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In Durham, students are finding joy in music again

Liz Schlemmer

You know that feeling when you’re playing music and you can hear the harmonies and everyone is in sync — and it just feels amazing?

That's the feeling Kidznotes tries to capture every day.

Kidznotes is a nonprofit children’s orchestra based in Durham that offers free music lessons to low-income kids in the Triangle. Their mission is to teach music, but also to build character, foster good study habits and give students a community grounded in music.

Executive director Shana Tucker says joy is one of the group’s core values. She loves that she can see joy when it happens, like the first time a student picks up a cello and strums a note.

“You see this smile, you see their eyes light up,” Tucker says. “We tell our students that they are part of this big machine, this joy machine, and each one of them is a cog in the wheel of making this joy."

After more than a year of having lessons online in an isolating and often scary pandemic, that joy machine is back together in-person. Their orchestra meets every Monday through Thursday afternoon at Fayetteville Street Elementary in Durham.

Liz Schlemmer

In the percussion class, a group of boys practice Feliz Navidad for their winter concert. Two boys play the melody on a marimba, an instrument that looks like a xylophone the size of a kitchen counter.

When the music classes were all virtual last school year, student Samuel Munoz Cortes couldn’t take the marimba home with him. Instead he played a smaller glockenspiel.

“It just feels, like, exhilarating,” Munoz Cortes said about playing the marimba again.

The students met virtually for more than a year and played quietly on drum practice pads. The pads help musicians build muscle memory, but they don’t make the satisfying boom of a bass drum.

“When we were doing it over the Zoom, we didn't have our instruments right here like in front of us to play with,” student Marcos Larios Ortiz said.

Many students opened up about the heavy feelings they had early on in the pandemic when they couldn't see their friends.

“Music helps me deal with those feelings,” Larios Ortiz said. “I just listen and close my eyes… and then it sounds beautiful and I just forget about everything that's happening around us.”

Teaching artist Omar Ruiz-Lopez said he thinks returning to in-person classes has been good for the students’ overall well-being.

“The kids are thirsty and ready for music making together again. It's been a hard year apart,” Ruiz Lopez said.

Liz Schlemmer

He’s seen a big change in the students since they began practicing together in person two months ago.

“At first they were very shy about making sound together,” Ruiz Lopez said. “As the weeks progressed, they got more comfortable with each other. Students that weren't even talking at first, started opening up and telling us about themselves.”

His viola students Lila McBean and Lindsey Lemons certainly aren't shy.

“I think of music as a good virus,” Lemons said. “It's like good for everybody, including the person that's playing it.

“I love music. I sing in class, and I get in trouble, because I'm not supposed to sing in class. I’m supposed to do my work."

Lila McBean chimed in: “I think it’s COVID’s fault for not letting me do my thing because I like singing."

“I think that COVID is kind of mean because I heard that a lot of people are dying and a lot of things are going on in the world,” McBean continued. “So it's good to express yourself with music, especially around this time.”

Liz Schlemmer

In another classroom, trumpet player Luis Cruz Reyes demonstrates how he safely plays wearing a special mask.

“It has a little hole to put the instrument and the mouthpiece in so you can blow, so you don't have to take off your mask,” Cruz Reyes said.

When asked what he thought of the mask the first time he saw it, Cruz Reyes responded without a second thought — he thought it looked like underwear. His teacher and everyone in the room burst out laughing.

That's the kind of joy director Shana Tucker says Kidznotes encourages. In a year where everything is totally different for kids, Tucker said it’s important for them to have something stable — and fun — in their lives.

“That being Kidznotes, and within Kidznotes there is music, and within music, there is making music with their friends,” Tucker said. “And within all of that there is this thing that is fleeting, but when you do it right, it produces joy.”

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.