Kidznotes inspires Durham students through music, community

Kidzotes students Tisha Sandoval (left), Nathaly Cruz (center) and Tiliv McIntyre (right) practice violin in a small group rehearsal during the first Academy Saturday. (Staff photo by Elise Clouser)

Within the wide hallways of the Holton Career and Resource Center, musical melodies and rhythms float through the air on a Saturday morning. In one classroom, a loud, clear choir of children’s voices sings a hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” In another room, a trio of young musicians practices “Hot Cross Buns” on child-sized violins designed for small hands.

Kidznotes Saturday rehearsal is in session.

Sarah Bader conducts the Copland-Vivaldi Kidznotes choir in a rendition of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” during rehearsal. (Staff photo by Elise Clouser)

Sarah Bader conducts the Copland-Vivaldi Kidznotes choir in a rendition of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” during rehearsal. (Staff photo by Elise Clouser)

According to their website, Kidznotes provides an intense, classical music education to students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in Durham and Raleigh — completely free of charge. The program is based on a Venezuelan model of music education called El Sistema. El Sistema has a major goal of influencing community change through music education.

Inspired by a visit to Venezuela in 2005, Kidznotes executive director Katie Wyatt said she saw El Sistema in action and knew she wanted to see a similar program back in the U.S. In 2009, Wyatt was selected for a fellowship that allowed her to travel back to Venezuela and learn more about El Sistema. Then, in September 2010, Wyatt launched Kidznotes in Durham with the help of other community-minded musicians.

“This is a system of change,” Wyatt said of Kidznotes and similar programs.

Kidznotes was the first El Sistema program in North Carolina and among the first 10 in the nation, Wyatt said. Today, more than 120 El Sistema-inspired programs nationwide impact the lives of thousands of young musicians.

According to Wyatt, in the first year of Kidznotes, the program partnered with three elementary schools and taught about 60 students Now entering its seventh year, Kidznotes teaches a total of about 400 students across nine schools in Durham and Raleigh.

Stephen Pysnik, Durham’s program and operations director for Kidznotes, said he’s pleased with the growth the program has seen so far, and a long-term goal is for Kidznotes to reach every corner of North Carolina. The program is currently looking to expand to Chapel Hill and other cities across the state.

“The momentum of our first seven years has been incredible,” Pysnik said. “We want this kind of music education to be available to as many kids as possible.”

Pysnik said that community involvement is a major aspect of Kidznotes. Although the rehearsals, instruments and summer camps are free of charge for the families involved, he said the commitment is not to be taken lightly. Students go to rehearsals every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The program also puts on frequent concerts and showcases throughout the year.

Despite the intensity of the program and the commitment involved, students and their families develop a community in Kidznotes. Students say their best friends are in the program, and they learn valuable life skills beyond just reading music and keeping a beat.

Eighth-grade student Jessie Marin has been involved in Kidznotes for six years. She plays violin in her middle school’s orchestra and hopes to continue playing music through high school. She said she feels the program has made her a better musician and leader, and she’d like to see other communities get involved with Kidznotes.

“It’s a small bubble, we’re like a family,” Jessie said. “And if you expand that bubble, it will be an even bigger family.”

Pysnik says that studies conducted by the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University point to the overwhelming benefit of involving children in music early in their development.

“Kids feel empowered and connected through the music,” Pysnik said. “They display better behavior and grades, and they become community leaders. They are good students and citizens.”

Kidznotes has begun testing a pilot program in Durham called Academy Saturdays. Traditional El Sistema programs teach students in a large orchestral setting, but this new program is experimenting with giving participants individualized and small-group instruction.

Pysnik and Wyatt hope Academy Saturdays will help students who are falling behind and nurture kids who show exceptional talent.

“We’re always pushing the limits of what this program can be,” Pysnik said. “We’re always looking to the future.”

Editor’s note: Kidznotes is searching for a new executive director as Wyatt is soon stepping down to pursue another El Sistema opportunity. For more information on the program and for upcoming Kidznotes events, visit


For a printer-friendly version of this story, click here.