by Jake Uitti
Quinton Morris is the founder and director of the South King County music school, Key to Change. An educator at Seattle University, Morris is also one of the only tenured African-American violin teachers in the United States. In other words, he’s an Emerald City treasure. And this summer marks the first birthday for his amazing school, which serves underprivileged students seeking to learn violin or viola to one day, perhaps, play it professionally. To celebrate the Key to Change milestone, we wanted to catch up with the composer, musician, and artist before he headed out on another national tour or something else creatively incredible.
Briefly, can you explain what Key to Change is?
Key to Change is a non-profit organization that provides violin lessons to students living in South King County who either don’t have access to violin lessons, are students of color or are students who cannot afford lessons at the market rate.
Is anyone not allowed to sign up for classes?
The school is for all students in South King County who have an interest in taking lessons and getting better on their instruments – all are eligible. Obviously, I’m a man of color. More specifically, an African-American. And I understand firsthand the issues that students of color face. So we want to make sure that those students understand and know that lessons are available to them. That they have access to it. But we are open to everyone. We don’t turn students away – that’s the cool thing about what we do versus other programs. Students don’t have to audition, they just have to fill out an application and tell us when they’re ready to start. We accept them where they are.
What does it mean to you that the school has made it to its one-year birthday?
Oh my god. Within a year, we have doubled our enrolment, which is really fantastic. We’re serving students from seven different school districts, whereas a year ago it was only two. Secondly, our students are getting better on their instruments. Within one year’s time, we have students that have made it to the All-Sate competitions. And we’re providing more access to students to gain experience working with other professionals. We’ve provided master class opportunities where we bring professionals in as guest artist to work with our students in a clinic setting, which has been great for their self-esteem and motivation. We have one student who was recently accepted to college, the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which is a really big deal for us and, obviously, for that student. She started working with us in September and she’s made enormous progress as a violinist. Now she’s going to pursue violin studies professionally.
Within a year, we’ve also created a scholarship fund so over 55% of our students receive a scholarship of some kind and we’re able to provide for some students and families interested in taking lessons but who aren’t able to afford them even at our discount rate. From a non-profit standpoint, we’ve gotten really organized. We’re writing a strategic plan right now and we’re going to go public with that very soon. And we’ve created a summer camp where students can come and work with me as well as other esteemed faculty for a week in Kent.
We’re going to provide transportation for students who can’t get there or if their parents have to work. We want to make sure those students have access to be able to get to our summer camp. So, we’re doing a lot of really fantastic things. We’re working really hard, coming to South King County three days a week, working with teachers and working with students to build it so our students can have direct, positive change in their lives and we’re providing a direct, positive impact to the community in which we’re working. It really makes me proud as the founder of Key to Change.
Why did you decide to start the summer camp?
I wanted to do a summer camp for a number of reasons. First, kids need something to do in summer. And I wanted to be able to continue the great work that we’re doing during the year. This is a yearlong program so a summer camp felt like the most natural thing to do. Secondly, summers are really great for musicians because you don’t necessarily have any distractions, which means you can practice. I have seen my students progress so dramatically when they do a music camp or take lessons during the summer. And we wanted to be able to provide that.
Why is it important to you to give back to the community and offer these opportunities to young students in South King County?
It’s important to me because I’m a product of the South End. I didn’t grow up in the Central District and I know that is where a lot of people think about when they think about an underserved or underprivileged population. I know the Central District is a key area people like to focus on. But I think that, especially in the last few years, the gentrification that has occurred there and given that I’m actually from Renton, I feel like more service and more resources need to be directed to students who are in the South End. And I want to do everything within my power and my reach to able to provide that direct positive impact on kids. I was not afforded those types of opportunities when I was a teenager. I had to take three buses because I lived in the Renton Highlands in order to go and take violin lessons at the University of Washington, where my former teacher taught. So, I’m very passionate about making sure kids in the South End have what they need. That’s why we created the summer camp and offer lessons in the South End. We have to go where the need is and where the students are.
What have you learned about yourself as an artist or teacher since founding Key to Change?
I think the one thing I have learned as an artist doing this program is that I think the best art is made when it’s collaborative. I’ve performed a lot of concerts and played literally around the world and I think that there’s a real key to music making or creating art when you’re able to take yourself out of the equation and not make it just about yourself and you can think more about how can what I’m doing impact others? Because when you think about the impact of serving others, of being in service, being of value to other people rather than making it all about yourself, I believe that type of collaborative spirit is when real art begins to happen. When you’re on stage and you’re performing and the audience is engaged and you can feel the spirit of the energy with the audience while you’re performing, that’s when the real art starts to happen. That’s when real music making starts to happen.
In creating Key to Change, I’ve learned that the real beauty of music making and the real essence of creating has been through collaboration. And that’s something I didn’t learn 20 years ago. I didn’t understand that then but I do now and I think I’m a better artist, a better teacher, and better human being because of it. The more I’m able to give to students, the more I receive back. So it becomes a question to me of who is benefiting more from this, them or me? I’ve learned so much from working with my students.