Program Report: Nick Malinowski – Kidznotes

I’m always impressed by the hidden talents of my fellow Rotarians, and listening to Nick Malinowski’s a capella rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” as he introduced Monday’s program was no exception – it left me with goosebumps. Particularly after he explained that the song was a favorite of one of his former music students, Vanessa Williams (not THAT Vanessa Williams, but a rock star in her own right).

Nick was introduced by Rotarian Lucia Powe, a co-founder and Board Member Emeritus of Kidznotes and one of it’s most passionate supporters.

Nick had recently left a position as Music Director at KIPP Delta Public Schools in Helena, AR, where he grew a K-12 music program from a single eight-voice choir to a three-choir program serving over 120 students including dance and music theater programs, a marching band, and an elementary school string ensemble. Nick had moved into the non-profit sector, serving as Community Programs Manager of the Seattle Opera, when his former students called to tell him Vanessa had died. Through the magical technology of Facetime and Skype, Nick helped arrange Vanessa’s favorite song so it could be included in her memorial service.

“Music is the greatest tool we have for creation of beauty and changing lives – not just music, but making music together,” Nick declares. He and his wife, Julia, returned to Durham from Seattle in January of 2016 so Nick could take the position of Program Director for Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit providing hands-on apprenticeship opportunities for students in Durham Public Schools. He took over the reins as Executive Director of Kidznotes in 2017 and has since worked tirelessly to “change lives through ever-expanding participation in youth orchestras, bands, and choirs.”

Kidznotes is a music-for-social-change program based on the El Sistema model of youth orchestras, which started in Venezuela and has now spread worldwide. El Sistema engages students Pre-K through 12th grade in an intense out-of-school musical program that includes instrumental instruction, choir, music theory, general music, orchestra, and band.

Classes are taught by professional instructors committed to teaching young students, and operate eight hours per week, 40 weeks per year, and in a two-to-three week summer camp, for a combined total of over 400 hours of instruction per year. As younger students progress, they volunteer to teach beginning students. Everyone starts on the violin, then progress to other orchestral instruments if they choose.

Kidznotes found a home in Durham thanks to a young woman by the name of Katie Wyatt. A classically trained viola player, Katie performed in Venezuela as part of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas global tour. There, she learned about El Sistema, a completely free classical music training program for children in challenging socioeconomic circumstances which might interfere with their ability to pursue musical instruction. She was inspired to co-found Kidznotes in 2010 and began working with Durham Public Schools to recruit schoolchildren for training.

Today, Katie is the Executive Director of El Sistema USA, where she helps support programs like Kidznotes around the country. When she first started, she engaged 60 students in three Durham public schools; in 2017-18 as leadership transitioned to Nick’s capable hands, the program had grown to 443 students in 10 schools, adding Wake County to its outreach. This academic year, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have joined in, and over 530 students in 13 schools across the Triangle will benefit from Kidznotes programs.

Nick aired a portion of a short Emmy-award-winning video documentary that summarizes some of the benefits student participants enjoy ( Later this year, Nick and his team will begin receiving data from a randomized control evaluation trial conducted by Duke University that is studying the longer-term effects of Kidznotes participation on students’ social-emotional learning and executive function, both of which are indicators of long term success in academics and careers.

Studies have repeatedly shown that music training is positively associated with more complex brain development, higher school achievement, and greater emotional well-being. Research also suggests that the earlier the introduction to music, the greater the impact. Furthermore, the opportunity for educational enrichment in a safe and nurturing environment promises greater school readiness among young children in low-income environments.

Nick is focused on a number of aspirational goals he hopes to accomplish in preparation for the organization’s tenth year anniversary celebration, planned for October 10, 2020 (10/10/20). He thinks the synergy of this date is no coincidence, and plans to continue pursuing “deep, transformational growth” in Kidznotes and the populations it serves.

In the meantime, he encourages the community to learn more about Kidznotes by attending either the Grow Gala at The Umstead in Cary in February 6, or the Nashville Songwriter’s Night at the DPAC on April 5. More information about both events are on the website at

Submitted by: Carver C. Weaver

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