The violin can evoke great sadness, but in the hands of 11-year-old Tyler Butler-Figueroa it turns sorrow into joy.
The young Raleigh musician took up the violin after seeing a flier at school offering free music lessons through the nonprofit program Kidznotes. It was a diversion he badly needed. At age 4, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and also endured the pain inflicted by some schoolmates who made fun of how he had lost his hair during three years of chemotherapy.
Tyler poured his feelings into his instrument and after much practice out came notes of resilience and eventually soaring triumph. Playing on the streets of Raleigh, his violin case open for donations and his mother looking on, he raised money to go to Charlotte to audition for the NBC show “America’s Got Talent.” Those donations, his talent and his story got Tyler to that audition. As he played Kelly Clarkson’s song “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” before judges and an audience, the once sick and bullied boy won applause, hearts and a Golden Buzzer pass straight to the live shows.
One of the judges, Julianne Hough, told Tyler, “I just wanted to commend you for taking something that is probably one of the hardest things that you’ll ever have to go through and turning it around and finding something that brings you joy.”
In October 2018, as he busked for lunchtime crowds in downtown Raleigh, Tyler told The N&O why he plays.
“I like playing the violin — it inspires me to play music for other children with the same story as me,” said Tyler, a student at Walnut Creek Elementary School. “I’m proud to be here street performing and I want to show other kids they can do what their heart tells them to do.”
What drives Tyler points to the larger meaning of his success. His story is not just one boy’s story. It is the story of how many children facing difficult circumstances can blossom if given a chance. That is the idea behind Kidznotes, the program that handed Tyler the violin that carried him to a stage where appreciation, affection and gold confetti rained on him.
Kidznotes was launched in Durham in 2007 by Katie Wyatt and Lucia Powe. It’s based on El Sistema, a program that makes musicians of low-income children. El Sistema originated in Venezuela and has spread to other countries, including the United States. Kidznotes says teaching children from low-income families how to play an instrument and be part of a symphony can help children who often enter school already academically behind children from more affluent families.
The $1.3 million program, largely supported by individual donations and support from foundations, provides instruments and 400 hours of music instruction for free. It currently serves 304 children in Durham County, 197 in Wake County and 30 in Orange County.
The program offers a powerful reminder that helping disadvantaged children learn and succeed does not require abandoning public schools in favor of vouchers for private schools or special charter schools.
But presenting the opportunity is only the start. The child must take it up. Tyler did.
Nick Malinowski, executive director of Kidznotes, where Tyler started at 7, said Tyler has a natural ear for music and already arranges his own. But most important was his willingness to put in many hours of practice. Malinowski said, “He’s an incredibly hard worker.”
Now that work has lifted him from a sidewalk stage in Raleigh to national TV, where plays a joyful song.