to school the next morning.
“I had some real street cred,” said Heinecke, laughing. “I was the seventh-grade kid whose parents let me go to a GNR concert. We didn’t get home until 3:30 a.m. — and I proudly wore my concert T-shirt to school the next morning. To this day, it was the best concert I’ve ever been to. It was larger-than-life, and it changed my life.” The band is still Heinecke’s all-time favorite.
In his freshman year at Coronado High School, Heinecke joined the jazz band as a guitarist and for the first time, learned to read music.
Brian Köhn directed the high school music program at the time. “He helped us find our direction and passion and really supported us,” said Heinecke, who hopes to be the same type of influence on his own students. Under Kohn’s encouragement, Heinecke began singing while he played, and soon after started performing regularly at Café 1134. “I was a pretty shy kid,” he said. “But playing the guitar was the icebreaker I needed. It always boosted my confidence and self-esteem.”
During his senior year, Heinecke was one of only seven freshman admitted to the University of Southern California School of Music after a competitive audition process. He eventually majored in music business (a degree that served him well working for Jive Records during the era of Britney Spears and ‘N Sync), took songwriting classes, and even put out an album his senior year. “I think it sold 10 copies,” he said with a laugh. “And I think about six of those were to my parents.”
After graduating, Heinecke began playing shows throughout Los Angeles as a solo artist and from 2003 through 2006, performed in Nashville as a singer and songwriter — he recalls those years fondly as some of the best of his life. He was also the founding member of a popular ‘80s band named Bueller?, which thrives there today. He stopped writing original material after his stint in Nashville; instead he embarked on a new path in music — teaching it.
He returned to USC in 2006 for a joint teaching credential and master’s in music education, then headed home to join the staff at Coronado High School.
At its genesis, Heinecke said the district-wide musical program is starting small, with one elementary band, two middle school bands, and the array of existing CoSA music classes, including AP music therapy. But he wants to see the offerings expand. “I want to offer music of all kinds — I want music to be one of the most popular programs on every campus and see each school site really investing in music. And I want kids to take a music class every year and never feel like they are taking the same class over again.”
Though he was in the first few rows of the GNR concert that came to town in August and he still speaks of the show with stars in his eyes, his one-time dreams of rock ‘n’ roll are now happily fulfilled by the sight of his students playing classic band or orchestra literature. “I love when my CoSA students perform Holst’s The Planets and his First Suite in E Flat. They’re both standards in band literature, but typically performed by college and professional ensembles. So to see high school students rise to the occasion is so moving and inspiring,” he said proudly.
But his pride isn’t reserved for the difficult classics. CHS Principal Jenny Moore remembered a time when he expressed the thrill of his elementary band “nailing” Hot Cross Buns for the first time. “It was really gratifying because he could arguably reserve his talents for the most advanced students, but he was so excited to see future musicians making their first music,” Moore said.
Perhaps, like a scene out of Mr. Holland’s Opus, Heinecke will one day look back on his years of teaching aspiring Coronado students as one of his greatest compositions.
In the meantime, this music man blends his time teaching, mentoring and performing in perfect harmony.