Programs across North Carolina use classical music to combat poverty

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 Durham and 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 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 attending its music schools – the vast majority of whom come from low-wealth communities.

Across North Carolina, there are two additional el Sistema programs. The Charlotte Symphony has been running a program at Winterfield Elementary for three years with more than 60 children. This fall, the Asheville Symphony is partnering with the Leever Foundation to launch an el Sistema program in Hendersonville. Blythe Elementary in Huntersville has also created MusicalMinds, a program along el Sistema principles, for its students.

Holding head high

“We’re identifying children who can use extra guidance,” says Blythe principal Patricia Johanson. “Perhaps they can’t control behaviors in the classroom. They’re yelling, not completing work, not paying attention. Kids act out if they don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves, or they’re struggling. MusicalMinds gives them responsibilities. Now they have an instrument to take care of; you’re instilling a level of trust in them.

“I can think of one fifth-grader who had issues with his homework and his studies and started playing the violin. He’s making better choices in his behavior now. His whole appearance has changed; he used to walk with his head down, and now it’s always up.”

At Winterfield, the program began in 2007 with just strings and has become so popular that “we’re maxed out on all instruments,” says principal Regina Boyd. “It helps in non-musical ways: Students take a bit of music theory with it, so they have a better understanding of what fractions are about, whether blowing a flute for a quarter-note or bowing a violin for a half-note.

“We talk a lot about how music transforms children, how it exposes them to things they may not have seen. Most of our students here live in poverty. To get all dressed up and play in a concert at the Duke Mansion or perform onstage with the Charlotte Symphony makes their parents excited and proud. Our parents don’t always have the chance to be hopeful about things children can do outside the norm.”

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.

‘Change the world’

Can classical music training lift kids out of poverty?

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.

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.”

Staff writer Lawrence Toppman contributed

Christopher Gergen is a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Stephen Martin is a director at the Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org.