KidzNotes creates more than music for Durham kids

(Don’t often post a placement I earned for a client, but it’s a great organization. Originally published 12.18.11 in the Raleigh News & Observer)

photo: Liz Condo

BY ANNE BLYTHE

DURHAM The performance inside the Holton Resource and Career Center auditorium in east Durham late Saturday morning was billed as a “Winter Concert.”

But there was no “icy chill in the air,” as the chorus belted out in the song “Winter Fantasy.”

photo: Liz Condo

Nothing but warmth exuded from the stage as 110 young musicians in the making – from kindergarten through the fourth grade – shouted out holiday songs and sawed bows across the strings of violins and cellos that in many cases were almost as big as they were.

Parents beamed as they trained cell phone and video cameras toward the stage.

Pride swelled in grandparents, friends and teachers as the orchestra delighted them with unique renditions of such seasonal favorites as “Jingle Bells,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Deck the Halls” and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”

Occasionally, a particularly ornery string squeaked or squawked.

But the audience, teachers and volunteers cheering the children on could turn a deaf ear to a misplayed note or a few extra exuberant “ho, ho, hos” from the chorus.

KidZnotes' Katie Wyatt (photo: Liz Condo)

Katie Wyatt, the true conductor in chief of the program, stood to the side as performance conductors took their turns during the concert.Wyatt is the executive director of KidZNotes, a program for Durham school children who might otherwise be blocked from music by economic and social barriers.

The two-year-old program is modeled after the venerable El Sistema, an instructional system born in Venezuela nearly three and a half decades ago that since has unleashed hundreds of thousands of instrumentalists and choristers across the South American country.

The idea is to give the children access to instruments and hundreds of hours of instruction each year with hopes that they will become an orchestra that represents the community.

photo: Liz Condo

The community, then according to the ideal model, the utopian dream, nurtures the children in their musical endeavors and more.

“It takes all of us to raise a child together,” Wyatt said after the well-attended show.

And many financial backers.

It can cost $2,500 per child. The instruments are pricey and only sent home for good with children who demonstrate that they are ready for the responsibility of practicing and taking care of a violin, viola, cello, trumpet or flute. Each musician in the making receives 10 hours of free instruction a week — or 400 hours of after-school and weekend training.

“This is excellent,” said Arvilla Taylor, the grandmother of fourth-grader Donald Moore, an 8-year-old who rushed up for a big hug in between pieces so he could boast a bit about the top-notch score he just made on a math test, too.

“We prayed he would be the best,” Taylor said, “and look at him.”

Taylor left Philadelphia years ago when her children were young to move Donald’s mom and her siblings away from a neighborhood where drug dealers and others involved in illegal activities were the ones who commanded respect.

KidZNotes, Taylor said, has taught her grandson much more than musical notes.

photo: Liz Condo

Similar praise echoed throughout the auditorium – from adults and the young.

Erica Torres Villalba, 8, a viola player, and her sister, Esmeralda Torres Villalba, 6, a violin player, rated the performance as the audience pushed toward the exit doors.

“My favorite was ‘Jingle Bells,’ ” Erica said. “Everybody likes ‘Jingle Bells,'” Esmeralda chimed in.

“I like ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ ”

The girls agreed, though, on what instrument they wanted to play later in life.

“When I grow up I wish I could have a flute,” Erica said. “Then I could be a magician.”

Bianca Morten and Francina Everett, mother and grandmother of 8-year-old violinist Mikayla Hunt, chatted enthusiastically about the opportunities the program provided. In just a few months, Mikayla was making big plans – she hoped to move from the violin to more musical endeavors and possibly join the chorus.

Mikayla, who says “it’s pretty cool” because “you get to finger your notes,” acknowledged one downside of the program that she hopes will lead her to a “big orchestra” some day. She gets stage fright before a big show. “Nervous,” she said, her shoulders shuddering. But she has a secret for pushing beyond the edginess.

How does Mikayla settle her nerves?

“By smiling,” she said.

It must have been a contagious smile that spread well beyond the confines of one east Durham auditorium Saturday morning.

“Isn’t it amazing,” said Evan Howell, a volunteer and promoter of the program.

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