Avett Brothers, UNC help kids learn music

As a student-run group at UNC-Chapel Hill, Musical Empowerment offers music lessons and rental instruments to school children free of charge.

From Dublin to Denver, the Avett Brothers have been a tough ticket in 2013. Chapel Hill wasn’t a planned stop for the group, but a chance to help children learn music struck a chord with Scott Avett and some of his bandmates.

“I have a general philosophy, and Seth [Avett] and I share the general philosophy, that if someone asks for your help, if you have the time, then you need to be there,” Avett says. “I felt like I had the time to give, so here I am, very grateful to be here.”

“Here” was the sanctuary at University United Methodist Church, where Avett, along with cellist Joe Kwon (a UNC alumnus) and bassist Paul DeFiglia, played to a packed house at a benefit concert to raise money for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Musical Empowerment program. The student-run non-profit organization provides free musical instruction and loans instruments to children from families who might not be able to afford them otherwise.

“Musical education is so important to young people, especially because it’s a way of building confidence,” says Kwon. “I spent many, many hours behind a cello and it became a safety blanket as a young kid.”

Private lessons can cost families hundreds of dollars each month, something Kwon took for granted as he was growing up. “Musical Empowerment is so important because it’s an opportunity for me to help kids out, have the same opportunity that I had,” Kwon says. “It’s just unfair that it’s a matter of dollars and cents that kids don’t get to experience music in the same way.”

And for this crowd in particular, that motivation is especially strong. Like much of the audience, Kwon has strong ties to the Triangle and to Carolina, from which he graduated in 2002. A chance to serve the community that helped shape him as a young man was alluring.

“Carolina has played a big part in my family’s history,” Kwon said. “Both my sisters went to college here, 10 of my cousins went to college here. We just have a long-standing family history at UNC.” That history was powerful enough to lure Kwon back to Chapel Hill from California, where he and his family moved when he was a teenager.

“Coming here was one of those things where I didn’t realize I would love it so much,” Kwon says. “Then I got here and it’s so hard not to just fall in love with the city and fall in love with the University and just have it play such a big role in your life.”

Longtime Avett Brothers fans filled most of the seats that evening, but newcomers like Annie Valera also came. Her 12 year-old son, Gabriel, is taking cello lessons through Musical Empowerment and she wanted him to see Kwon perform.

“I think it’s pretty neat to see someone that plays the same instrument you do and hopefully that will provide inspiration for him to keep practicing and hopefully get there one day,” Valera said.

More than a dozen other musical acts, many of them made up of Carolina students, joined Avett, Kwon and Defiglia in the effort to raise money for Musical Empowerment.

As the Avett-Kwon-Defiglia portion of the performance wrapped up, Avett encouraged the audience to stay for the full program.

“I do think it will be important for them to see that you don’t have to be perfect at your instrument,” Avett says. “You have to enjoy it, you have to discover with it and discovery’s the key thing.  And if any kid out there discovers anything tonight in this performance, then it’s a win-win.”

That’s certainly how Kwon sees it, refusing to let the “when” from a complicated schedule get in the way of the win that comes from serving others.

“There’s just no amount of time that can be devoted to something like this,” Kwon said.  “If there were more hours in the day, we’d just spend more of it trying to do stuff like this.”