The young musicians burst into giggle fits as the guest composer modeled a pair of borrowed gold-colored, rhinestone reading glasses and improvised lyrics to “I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story.”
“I feel pretty with these glasses she gave me right now,” Jesus Alfonzo sang as he danced in front of the students at the Kidznotes summer program.
Behind the silliness was a lesson: It’s OK to loosen up and have fun when you’re playing music.
In fact, it’s preferred.
Alfonzo, a Stetson University associate professor of music, was a guest instructor at the youth orchestra’s summer camp in Durham.
Kidznotes is a nonprofit organization that provides free instruments and instruction to elementary students in eight schools in Durham and Raleigh. Once students leave elementary school, they have the option of continuing.
The program started out serving 60 students six years ago and expects to serve more than 430 this fall when it expands to three more schools. Two of those schools, PAVE Academy Charter and an as-yet-to-be-identified school, are in Southeast Raleigh. The third, Sandy Ridge Magnet Elementary, is in Durham.
The program is modeled on the successful music outreach program called El Sistema, which Alfonzo participated in as a student 40 years ago in a poor neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela.
During his visit to Kidznotes, Alfonzo wasted no time sharing the lessons he’s learned as a viola player. He taught students everything from the proper hand formation for playing the instrument to the importance of playing confidently.
Yet Alfonzo, and Kidznotes leaders, are quick to note that the program teaches more than music.
Alfonzo said programs like Kidznotes build students’ confidence and belief in themselves so that they can be successful in all areas of life.
“We know that music transforms people,” he said.
Kim Demery, the director of programming, agreed.
She described one student who started coming to Kidznotes when she was in first grade. Demery said the student had separation anxiety and had trouble paying attention.
After two years, the student is one of the more advanced musicians in terms of posture. She’s also a lot more dedicated to improving, both at school and in Kidznotes.
“If you look at the skill set she’s walking away with, she’s got a whole new toolbox: perseverance, empathy, leadership,” Demery said.
Amir Hall, a rising fifth-grade student at Club Boulevard Elementary School who plays the bass, is another student who has grown a lot during his time in the program.
Five years ago, when his mother signed him up to participate in the program, he said he didn’t know what it was all about. Now he says he loves the fact that he can have fun while also challenging himself to learn something new.
Music has even helped him deal with him emotions, he said.
“Music really calms me down, like when I’m angry or stuck up,” he said. “I just play the bass or listen to some of my favorite songs, and the music just helps me unwind a little.”
Demery said Hall’s enthusiasm was so palpable that, after performing with the rest of Kidznotes alongside professional hip-hop duo Black Violin, the students were asked to appear in their music video for the song “Magic.”
“He got a lot of compliments,” Demery said. “People would say, ‘I saw you grooving out on stage.’ ”
As Alfonzo prepared to visit with another group of young musicians at Kidznotes, he reflected on how far El Sistema’s reach has extended since his days playing for it in Venezuela.
He said some results of programs like El Sistema and Kidznotes can appear decades later because the programs teach character traits like integrity, perseverance and discipline.
“What they’re doing here – it will be reflected in the entire community,” he said. “It’s about that transformation through music.”
Kidznotes campers will perform at 2 p.m. Thursday, July 28, at Club Boulevard Elementary School, 400 W. Club Blvd. in Durham.