Making Music Matter

Duke sophomore Dayna Price picked up the flute when she was in second grade. She took private lessons and enjoyed playing on her own until fifth grade, when she could finally join the school band. She was a band kid all the way through high school, though flute ultimately took a backseat to sports. Like dozens of other students I’ve met over many years of teaching music at Duke, she set the instrument aside in the transition to college. Her formative experience with music will never go away, though. In fact, it has been an important guide and inspiration for her.

Even though Price didn’t bring her flute to campus with her, one of the first connections she made was to Kidznotes, a local program that teaches children in under-resourced communities to play orchestral music. Once a week during her freshman year, she worked with a group of Durham school kids learning to play the flute. They were mostly in second grade, just as she was when she learned.

Dayna Price at the far right. All photos by Robert Zimmerman.

It was fun and rewarding to close that circle, and to contribute to the community. For her sophomore year, Price found a way to build on that experience while also gaining valuable research skills relevant to her studies in psychology—she joined the Bass Connections team Music for Social Change.

Price wants every child to have the same opportunity she did to learn an instrument. “I’m from rural Iowa,” she says. “My high school graduating class had about 120 kids in it, and only four of us went to college out of state. There’s a lot of poverty in the town, and a lot of young people who are in jail because of meth. It was just my family that got me here and not there.”

“Iowa’s budget for education keeps getting slashed. If it happens again, we’ll lose our music program, in which case, the only way kids would be able to learn music is through something like Kidznotes.”

Music for Social Change

Kidznotes is an offshoot of a movement known as El Sistema.

El Sistema is an evidence-based system of music education for social change. Founded in Venezuela in 1975, El Sistema and its worldwide replications create an environment of opportunity through the collective practice of ensemble-based instruction as a model for personal, social, academic and musical development. Through eliminating barriers for students who experience them at the highest levels, these programs work alongside students, families and community partners to provide access to the benefits of high-quality music education.

Music for Social Change project description

The musical repertoire and pedagogy of El Sistema programs is much the same as that of tuition-based programs like Duke University String School. And most of the parents chauffeuring their kids to Duke’s Biddle Music Building for String School every Saturday share a belief in the broad benefits of music education. The key difference is that El Sistema programs are designed from the ground up to serve students regardless of their ability to pay. In order to have a meaningfully impact on the life course of their students, these programs have to be at least as rigorous and even more intensive than typical tuition-based programs.

Kidznotes was founded in Durham in 2010, and its deep and ongoing connections to Duke began the next year, when the Vice Provost for the Arts funded the purchase of 100 violins and cellos for the program’s elementary school partners. Duke has also been instrumental in establishing and sustaining the umbrella organization El Sistema USA (ESUSA), which currently has over 110 member organizations from 34 states. Since 2014, Katie Wyatt—co-founder of Kidznotes, executive director of ESUSA—has taught a social entrepreneurship class at Duke. And of course Duke has been a steady source for volunteer music tutors like Price.

The Music for Social Change team (L to R): Jessica Sperling Smokoski, Josh deVries, Megan Gray, Dayna Price, Paula Ajumobi, Jacob Rubin.

More About Duke & El Sistema USA

There are also ongoing and mutually beneficial collaborations linking Kidznotes and ESUSA to Duke’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) and Bass Connections programs. The NEA funded an SSRI project that surveyed El Sistema programs nationally and helped establish ESUSA’s guiding principles and membership criteria. The Bass Connections team Music for Social Change was set up in the fall of 2017 as a learning lab that also supports the research needs of ESUSA member organizations.

A principal component of Music for Social Change is a year-long course for undergraduates. During the first semester, students learned about El Sistema and social science research methodology. With that groundwork laid, they were paired with an ESUSA partner organization at the start of the second semester and tasked to help that organization learn about itself. The students’ job is not to conduct research and present their partner with the results. To get a little biblical about it, they’re not doing the fishing, they’re developing tools for their partner to fish with, and learning as they go.

In a traditional class it would be questionable to expect undergraduates with limited research experience to be of much help to the folks in the trenches. But in the Bass Connections model, the class is embedded in a vertically integrated project team, so students receive detailed guidance and feedback at every step. Their class is led by two SSRI researchers, Jessica Sperling Smokoski and Megan Gray, with supplemental input from a small cast of faculty, staff, and graduate students. Josh deVries, ESUSA’s Director of Membership & Communications, attends every class meeting.

Based on her request to work with a rural program, Price was partnered with Epic Music, which offers violin instruction to about 20 kids aged 6-12 in a small community in northeastern Vermont. Price has worked closely with the program’s founder, who “has been really wonderful, and very willing to help me—in theory I’m helping her but I need a lot of input, too.”

“I’m going to make a survey for their teachers,” she says, “to see if there’s social and emotional growth in their kids, and also a survey for their students. The program director needs it for grant-writing purposes, so she’ll have quantitative data to give back to funders.”

Working with Epic Music has allowed Price to reflect on her experience at Kidznotes, where she noticed that “some of the kids seemed innately more able to push themselves and keep positive” in the face of difficulties that caused others to fold. It has also opened her eyes to the challenges of sustaining an environment that allows children coping with poverty, behavior issues, and foster care to concentrate on how they’re holding a violin bow.

For all the focus on serving the needs of El Sistema partners, the class has had great value for Price, who sees herself on a path to graduate school in clinical psychology.

“I wanted to see if research is really something I want to do for my career,” she says. So far so good!