Katie Wyatt first fell in in love with classical music when she joined her school’s orchestra in third grade. Wyatt played the viola and appreciated being part of a group that created art together. Wyatt was a military kid, so her family moved around about every four years. But no matter where she lived, Wyatt found a way to plug into her community through music.
Wyatt studied the viola in college and went on to perform across the globe in various orchestras. As a part of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, Wyatt performed in Venezuela and learned about El Sistema, a program that offers classical music training for children whose economic circumstances might otherwise make it hard for them to participate. After learning about El Sistema, Wyatt was inspired to start a similar program back in North Carolina. So in 2010, she co-founded Kidznotes, an offshoot of El Sistema that works with public schools in the Triangle to recruit children for classical musical training.
Today Wyatt is the executive director of El Sistema USA, where she helps support programs like Kidznotes across the country. Host Frank Stasio talked with Wyatt about playing music across the globe and her experiences with El Sistema and Kidznotes.
This segment is a rebroadcast. It originally aired July 10, 2017.
On falling in love with orchestra when she was a kid: The viola was really my ticket to meeting new people. For me playing in orchestra was always a social activity. I was always looking forward trying to gesture to my friends, or play into a phrase and catch their eye and laugh, or challenge them in some ways through the music. It was always about something much bigger than me and definitely about building relationships and having a great time.
On moving to Belgium when she was a teenager: We lived on a farm, so my family experienced a much slower pace of life, which I loved. I look back on that time of life with real fondness. It was maybe the closest our nuclear family has ever been. We biked to school, so that was six or seven miles … It was often in Europe and Belgium in particular where you would have plans to go somewhere, and you would experience first-hand the frustrations of the Belgian farm workers, and there was a protest pretty regularly. I’d say almost every weekend you could either find a truckload of sugar beets spilled on the highway or they’re holding up the airport traffic because they’re not getting equal pay.
On auditioning for the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and being beat out for first chair: I was really excited to get into YOA – only one of 10 Americans to be able to go. I get down there, and just like in high school you audition again for seats. And you have to go look on the board on the wall, and everybody goes, and it's a big crowd of kids looking at where your seats are. I’d played well. I had made the choice to take professional auditions and really make a go of it, so I was auditioning for the Detroit Symphony and other orchestras. I was beat out by a 16-year-old girl, and I was 25. “Youth” is liberally used in that. I was in the top age range for the orchestra and Joanna – I thought was a Venezuelan diplomat’s daughter – so I thought she had way more experiences than me or way more opportunities than me to get special private lessons. But come to find out she grew up in El Sistema, and her parents were making ends meet. They were selling coconut water on the side of the road in Caracas, Venezuela.
On the mission of El Sistema Founder José Abreau: Maestro Abreau was very angry about the fact that native Venezuelans had very few opportunities in the highest cultural circles in Venezuela and wanted to see more natural-born Venezuelans in the orchestras, in the youth orchestras, early conservatory programs, all the way through to professional orchestras … At that time it was almost exclusively Europeans or affluent white people in Venezuela. Maestro Abreau is Venezuelan and grew up with a very rich music background as a pianist and composer and conductor. He wanted to see that background grow and bloom and to see the same opportunities he was afforded through his parents’ relationships to be for all people in Venezuela.
On working with the Chicago Symphony and meeting cellist Yo-Yo Ma: They were launching their very first year of the Silk Road Project’s residency and announcing Yo-Yo Ma as an artistic advisor to the Chicago Symphony, so it was my job to drive Yo-Yo around and make sure he had a great time and make sure he stayed on schedule and that he and his Silk Road colleagues had everything they needed in order to do their work ... He has a million ideas a minute, and one thing that attracts people to him is that he will speak with anyone and is truly interested in what you think and what your ideas are. And that includes the people who are serving him lunch, parking his car and carrying his cello.
On teaming up with Durham resident Lucia Powe to start Kidznotes: I’ve had moments in my life where the path just unfolds in front of me, and this was certainly one of them. So I had won a fellowship to start the Abreau Fellows program, but it was 2009, and it was a scary time for a lot of people. A number of my friends had lost their jobs. We [the North Carolina Symphony] had taken serious pay cuts, and I was nervous to return after having my very first full-time job ever to a fellowship, which is essentially another student year. So I called the New England Conservatory, and they said, “Well, there is this woman. She’s been calling us every day saying we need to have a fellow in Durham. We need to start an El Sistema program in Durham, and gosh darn, if they can do it in Venezuela then certainly we can do it in Durham.” That was the incredible Ms. Lucia Powe.