KidZNotes uses music for social change

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — In the school year that begins this month, 300 students in public elementary schools in Durham County and 60 in Wake County who otherwise could not afford to will be playing in a free symphony program, thanks to KidZNotes, a Durham nonprofit modeled on the pioneering El Sistema program.

Formed in 1975 to bring music to impoverished kids in the slums of Venezuela, El Sistema has reached 800,000 children throughout the world.

El Sistema is rooted in the idea that “music could change the social and economic circumstances, that music could be a means of empowerment out of poverty,” says Kathryn Wyatt, executive director of KidZNotes.

Founded in 2010 by Durham philanthropist Lucia Powe, KidZnotes has grown from 60 students its first year and this fall will include five low-income schools in Durham and three in Wake.

To cover the cost of $2,500 per student, the nonprofit receives 40 percent of its funding from individuals, 30 percent from foundations, and 20 percent from events and corporate partnerships.

KidZNotes collaborates with the public schools, which provide free space and the cost of music teachers who team teach with 25 part-time music instructors who work with the nonprofit as independent contractors.

It also partners with the East Durham Children’s Initiative, which manages a collaboration of dozens of partner agencies working to support families and children in a 120-block area east of downtown Durham.

And it collaborates with groups such as the North Carolina Symphony, Duke University, Carolina Performing Arts, American Dance Festival and the Durham Performing Arts Center that provide the kids with free attendance at events.

“We’ve accomplished what we’ve been able to accomplish because we’ve worked as a collaborative organization,” says Wyatt, who learned the viola in third grade, played with the New World Symphony in Miami for two-and-a-half years, and served as director of education for the North Carolina Symphony.

In 2009, Wyatt was one of 10 people selected in the inaugural class of the year-long Abreu Fellowship, named for Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, that immersed her in the program and focused on how to replicate it in the U.S.

Before beginning the fellowship, she met Powe, who wanted to launch an El Sistema program in Durham, already had begun raising money for it, and agreed to hire Wyatt as the founding executive director when she returned from Venezuela.

At KidZNotes, which operates with an annual budget of $650,000 and a staff of four people, every student begins in kindergarten at the beginning, or “Mozart” level, by learning to play the violin and read music, spending 10 hours a week in classes after school and Saturdays.

Starting in first grade, students through auditions can advance to the intermediate, or “Brahms” level, learning different instruments and spending 10 hours a week at a central “nucleo” after school and weekends that brings together students from different schools to practice together in a symphony setting.

Students eventually can progress to the advanced, or “Beethoven” level.

Parents learn to play along with their children, and their participation is critical, Wyatt says.

“Every parent who has a kid learning to play an instrument knows that home practice is key to success and advancement,” she says. “Music has become part of their lives.”

KidZNotes, one of 80 El Sistema programs in the U.S., aims to expand to 500 students in Durham in three years and to 500 students Wake in five years, and eventually would like to operate throughout the state.

The public schools also are tracking the KidZNotes students’ grades, attendance, behavior and end-of-year testing, and comparing them to those of public school students overall in the same grades.

“Music instruction significantly enhances the executive function of the brain,” says Wyatt, a founding member of the National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programs. “The El Sistema movement is an energizing, active, involved movement of many, many people coming behind the idea that music has the power to change lives.”

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