Providing opportunity: DUETKids brings free, accessible piano lessons to Savannah children

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

In the dining room of Central Missionary Baptist Church near Hitch Village, a collection of young children sit simmering in anticipation.

In front of them lies a freshly opened keyboard. Now, more than anything, they want to start playing.

Instead, they sit patiently as Savannah Arts Academy (SAA) juniors Trey Collins and Jael Daniel ask what they remember from the previous lesson two weeks prior. Down the hall, the older kids are a bit more lively than their younger counterparts but still listening intently to another SAA junior, Hannah Park, as she walks them through a finger chart for their keyboards.

The eagerness gets the best of them, so their teacher asks them to close their eyes and hold up their hands to answer the call-and-response of the various piano key finger positions.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

A few eyes open a bit and dart back-and-forth. They giggle as they hold their hands in the air, but it's working — they pick up the piano movements as Park recites them. All the while, instructors James Kirk and Kelli Horton move about the space to observe the young teachers and their even younger students while DUETKids co-founder Paige Morrison fills in any gaps.

These moments have become ritual at the church over the past few Wednesdays as Morrison and her daughters’ nonprofit organization, DUETKids, provides free piano lessons and instruments to children in Hitch Village along with other areas of town in need of music education options.

“There should be an opportunity for every child,” Morrison said.

“You can take learning a musical instrument and can have that for the rest of your life,” her daughter Faith added. “It’s something personal to you that nobody else can take away.”

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

A teaching moment for everyone

Faith Morrison, now a sophomore at the University of Florida, was seeking community service for her college applications when she thought of expanding her repertoire from private, paid piano lessons to providing the same level of access to students who didn’t have the same type of access to resources or money.

“Even some of my friends, their parents wouldn’t pay for (piano lessons),” she said.

She started by emailing various schools in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System, ending up in contact with Mel Whitehead, who worked as the performing arts specialist for the system. He connected her with A.B. Williams music teacher Rebecca Flaherty, who brought her to the school to provide lessons for a couple of hours a week.

The interest in the music lessons continued to grow, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it created even more of a desire from local children to have something to do while in isolation.

“A lot of the times when I was leaving or when I was coming in(to the classroom), there were hordes of kids who would just be like, ‘I want piano lessons, I want this.’ And I felt bad because I couldn’t take them because I didn’t have time. So, that’s when my mom and I were like, ‘we need more teachers.’”

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

As the program expanded over 2020 and into 2021, they found a public school partner in Kelli Horton, who works as the SAA director of piano students.

“In order to go to Savannah Arts, you have to audition for piano programming. If you think about what you would need to know in order to audition for a piano program, you can't just walk in,” Horton said.

“You have to have access to a teacher, you have to have access to an instrument, you have to have access to a car and an adult to drive you. You have to be able to practice during the week. So, there are a lot of kids in our community [who] don't have one or some, or all of those things.”

Horton enlisted some of her piano students – Collins, Daniel and Park – to join her on Wednesday afternoons to work with the kids. The teenagers are gaining community service for their college applications, similar to Faith, but they’re also developing communication and teaching skills, and finding a passion for it.

“I see a lot of other kids who are starting off with nothing, no prior experience,” said Collins, 16. “I can relate to that and although they're a lot younger and they think a lot differently than me… I kind of feel a connection there.”

“Each of the kids that we've taught are in different places, they're all different ages, different disciplinary backgrounds, so it's like if you come here to one person, they might be catching on pretty quickly,” added Daniel, 16. “But then there's another person right next to him or something, and they're like, ‘I need your help with this.’”

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Park, 16, said she had a background with piano lessons already, but the chance to provide the same level of instruction to kids without the opportunities that her other students have was something that meant a lot to her.

“Some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever touched a piano before. I think for me, it's really interesting to see how they react to it. Because, for me, I grew up with a piano in my house from when I was really young, so it wasn't anything mesmerizing, so it's interesting to see the contrast.”

Horton said each week, the passion and capability among the high school students has grown week over week.

Grace Morrison, who helps with teaching, added that the instruction side of the process has become filled with purpose for the teenagers as much as anything.

“They're starting to really enjoy (teaching). One of them, Trey (Collins), it's become a passion of his and when he first started I don't think it really was; it was something he wanted to do (for community service) and now, it's become something he wants to continue to do outside of high school.”

Getting kids off the street and engaged with music

Central Missionary Baptist Church's pastor Tyrone Edwards welcomes each kid at the door as they enter the church. He holds his hand out for a high-five and gets some kids emphatically jumping to meet his hands, others walk more gingerly and give a soft pat.

“From 4-6:30 p.m., it’s one of those heavy times when kids can get into pretty much anything. It’s one of the most dangerous times,” he said. “With them coming together, it’s an opportunity to build teamwork, it’s an opportunity to build camaraderie and to remind them that the church is here as a safe haven as a place for them to come and still have fun, and you might learn a little something at the same time.”

Another public school partner, James Kirk with New Hampstead K-8, broached the topic of hosting the program at the church. A member himself, Kirk has been developing a choir program alongside the piano lessons that Horton and her students offer each session.

“Music is really important for kids and elementary school, they get it K-through-5, but it's real general music,” he said. “(In DUETKids,) each kid has their own keyboard, they're able to do it at the same time. You don't have kids waiting around; they may or may not like it, they may move on, but it's an exposure.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

“Even in our public school system, you may have (music in) elementary school and then you may go to a middle school that doesn't have any music at all. So, just you know, something outside of the school system where, hopefully, they like it, they're able to keep up, they're right here in the neighborhood, and they can continue to come back.”

Kirk said the goal is to get kids while they’re younger so they can develop the skills now and hope it’ll stick with them as they get older. “It's hard to get kids into music the older they get. When you get them younger, and they have a love (for it), they stick with it,” he said.

“I think it's the same thing with sports. When kids are playing sports at an early age, they take that sport all the way through high school into college, whether they're good at it or not. That's just what they do, and they like to do and it's fun for them.”

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Kirk hopes to do the same thing with music for kids in the Hitch Village community. The church aims to bring kids back into the building as COVID-19 and other factors have drifted many kids away from frequently attending. Even if they don’t attend services, Edwards and Kirk are happy to see the kids engaging in the space safely.

“Whether it’s (DUETKids), whether it’s old-school, home economics (classes), something that is going to teach them as they come in (and) something that is going to grasp their attention, but also keeps them in the process of learning things,” Edwards said.

Finding help

For Morrison and her daughters, the next step for DUETKids is gaining community partners outside of just Horton, Kirk and the Savannah Arts students. They see the future with more programs, more teachers and more ways to engage the community for music education.

Right now, the pianos are donated through the Little Star Foundation and Portman’s Music Superstore so that each kid is able to take them home after they’ve gone through the lessons. But that has been touch-and-go, they need more funding to make the program continue to happen.

At the core though, the goal is provide arts education in Savannah and Chatham County, something that Morrison feels is sorely lacking and the effects hurt future generations.

“When I say arts funding has not been a focus (in Chatham County), it's not been a focus for 20 years; we've lost a generation, possibly multiple generations. (Studies have shown) if you learned a musical instrument, you can learn science easier than somebody who never learned it,” she said.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

“There's an astronomical need. There are kids that are just forgotten and they need things to do. I would like for other people to consider bringing programs to where children are. It's more convenient to have a place and have all the kids come to you… There's populations of children (in Savannah) that are not getting the best arts and culture, or even sports, because they can't get there. That should be an opportunity for every child.”

Learn more at DUETKids at duetkids.org.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Providing opportunity: DUETKids brings free, accessible piano lessons to Savannah children