Durham County

Kidznotes students get in tune with leadership

Jessie Marin, 12, started lessons with Kidznotes when she was in second grade and now helps her peers with music.
Jessie Marin, 12, started lessons with Kidznotes when she was in second grade and now helps her peers with music. Anne Saffer/Kidznotes

When Jessie Marin, 12, started playing in the orchestra at Lakewood Montessori Middle School, she’d already been a violinist for several years. She’d had lessons several days a week since she was in second grade – all free, courtesy of a musically egalitarian Durham nonprofit.

“I’m kind of advanced because they are in their second year playing and this is my fifth year, so when they realize what I’m playing, I pull out my sheet music from Kidznotes,” Jessie says. But she doesn’t show off; instead, she shares what she’s learned.

“We start playing a piece and they come to me for advice,” Jessie says. “It feels good.”

Jessie and her drummer and xylophonist sister Jackie, 7, ride the bus straight from their schools to Kidznotes four days a week, and then again Saturday mornings. There, they and a couple hundred other Durham kids ranging from kindergarten to early high school receive lessons on their chosen instruments.

The kids of Kidznotes play in ensembles from quartets to orchestras; they meet friends and play concerts with them. Ultimately, they get a world-class music education – and, by design, they have fun.

“Everyone should be able to participate in orchestra without any social or economic barriers,” says Kidznotes executive director Katie Wyatt. The program’s focus is on kids from underserved or low-income areas. While Kidznotes is free to its students, the cost of an instrument and 500 hours of instruction per kid per year comes out to about $2,500 apiece. The organization serves 230 students in Durham and another 100 in Raleigh’s fledgling program. But Kidznotes isn’t stopping there, Wyatt says.

“We’d love to grow to serve 1,000 students in Raleigh and Durham,” she says. “That’s our 2020 goal.”

Yesenia Marin, Jessie and Jackie’s mom, says she appreciates Kidznotes because it’s hard to find free programs for kids – particularly ones that teach them an art.

Kidznotes has helped Jessie and Jackie academically and socially, Marin says with a smile, and has gotten them more involved in their community.

“We need more kids to be in the program and enjoy and learn. It will help them a lot at school,” Marin says. “I can see the progress in my own kids. I have nephews and nieces here, too.”

It’s not pure music theory that these kids are learning, but how to enjoy playing. The kids start on violin: Jessie liked the instrument, so she stuck with it. Jackie didn’t, so she switched to percussion because she thought it was more fun, she says.

“I played in band in regular school – here, it’s much more about learning the joy of music,” Kidznotes supporter Anne Saffer says. “They’re very inspiring, and it’s not just drills, drills, drills.” Considering the Kidznotes sessions run for two hours after school, it has to be fun, Saffer says. Otherwise, the kids would wear out.

Like any donation-driven nonprofit, Kidznotes could use money to bring more children and schools into the program – and, thanks to the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, Wyatt says, every dollar raised until Dec. 31 will be matched. They also could use donated instruments and more teachers, but these volunteers don’t need to be virtuosos: experience in high school or junior high band or orchestra is enough, Wyatt says.

With the foundation they receive from Kidznotes, these underserved Durham and Raleigh schoolkids could be tomorrow’s instructors. Music excites Jessie, and it’s important to her social circle: she met her best friends at Kidznotes, she says, and the program often puts older students like her in positions to guide younger ones. Someday, Wyatt says, Kidznotes may even be able to put income from performances toward college funds or children’s savings accounts. The future seems bright for Jessie and Jackie, and all without their family having to shell out untold sums for years of classical instruction.

“They can become teachers in the future or they can be musicians, and they can share what they’ve learned,” says Marin, proud of her kids.


P.O. Box 200

Durham, NC 27702


Contact: Stephen Pysnik, 919-321-4475

Description: Kidznotes’ mission is to change the life trajectory of underserved K-12 students through orchestral training. Through a public-private partnership with the Durham and Wake County public schools, students receive an orchestral instrument and 8-10 hours each week of instruction in a tiered system of choir, orchestra, music theory and band for 40 weeks of the school year at no cost.

Donations needed: In addition to monetary donations, we accept instruments, regardless of condition. Current needs: 1/4- and 1/2-size violins, xylophones, glockenspiels, timpani, euphoniums, bass clarinets, flutes, and 15-16 inch violas. We cannot accept pianos at this time.

Volunteers needed: We welcome volunteers in high school or above to: usher and greet at events; help with registration, monitor the classroom and help unload the bus; teaching volunteers; volunteer grant writers; and more.

$10 would buy: Bow rosin for 5 string students.

$20 would buy: Reeds for 10 clarinet and saxophone students.

$50 would buy: Sheet music for 25 students.

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