Key to Change warms up for next year

Quinton Morris and students reflect on the nonprofit and what’s ahead

Key to Change is a local nonprofit helping create access for South King County youth to music, specifically though string instruments.

The goals of Key to Change, and of founder, Seattle University professor and concert violinist, Quinton Morris, is to set students up for success.

“My next moves are for the nonprofit. It’s about bunkering down and continuing to help those who don’t have access,” Morris said.

He recently completed the nonprofit’s strategic business plan, so Morris is confidently looking at the program’s future while still glowing in its accomplishments.

Morris has had great response from the Renton community for his nonprofit, which started in 2015 after he finished his world tour “BREAKTHROUGH,” where he realized from teaching students around the world, that no matter where you are, students want to learn.

It really became clear to Morris then that he needed to get back to King County and begin this grassroots organization.

The idea of “grassroots” is important to Morris because he sees the kids he teaches as the genuine representation of their communities, so other members of the community should see that and take an interest in being active in that effort.

Adriana Najera, an incoming junior at Lindbergh High School, has played the viola since sixth grade. When she moved to Renton from Seattle before her freshman year, she lost a private tutor and her participation in the West Seattle Community Orchestra.

Shrunk down to just the high school orchestra, Najera felt unfulfilled. She had nothing to practice after school. She had no individual tutoring, and peers who didn’t seem as passionate as her about orchestra made her feel alone.

She was on the verge of quitting.

“I felt so closed off from the experience,” Najera said. “And then when I joined Key to Change, and suddenly I was with people in the same boat as me. We were having performances altogether, and it made me feel included and welcomed to a circle of people who have the same interest. It helped my attitude, it’s made me want to join in an orchestra, take music classes, continue with my lessons and want to practice.”

Najera now hopes to join the Tacoma Youth Symphony, which she will apply to in the fall. Although she’s not fully set on a career path, her current aspirations are to be a music teacher.

She’s glad to have found her music teacher when she did. She said her one-on-one tutoring sessions helped her work out bad viola habits she’d gathered since losing her Seattle tutor. Najera said Morris as a teacher is detail-oriented, focusing on the technique, like holding your instrument and bow.

Another student, to-be high school freshman at Kentridge and violinist, Ellie Whitby said Morris’ motto is “If we’re not hearing his voice and seeing his face while we’re practicing were not practicing right.”

Her and her mom, Tina Whitby, explain that this is because he will repeat instructions to students over and over, and that they need to trust the process. If they remember what he says, they should be able to utilize it in outside practicing. They’re both very pleased with his instructional style and his sense of humor that the students respond to.

While Najera was in need of some solo time, Ellie had lacked confidence in her performing for others. Ellie said she hated playing in front of people alone, that even doing scales in a classroom could bring on a panic attack. Morris was able to help her start to break through that.

Tina said she saw Ellie conquer those nerves in the lessons she attended. Tina said she’s also played beautifully and publicly at recitals.

“I’ve seen that growth and excitement,” Tina said. “It was amazing because we had to do some concerts at the end, and she got to shine and play solo, in front of not only families at the Seattle Public Library, but with other strangers. We just were so proud of her, and so was Dr. Morris. We were both giving each other high fives after.”

They also appreciate that Morris works to make the lessons local and affordable. Ellie feels lucky to have a professional violin instructor at home in Kent instead of Seattle or Bellevue.

This spring Key to Change held a fundraiser for its scholarship fund to help students with the costs of violin training. They raised 20 percent more than their allotted goal of $10,000.

Registration is beginning for this fall, and Morris said every student who registers and refers a friend gets $25 off their tuition bill.

The nonprofit is also preparing students for college. Currently their only graduating senior from this program was accepted to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University on a scholarship.

“I saw she had a lot of potential. So we developed a very rigorous regimen this year, and then she was accepted,” Morris said. “Which I think just shows the impact.”

Morris said he encourages students or parents who might be hesitant to apply. Students don’t have to be really talented, but you do need training to be successful.

Key to Change offers private lessons, group lessons, and summer camp programs.

In July, Morris wrapped up the nonprofit’s first “Summer Five for Five” summer camp program. Though the five tenets of the camp was leadership, artistry, musicianship, performance and fun, Morris thinks he should have added another one: connections.

“One thing that stood out to me was the meaningful connections students made, which is something you always desire as an educator,” Morris said.

He said the students even coordinated a celebration with food at the end of the camp, all on their own.

The nonprofit also offers master classes, where a few times a year accomplished violinists come in as guest instructors to offer feedback.

Tina said she was amazed her daughter Ellie was able to receive feedback from performers like Rachel Barton Pine, and Seattle instructor Robert Murphy during the masterclasses.

Next year’s master class lineup has already been announced and is available on the Key to Change website.

Key to Change has also recently announced they will be offering development programs for South King County teachers. Partnered with Renton School District, Morris will be able to offer workshops, classroom observations and other resources.

Being from Renton, Morris “understands firsthand the unique challenges that orchestra teachers face in this region” and wants to “help build the infrastructure for more engaging and impactful musical education in South King County,” according to the Key to Change website.

Key to Change currently has two violin studios, one in Renton and the other in Kent. But starting this year they will also have one in Auburn.

The nonprofit has also announced they now have an instrument library, a longtime hope for Morris and the program, where students who can’t afford the steep costs of their own instrument can still access a high quality violin or viola. They currently have 28 instruments and supplies.

It took Morris some time in his career to learn that it’s about working smart.

“For a long time I feel like I was just working hard,” Morris said. But learning from this has helped him learn to stick to his vision while carrying numerous projects.

Morris has toured the world, started a nonprofit, directed and starred in a film about Chevalier de Saint-Georges, an 18th century African classical musician, was a member and artistic director of the Young Eight String Octet and gave a TedxTalk. He’s one of two African American violinists to be a tenured music professor in the United States.

So it might not surprise you to hear Morris was honored as one of the “Top 30 Movers and Shapers of 2017” by Musical America. He said he supposed his variety of tasks gives him the label.

He knows a lot of people are looking to him as an example, as representation for people of color who play European classical music, and he’s thankful. He’s done a lot of work to get where he is and he hopes to inspire others.

Utilizing both Key to Change and his own acclaim, Morris said he wants to work to help underserved members of the music community, who might not be able to see themselves in it, any other way.

Morris will be a keynote speaker for Renton Kiwanis Aug. 9, Renton Chamber of Commerce “New Teacher’s Breakfast” Aug. 22, and Renton Rotary Sept. 6.