The genesis of HQ Raleigh partner, Kidznotes, came from an unusual source — a simple evening watching television at home. Lucia Powe, a Durham philanthropist, was watching the show 60 Minutes with her husband, and that night they featured an orchestral-training program for low-income children called “El Sistema.”

Lucia was moved by the mission and philosophy of its founder, José Antonio Abreu, and remarked to her husband that there should be something like that in Durham. He responded simply, “Why don’t you start it?” So she did.

Bringing El Sistema to the Triangle through Kidznotes

Thankfully, there was more than one person in the area that was interested in pursuing Abreu’s system. Katie Wyatt, a violist and the outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Symphony, just happened to be one of the first “Abreu Scholars.” The El Sistema founder had won the TED Prize and used the funding to start a fellowship program. Katie traveled to Venezuela, meeting many of the children from the program and learning directly from Abreu.

This training made Katie the perfect partner for Lucia, and she was named the original executive director. Katie has since left and gone on to run the El Sistema USA organization out of Duke University. But her early work from 2010 to 2017 got the program on a firm foundation.

At the Kidznotes Grow! Gala with Chef Vivian Howard

Promoting “affluence of spirit” 

Kidznotes serves Title 1 elementary schools (meaning those determined to have high levels of poverty), providing students with 10 hours of rigorous instrumental training a week. Every student begins with the violin and then can later choose any instrument in the orchestra.

Marcus, one student who has gone through Kidznotes, put his 3,000 hours of training to use, as he traveled to Los Angeles to take part in the National Youth Symphony Orchestra. This student from a low-income school was able to to become the principal cellist for the orchestra at the age of 15, solely due to his training from Kidznotes.

Nick Malinowski, the current executive director, describes the El Sistema vision, saying, “Overcoming poverty and adversity is best done by strengthening the spirit. Abreu would talk about ‘building an affluence of spirit.’ Our motto is ‘tocar y luchar,’ which doesn’t translate perfectly to English, but means ‘to play and to fight.’ But the fight is a striving. It’s striving for what’s best within yourself.”

Sharing that spirit in the community

In places experiencing poverty, injecting individuals with an affluence of the spirit isn’t enough. Nick says the mission is for them to take this spirit back to their communities. They do this by seeing themselves as a cooperative group. As Nick puts it, “the orchestra is the only group you’ll ever be part of that comes together for the sole purpose of agreement.”

Kidznotes students in rehearsal

They also encourage community engagement by consistent concerts around the area, recommending 25-30 performances a year for their students. They’ve performed with the North Carolina Symphony, the North Carolina Opera, the Durham Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle. They perform at their schools, at community centers, at a yearly gala at the Umstead, at events like Bond Brothers Brewing in Cary’s 5k race, at house parties and anywhere else that will have them.

“That’s my son up there playing violin.” 

The impact of Kidznotes is evident not just on the students, but on the families and the communities being infused with this “affluence of spirit.” Footpath Pictures made a documentary following three of the families involved, called “The Music Inside.” This film, which you can see here, showed just what the program meant for each family and how it changed their lives.

Nick and the filmmakers traveled to Nashville, where the film was nominated for a regional Emmy. The film won the Emmy, and Nick recalls walking on stage to receive the gold statue and to thank the kids and the filmmakers.

He says he wasn’t surprised it won the Emmy because, “It’s a beautiful film that shows how Kidznotes really affects the home and family, not just the kids.”

An example of this effect Nick recalled was when they were performing at the Red Hat Amphitheater in downtown Raleigh. One man in the audience was weeping as he looked up at the performance. When he was asked if everything was alright, the man answered, “That’s my son up there playing violin. When I grew up we could only make it out by playing basketball or football. Now he can make something more for himself doing this.”

Currently, in 2018, the program serves 531 students in 13 partner elementary schools across Wake, Orange and Durham counties. Nick says though, “We want to serve every high needs school. We are only limited by money, space, teachers and instruments.”

They plan to expand outside of the Triangle soon because their mission “compels them to serve every area of poverty in the state.” They plan to work also in rural areas where poverty in the state is often overlooked and to partner not just with school districts but with organizations, like the Boys and Girls Clubs, that have overlapping missions.

You can support Kidznotes by visiting their website here and donating to their work helping North Carolina’s low-income children develop an “affluence of spirit” and to spread it far and wide.