As the players tuned up and variations on a C note rippled through the string section, they sounded like any other group of musicians. But the three dozen or so players on the outdoor stage at Booth Amphitheatre were between the ages of 8 and 12, all from the local performance program Kidznotes.
As always with that particular demographic, keeping everyone moving in the right direction presented … well, some challenges.
North Carolina Opera conductor Timothy Myers took the podium and called the kids to order for a preconcert rehearsal. That was when Kidznotes executive director Katie Wyatt, seated among her charges, noticed something missing from a nearby music stand.
“Gene,” she said in an urgent whisper, “where’s your music?!”
He shrugged and smiled. In the ensuing scramble, pages of sheet music were pulled from notebooks and fastened to music stands with clothes pins, so as not to blow away in the wind
Finally, everyone was ready to tackle the opening selection, “Prelude to Act I” from the classic opera “Carmen,” which Myers coached them through with ease.
Next was their vocal star turn, serving as chorus on the strutting “Toreador Song.” Myers interrupted soon after the kids began singing.
“That’s terrific,” he said, “but can we do that louder? Braver?”
“You’re all whispering,” Wyatt added, “and nobody is gonna hear you!”
Myers suggested that everyone stand up to sing, which improved the volume situation. The kids sang out against the rainy wind – Toreador, en garde! – even giving it a bit of swagger.
“You’ve gotta be robust on that one,” Myers said, applauding afterward. “Be brave!”
A Venezuelan import
Kidznotes is still in its relative infancy in the Triangle, having started in 2010. But the program it’s modeled on, El Sistema, has been around for 40 years.
In 1975, musician/activist Jose Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema in the impoverished Venezuelan capital city of Caracas. The goal was “Social Action for Music,” trying to reach at-risk youth by putting instruments in their hands and giving them training and goals.
Over the years, the program has spread to other countries and produced some highly accomplished alumni including Gustavo Dudamel, who came up through El Sistema on his way to becoming one of the best-known superstar conductors in the world. Before he became musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007, Dudamel was conducting the Youth Orchestra of the Americas in Venezuela.
About a decade ago, one of the visiting musicians was Wyatt, a viola player with socially minded ambitions beyond music. Witnessing the work of El Sistema in Venezuela resonated with Wyatt and gave her the urge to get involved in a similar program in America.
“I’ve always loved playing, but that was not enough for me,” Wyatt said. “I also wanted to plan, strategize, do things with broader impact.”
Wyatt was still mulling her path when she came to the N.C. Symphony to become director of education in 2007. She crossed paths with Lucia Powe, a longtime Durham philanthropist who had seen a “60 Minutes” special about El Sistema and decided that a similar program was needed for Durham. She and Wyatt agreed to become co-founders, and Kidznotes was born.
“In Venezuela, El Sistema started with 11 poor children in an abandoned garage in Caracas, and now it’s all over the world,” Powe said. “But six years ago, it was not in the South until we started it in Durham.”
From modest beginnings, Kidznotes has grown to more than 300 kids drawn from 10 schools in Durham and Raleigh. This year’s budget is $800,000 (which is going up to $925,000 in 2016), raised primarily through grants and donations, and Kidznotes has ambitious plans in the works.
There’s a crowd-funding campaign underway to raise $50,000 to send 100 kids to summer music camps. Kidznotes will also be the 2016 beneficiary of Band Together’s annual fund-raising concert. (Band Together's 2015 concert will be June 27 at Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater with Michael Franti.)
Kidznotes students play regular concerts on their own as well as alongside grownup groups like the NCO Orchestra. They rehearse four afternoons a week after school and are also expected to practice at home. The oldest kids in the program are now in eighth grade, but eventually it will run all the way through high school.
Kids start as young as kindergarten, and everybody begins with a year on violin before contemplating other instruments. Some of the older kids are at the stage where they can take actual paying gigs for weddings or other events, with funds going back into the program. For some of them, music might someday become a way to make a living.
“Most all of these kids are in free or reduced-lunch programs,” said Wyatt. “I’ve seen some of the most incredible cases of poverty I’ve ever encountered. Some families are getting by better than others. But the parents all get their kids into Kidznotes because they see it as an opportunity.”
To that end, many families have more than one child playing in Kidznotes. One of them, Laurencia Paredes Flores, has three who range in age from 7 to 14 years old.
“I want them to continue this through high school,” Flores said. “Maybe even play professionally someday.”
One Kidznotes player who is keeping all his options open is Amir Hall. A third-grader at Durham’s Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary School, Hall is a cello player and a young man who radiates confidence.
“I like cello, it’s an interesting instrument,” he said. “It’s bigger than violin, with that long fingerboard, and the shifts are more fun. I might move up to bass after this.”
So does he want to be a professional musician someday? Hall thought about it a moment.
“If I can’t be a basketball player,” he said with a grin, “then sure.”
After rehearsal, a dinner of pizza and North Carolina Opera’s opening set at Booth Amphitheatre, right after intermission was time for the Kidznotes kids’ star turn.
“Kidznotes,” barked conductor Rashad Hayward, “attention!”
The kids lined up, instruments in hand, and they began filing toward the stage under the watchful eyes of Kidznotes staffers and volunteers.
“Get into performance mode, my friend,” called out Kidznotes program director Kim Demry.
Onstage, NCO conductor Myers joked to the audience about how the lineup had changed and became both larger in number and smaller in individual size. He introduced the Kidznotes crew, seated alongside the adult musicians of the NCO Orchestra.
The kids took the opening stretch of “Prelude to Act I,” sawing away on the tense underbed of strings to introduce the piece. Then the grown-ups picked up the music as it shifted into the iconic uptempo stretch best-known as the overture to the 1976 movie “Bad News Bears.”
The applause afterward was enthusiastic. Then the Kidznotes kids stood up to sing, backing up the noted operatic baritone Tim Mix. As the crowd applauded afterward, Mix and Myers both beamed at the kids.
“I don’t think there’s anything more inspiring than that,” Myers said.
CORRECTION: Kidznotes is Band Together’s 2016 charity partner. Previous versions of this article stated the partnership was to be in 2015. Correction made Sunday, May 24, 2015.