Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: Durham nonprofit Kidznotes uses classical music to combat poverty

CorrespondentsMarch 29, 2014 

Can classical music training help lift kids out of poverty? North Carolina nonprofit Kidznotes was launched in 2010 to prove it can.

With the mission to change the life trajectory of at-risk K-12 students through orchestral training, Kidznotes now serves eight elementary schools in East Durham and Southeast Raleigh.

Kidznotes was inspired by the music education program, known as “el Sistema,” in Venezuela. Perhaps most well-known in the United States for one of its graduates, Gustavo Dudamel, a Grammy-award-winning conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, el Sistema has grown to have a profound impact in Venezuela’s poorest communities.

As an experiment to combat poverty, economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu gathered a group of 11 children in a parking garage in 1975 to play music. Today, el Sistema supports 31 symphony orchestras across the country with over 350,000 children currently attending its music schools – the vast majority of whom come from very low-wealth communities.

‘Change the world’

In measuring el Sistema’s impact, the Inter-American Development Bank conducted an evaluation of the more than 2 million children who had been educated in el Sistema. Citing studies that show how training in music strengthens children’s social and cognitive skills, particularly in the areas of self-esteem and ability to concentrate, as well as the advantage of keeping children in safe, supervised environments, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in el Sistema yielded $1.68 in societal benefits. The program has now been introduced as an education strategy in the country’s penal system, and plans to expand the program for all Venezuelan children have been embraced by all sides of the country’s divisive political environment.

In light of his impact, Maestro Abreu was awarded the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) prize in 2009 of $100,000 and a global forum to make one wish to “change the world.” Abreu wished to create a training program for “at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice” to spread el Sistema in the U.S. and globally.

In partnership with the New England Conservatory of Music, the Abreu Fellows program was formed to help emerging leaders start a national alliance of el Sistema-inspired programs. At the time, Katie Wyatt was director of education for the North Carolina Symphony and had been inspired by el Sistema while playing viola under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. When the fellowship was announced, Katie jumped at the chance but not before she met with two community leaders in Durham who were determined to bring the program to North Carolina. From this fortuitous meeting, the idea for Kidznotes was born.

When Katie returned from the yearlong fellowship, Kidznotes partnered with the East Durham Children’s Initiative and Durham Public Schools to launch with 60 students from Durham’s highest need schools. Kidznotes has grown to five schools in Durham and this year launched a pilot with East Garner, Walnut Creek and Poe Elementary schools in Raleigh.

Through the program, Kidznotes’ students receive their own instrument and participate in four after-school sessions per week in addition to two-hour orchestral rehearsals each Saturday in each city’s Kidzotes’ “nucleo,” or orchestra home. Students also attend a three-week intensive summer camp where the orchestra rehearses six hours every day. Each year, Kidzotes’ students receive more than 500 hours of instruction and performance time – all at no charge. By 2020, Kidzotes hopes to serve 500 students in each city’s “nucleo” with two 100-person young professional orchestras.

Two more N.C. programs

Across North Carolina, there are now two additional el Sistema programs. The Charlotte Symphony has been running a program at Winterfield Elementary for the past three years with more than 60 children. And this fall, the Asheville Symphony is partnering with the Leever Foundation to launch an el Sistema program in Hendersonville.

In May, Kidzotes is hosting el Sistema’s East Coast Seminario – which will draw programs from across the eastern seaboard for a two-day conference and intensive rehearsals, concluding with a concert with 300 kids on May 3 at the Holton Career Center in Durham.

So, can classical music training lift kids out of poverty? It’s too early to tell. But initial studies show Kidznotes students performing better than their peers on several important indicators. Among them: persistence in their work, resilience after setbacks, willingness to ask for help, creative problem-solving, reduced absenteeism, and overall academic progress.

In describing his motivation for starting el Sistema, Maestro Abreu said, “Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community.”

Let the music play.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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