On most weekday afternoons at South Durham’s Fayetteville Street Elementary School, young minds enrolled in the Kidznotes after-school program create music that spills out into the building’s gleaming hallways.
Youngsters barely out of preschool are studying beginning music in the library. Another group is in the art room studying cello. Another classroom of youngsters is studying viola. Meanwhile, downstairs on the ground floor there’s a percussion class and groups studying violin and piano.
Nearly 50 Kidznotes students, along with the program’s alumni members, teaching artists, and special guest artists are busily preparing for ¡Somos Kidznotes!, the program’s signature, fundraising concert that took place Tuesday night at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham.
“It’s something about making music collectively. It’s magical,” Kidznotes’ executive director Shana Tucker says, two days before the event. “There’s a tangibility about music when you’re making music with other people. The room shifts.”
The fundraising event is significant. That’s because financial help can’t come soon enough to shore up a series of pandemic-related sour notes that threatens to derail and permanently shutter the doors of the youth music program.
“We need more money,” Tucker says.
One day before Tuesday’s concert, nine-year-old Isaac McBean plays rich conga for the Afro-Cuban tune “Oye Como Va.” The iconic tune was made famous by Carlos Santana, but it was actually composed by timbales legend Tito Puente. Four kids accompany Isaac on vibraphones, two play claves, and another plays the guiro. The clave players tap out the rhythm on skinny drumsticks instead of the actual cylindrical polished wood instruments.
Kidznotes’ percussion teacher, Rosendo Peña Suárez, is a native of Venezuela and a graduate of the country’s famed El Sistema youth and children’s orchestras and choirs.
The percussion teacher gently guides the clave players.
“Clave is the spine of the rhythm,” he tells them.
Later, Tucker says the program does not have its own claves. And she does not hesitate when asked if the program could survive another five years in its current financial condition.
“The program may have to close its doors in less than five years unless there is sustained funding,” says Tucker, who points to the challenges of payroll and making good on the salaries of a diminishing group of full-time staffers and teaching artists.
Kidznotes’ financial struggle resonates with Peña Suárez. He grew up in impoverished Venezuela, where the poverty rate hovers between 50 percent and more than 70 percent.
“The financial crisis for any organization goes directly back to the people,” Peña Suárez says. “The most important thing is to have the heart to teach kids and change lives. I don’t think this crisis will make us give up. I came from a country with its own financial crisis.”
Peña Suárez, who arrived in Durham in 2014 to teach at Kidznotes, says the teaching philosophy at the Triangle program is very much modeled after El Sistema, which has the goal to cultivate “affluence of the spirit,” according to the program’s global website.
“It’s a process, and we’re moving in that direction,” he says. “The only challenge I have is with the language. But the kids are very gentle. They say, ‘No, Mr. Rosendo, you have to say it like this.’ So, I’m learning a lot from these kids.”
Meanwhile, back on the first floor, another McBean, Isaac’s sister Lila, is creating her own musical magic while playing the viola part of the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor.
“That was beautiful. That was cool,” Sinclair Palmer, one of Kidznotes’ teaching artists and a graduate of the UNC-Greensboro music program tells Lila after the two of them finish playing.
Lila beams. She’s been playing the viola since kindergarten.
“It has four strings,” says Lila, a 10-year-old fifth grader. “I like the lower strings.”
Lila’s love of the lower strings mirrors Tucker’s tonal preference. Tucker is a highly accomplished cellist, singer, and songwriter, who coined the term “ChamberSoul” to describe her blend of jazz, folk, and soul.
One of the songs where she was a featured vocalist, “Better” by The Foreign Exchange, was on former President Barack Obama’s summer playlist last year.
Tucker was a sixth grader living in Amityville, New York, when she volunteered to play the cello for her middle school orchestra after playing the violin since fourth grade.
“I didn’t know what a cello was until sixth grade,” she says. “I played the low strings and it was like, ‘That’s my love.’ The C and E strings. This is it.”
A graduate of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, Tucker sees a bit of herself in the Kidznotes program and says she would have benefited from the type of music instruction that’s taught four days a week in Durham and Raleigh.
“I only have a public school education,” she says. “I didn’t take [private] lessons until my senior year [of high school]. My parents couldn’t afford lessons.”
Tucker was finally able to study with a friend of her high school orchestra director, who offered lessons on a sliding scale, in order to audition for a college orchestra.
“I decided to go to college for music, not because I wanted to be a musician,” Tucker says. “You wanted to get a college degree, and music paid for college. I didn’t know how to play the cello. I wasn’t taught the mechanics or technique. I was taught how to prepare for an audition.”
Right now, the buoyant, sunny musician is concerned about keeping afloat a youth music instruction program that has enrolled nearly 240 youngsters, where the priorities are music literacy, technique, and fluency.
“Because it’s a language,” Tucker says. “Which means it doesn’t matter what language you speak. With music, you can speak on a global level, across genres.”
The pandemic is threatening to upend Kidznotes, but it also brought Tucker to the program in the first place. She says the program first came on her radar around midsummer of 2020.
“Several people told me about the job description, and told me, ‘You would be perfect for this job,’” she says.
And with the pandemic shutdown in effect, during a time when most folks had qualms about going to the grocery store, playing live music was out of the question.
“There was nothing else going on,” Tucker says. “I was supposed to go on my first European tour in April, but everything shut down in March.”
She was also looking forward to a Southern California tour that was canceled.
“I would not have seen this opportunity if I hadn’t been standing still,” she says.
She applied for the job as executive director and was offered the position in August. She started in September, overseeing a virtual instruction program months deep into the shutdown. Kidznotes administrative offices are located at the Community Family Life and Recreation Center in the Wst End. She soon discovered the pandemic’s impact on Kidznotes was substantial, especially financially.
The program had been without an executive director for much of 2020. What followed were two years of no in-person performances, and the program “lost touch with its donor base,” Tucker says.
Moreover, she says the philanthropic focus has changed in the pandemic’s aftermath, and there are more dire needs to consider like housing, food insecurity, and jobs.
“They see our program as just music, without considering other tangible life skills that are learned through music,” says Tucker, who adds that Kidznotes has responded to the new philanthropic focus by shifting the program’s narrative, pointing to its mental health and wellness benefits and opportunities for imparting social and emotional learning, addressing learning loss, promoting multiculturalism, and socialization.
“Since I have been here, it’s been a priority, having our Black and brown kids learn music’s relevance to the rest of their lives,” Tucker says.
Young people enroll in the music program at no cost. About 48 percent of the students are Black and 47 percent are brown, while the rest are white or multiracial. The overwhelming majority of the youngsters are enrolled at Title 1 schools that receive federal assistance owing to the high percentage of students classified as economically disadvantaged.
Before the pandemic there were more than 400 children involved with the program, with nearly a dozen full-time staffers and 50 teaching artists. When Tucker arrived to lead Kidznotes, the program had a bone-thin crew.
“There was a staff of two or three, and the staff development director quit my first day,” Tucker says. “There were 20 teaching artists teaching the virtual program.
“To say that I inherited a skeletal crew is the understatement of the century, especially during the pandemic,” she says. “We’ve been pretty much rebuilding.”
There were other challenges.
Tucker says the program had “minimal institutional knowledge,” meaning “there was no one [left] on staff to say how the program worked.”
“We had to rebuild based on documents we could find,” Tucker adds. “There was no playbook. The playbook had to be found.”
It didn’t help when the Kidznotes program director left. Tucker decided to hire a consultant to help rebuild the program and a program manager.
Kidznotes took a near-immeasurable hit when its founder, Lucia Claire Hutchinson Peel Powe, died on January 10 at the age of 91.
Powe, who founded Kidznotes in 2009, was described by family members in her obituary as “a force of nature,” “an icon,” and “indomitable.”
A 1952 Georgia state beauty queen, Powe was also a teacher, musician, fundraiser, and philanthropist who married E.K. Powe. The elementary school on Ninth Street was named in honor of Powe’s husband’s grandfather, Edward Knox Poe, the original manager for Erwin Cotton Mills and a philanthropist with an interest in public education. In 2008, the couple watched an edition of 60 Minutes that featured the El Sistema program for at-risk children in Venezuela.
According to her obituary, “Lucia was blown away by the impact the music program had on its students.” She turned to her husband and said “someone has to start a program like that HERE.”
The following year, Powe cofounded Kidznotes with Kathie Morrison and Katie Wyatt, who was the program’s first executive director. Powe was passionate about Kidznotes and still involved until she died.
“She would call me two or three times a week,” Tucker says. “She had very clear ideas about what we should be doing. In many ways Lucia was the face of Kidznotes, as much as any of the kids. She would stop people in the grocery store to tell them about Kidznotes and tell them they ought to support Kidznotes.”
Two years ago, Powe hosted a virtual fundraiser in honor of her 90th birthday.
Tucker says her wishlist for Kidznotes starts with “two to three commitments” of multiyear funding for the program, and multiple sources of matching grants “to show the public that it’s important for the community to have skin in the game.”
Tucker says it’s also important to identify sources of operational support to help expand the program. “We’re still in rebuilding mode,” she says.
Tucker says part of that rebuilding includes letting the public know that Kidznotes is still up and running with live performances like the one this week at the Carolina Theatre as well as “getting the students in front of the community,” who will witness firsthand the value of the program, and the value of “tapping into people’s joy.”
There are signs of relief on the horizon. In December, Durham County officials notified the program that it was eligible to receive $150,000 from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act. The program is also planning an end of year campaign with the goal of raising nearly $500,000.
Tucker says that it’s so much more than teaching children how to become musicians.
“It’s about teaching them citizenship,” she says. “It’s about teaching them leadership. It’s about teaching stewardship and what it means to be in community with others.”
And she is proud of the Kidznotes program, especially the students.
“We ask them to be present and alert,” Tucker says. “It requires a lot to learn the language of music. We want them to show up in the world and represent too, and share their superpowers with the world. Because everybody can’t do it.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Lucia Powe’s husband, E.K. Powe III, as the namesake for Durhan’s E.K. Powe Elementary School. In fact, the school was named for Powe’s grandfather, Edward Knox Powe, who was the original manager for Erwin Cotton Mills and a philanthropist with an interest in public education.
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