Jason Levi ('04, '07 M.M.) was spending time with his 3-year-old daughter, who loves reading kids magazines, when inspiration struck.
"I thought how cool it would be to have something where I could help express my love of music with her and we could connect in a musical way instead of through random stories in a magazine," he says.
Levi reached out to his friend, Noelle Fabian Dragon ('12 M.M.), with an idea that took shape -- a series of innovative children's books, called Kidenza, that fosters a love for music while promoting learning. The six-book series is expected to be released this fall.
Accuracy and inclusivity are core principles for Levi and Dragon. The books' illustrations portray instruments -- including piano, guitar and brass -- with utmost anatomical precision, addressing the frustrations of musician parents who often encounter inaccuracies in children's books.
"We wanted to go beyond the one-dimensional experience of reading about music," Dragon says. "We wanted to bring it to life."
Their concept involves incorporating technology without overshadowing the personal, human connection. Using analogies and relatable references, the books will include various diverse characters and illustrations of instruments with QR codes on each page. When scanned, these codes will lead parents to videos of the instruments on the page and their kids can hear what those instruments sound like.
"We didn't want this to be just another app," Dragon says. "We wanted parents to have that genuine interaction with their kids, flipping through the pages of a paper book, but with the option to enhance the experience with additional digital elements."
Both Levi and Dragon have a strong background in music. Levi's father is an entrepreneur and a trumpet player and both of Dragon's parents are musicians. Both of their spouses also are professional musicians.
As a child, Dragon, whose major was multiple woodwinds performance, would accompany her mother, Deborah Fabian, principal lecturer in clarinet, on campus and attended the UNT Center for Young Children. After graduation, Dragon took part in several music performances for Broadway, Disneyland and the Icelandic pop band Júníus Meyvant. She also does workshops, voiceovers and performances.
"I've always been somebody who never fit in a box and my teachers at the College of Music understood that and never forced me in one."
Levi, who earned his degrees in jazz trumpet performance, was part of the One O'Clock Lab Band. He counts the band's former director, Neil Slater; Jay Saunders, retired lecturer in trumpet; and the late John Murphy as his favorite teachers.
"Jay Saunders was an incredible teacher and life coach," Levi says. "I am forever in his debt for the years I spent studying with him."
Alongside his music studies, Levi pursued an M.B.A., which ignited his interest in business and entrepreneurship. Just as he was about to graduate, Cirque du Soleil recruited him to perform in Las Vegas.
Although he never finished his M.B.A., the business classes made him recognize the need to expand his knowledge in the business realm as a musician – and brought the idea to the College of Music.
Levi created a syllabus plan that was relevant to him as a musician. He presented it to the dean, and the first ever music entrepreneurship class at UNT soon came to life. He taught two classes, and now is a member of the college's advancement board.
Levi and Dragon, who knew of each other at UNT, shared a love for music and diverse interests that eventually led them down unexpected paths of entrepreneurship. About five years ago, Dragon worked on building an app called Monster Musician Reader to help musicians read music better. During that time, she reached out to Levi who had previously worked in the app development world. He directed her toward some developers, and they kept in touch with each other since then.
"My strengths lie in the intersection of different ideas and energies," Dragon says. "So, I think building out what is good for you, even if it's not a traditional path, will always end up working out."
Levi started his first business with his friend while he was in graduate school. They made and sold valve oil for brass instruments to music stores all over the country. While on tour with Cirque du Soleil, he started Rise8 Music Gifts, an online store for music-themed products and gifts.
"I always knew there was a way to combine the things that I'm interested in and forge a path for myself and so that's what I have been doing," he says.
The duo launched the concept of their books on social media earlier this year. Their Instagram account, @kidenza_kids, has been gaining popularity with more than 27,000 followers.
Dragon says the response they've received has been phenomenal.
"Our goal with these books was to build a community where people could see themselves in the world of music," she says. "It's been very fun and fulfilling to see people from all over the world reach out to us and tell us how excited they are about the books."