Kidznotes is changing children’s lives across the Triangle.
By Kurt Dusterberg
Photos Courtesy of Kidznotes
Nick Malinowski makes music appear in places where you would least expect it.
He is a trained opera singer, but his real passion is bringing music to children. Malinowski is the executive director of Kidznotes, an intense after-school music program offered at 11 elementary schools in low-income communities in Raleigh and Durham. The idea is unique: The kids are taught to play classical music, which requires discipline, teamwork, and intrinsic motivation—traits that can enhance academic performance. Currently, the program has 440 students, with plans to expand to Chapel Hill next year.
Raised in High Point, Malinowski followed an interesting path before finding his way home to North Carolina with his wife, Julia, and their 21-month-old son, James. Today, he can’t imagine a better life than creating bright futures, one violin at a time.
Midtown: Kidznotes is described as a “music for social change” program. What does that mean?
Malinowski: We give students the opportunity to come together and make music in a group setting, and make really challenging, interesting, and beautiful music. We’re doing this for students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity. We do it because the creation of music in an ensemble is not only a microcosm of a well-functioning society, but also it’s a tool to create that society.
You’re working with young kids who have no musical training, in a setting where there is considerable expense. How do you make that work?
No student pays a dollar to be in Kidznotes. It’s complete open access with really high rigor. A lot of what we do is built on a foundation of what students already have. The first year of the Kidznotes program is a lot of general music, like singing and movement, [skills] that kids already have a natural ability to do. Every student gets a violin, and it’s incredible to see a 5-year-old student with a violin in his or her hands for the first time. Our kids actually start with cardboard violins, so they’re learning how to hold the instrument and take care of it. We introduce the violin and sight-reading over time, so it doesn’t seem overwhelming to a 5-year-old.
How long do students participate in Kidznotes?
Our oldest kids are going into 10th grade; these are kids who started with us in first grade. Kids are encouraged to stay for all 12 years of school. Some students choose to pursue other things in middle school, but we try really hard to make the program interesting and compelling for kids of all ages.
As the executive director, what is your role?
Setting and implementing a vision and a strategic plan for the organization. The biggest part of that is implementing an ambitious growth plan that we’ve named “Kidznotes 2020,” which [expects to] grow our student enrollment to 850 students in the next three years. That includes making sure we have the infrastructure, the staff, and the support in place to make it successful, and then going out and raising the funds to make it possible. I love talking about what we do. There’s a genuine passion behind it, so I have no problem trying to get a person to invest their time, talent, or treasure in this mission, because it’s important. We spend about $2,500 per student per year. With that, a student gets a high-quality instrument and about 400 hours of instruction.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish for the kids who come through the program?
Our goal is not to make professional musicians. If students want to pursue that, we set them up for success in that regard. But we’re trying to help students prove what is possible within their own lives, and help them become the best people and citizens they can be.
How did you get involved?
We moved home to North Carolina when my wife and I were starting a family. I’m an opera singer by training, and I was in the education department at Seattle Opera. I was leading the program for another nonprofit here in the Triangle, and this opportunity for Kidznotes came along. It really spoke to me. I had never come across an opportunity that was a more perfect mix of my passion and experience, and that served a community that I care deeply about.
You have an interesting educational background. You went to a small school in Iowa, Grinnell College. You studied classical voice, but you were also a 1,000-point scorer in basketball, which is a big accomplishment.
I played for the highest-scoring team in the history of basketball. We had strange positions. My position was called ‘preferred shooter.’ It was essentially a small forward. I missed almost all of my junior year with an ACL injury, so I think I would have been closer to 1,500 points. I was really fortunate to plug into a system that took advantage of what I do well. I was a really good 3-point shooter.
You don’t see a lot of basketball stars who are opera singers.
The most fun thing I did was singing the national anthem in my basketball uniform before every home game. You’re trying to be tough and intimidating, then getting up in your uniform and singing to the entire gym. It was fun, and no one ever gave me a hard time about it from the opposing team. In four years, we only lost one game at which I sang the national anthem, so I feel pretty good about that.
Did you go on to sing professionally?
I like to tell people I have come to my career because of a tonsillectomy. My senior year, I was set to audition for graduate schools in voice, then I had a series of debilitating throat infections. I had to have my tonsils taken out. I couldn’t audition for graduate schools right away, and I had to find something else to do once I graduated. I taught in second grade in Arkansas for two years, then I went back to graduate school in New York City and studied voice there, but I really missed teaching and working with students. I had an opportunity to go back to Helena, Arkansas, and start a music program from scratch at a charter school. The music program consisted of one choir of eight students. When I left five years later, we had three choirs, a music theater program, a marching band, and more.
It sounds like music is who you are, as well as what compels you professionally.
And serving people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to access it. I am working with the most gifted and talented people in the world. The only thing they lack are resources and access. Nothing makes me feel more fulfilled—or feels like more important work—than giving access to people who deserve it and are ready to jump at the chance.
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