Free Music Lessons for Keiki in Hawaii

Classical Keiki: Nonprofit provides free after-school music lessons to children.

Louise Lanzilotti (right) conducts Kaaawa Elementary students as cello teacher Mary Dodson joins in.

photo: matt mallams

Before the kindergarten students at Kaaawa Elementary School picked up real violins for the first time, they practiced with neon pink, green and purple ones, made of thick paper. “It was really exciting for them [to use real ones],” says Louise Lanzilotti.

Last year Lanzilotti started Kalikolehua, a nonprofit music education program at the school. It was inspired by the international El Sistema program, which originated in Venezuela. Today, Lanzilotti is its CEO and says there are 70 nonprofits similar to Kalikolehua across the U.S., all of which offer free music education to children in low-income communities, often in Title I schools where there are no music programs.

Such was the case at Kaaawa. This year, the after-school program is expanding to all students. Students can learn the violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, percussion or recorder. “Children find their instruments and are drawn to them,” says Lanzilotti, who plays cello herself.

illustration: thinkstock

Classes are taught by six paid musicians and Lanzilotti says she is hoping to hire more, as well as begin working in Kalihi and on the Big Island next fall. “This program provides social change, that’s the real meat of it,” she says.

It’s also intensive. Students meet four days a week after school, when they rehearse as a full orchestra, as well as participate in general music classes, which include choir, ukulele lessons, music reading and more. They also hold school performances for their families.

“Learning music provides discipline and focus,” says Lanzilotti. “Students are calmer, they are focusing in class.”

Principal Jennifer Luke-Payne agrees. “Parents always tell me how grateful they are for the program.”

Luke-Payne herself sat in on a few lessons last year when she had time. “I’ve always wanted to learn the violin, but also show the students, no matter what age, you can learn something new,” she says.

While she didn’t attend four times a week, each time she returned, she was surprised by the students’ progress. “I’d tear up over the things they learned,” she says. “I could play a note and the kids could tell me what note it was. The kids teach me, they’re my instructors.”

Did you know?

Kalikolehua accepts donations, both monetary and instruments, says Louise Lanzilotti. Donors can contact Lanzilotti via email at, or donate via Pay Pal at