On a sunny Friday afternoon in spring, students often scatter following the final bell. But inside Whitman Elementary in north Spokane, the rich, happy tones of marimba music spilled into the empty halls. Zingamarimba was practicing, and even the warm weekend couldn’t coax the kids away.
Under music teacher Janice Newell’s direction, Zingamarimba began as an after-school program in 2002, with funding assistance from the school’s parent teacher organization and the Spokane school district Hubs neighborhood outreach program. It has continued with support from the PTO, building budget and other donations. Whitman’s two Zingamarimba groups, beginners and performers, each practice once a week after school.
Since Whitman is a Title 1 school with more than 80 percent of students qualifying for reduced or free lunch, school educators said programs like Zingamarimba are important because they empower kids and motivate them to learn and grow.
“We want our students to feel a sense of community and connection, and we actively work together on that dynamic,” Newell said.
According to Principal Beverly Lund, “Wonderful things are happening at Whitman and Zingamarimba is one of them. Our kids are academically achieving very well because of the combination.”
In 2007 the school earned a Washington School of Distinction award for showing an impressive test-score improvement rate. “Things are going well here for kids,” said Lund. “We have lots of opportunities for them to be connected to school that give them a sense of confidence and community, a place they belong.”
This was evident during a recent Zingamarimba rehearsal. The students were learning “Heavy Roller” by Walt Hampton, and their brows furrowed in concentration as they studied the score and practiced their parts.
At one marimba three students stood shoulder to shoulder, elbows tucked close. Their mallets lifted and dropped together in harmonious rhythm.
After spending time individually assisting students, Newell signaled a musical stop by breathing an elongated “s” sound. Within seconds the musicians lifted their mallets and all eyes turned to Newell as the last notes stopped resonating. It’s a level of discipline that’s received rave reviews when they perform.
“We tend to get compliments on the kids’ behavior,” said parent Lisa Lee, who has had seven children participate in Zingamarimba. “They behave and have good audience skills. I think that is wonderful as a mom. It is such a great skill for these kids to have. It is something they will use their entire lives.”
Zingamarimba has performed school and neighborhood concerts as well as at the Bing Crosby Theater and Davenport Hotel. They’ve even traveled to Yakima to play.
“A lot of the kids on the bus had never crossed the Columbia River,” said Newell. Some students rarely leave the neighborhood, so performing expands their horizons and gives them a taste of possibility.
“There is nothing else out there like it,” said Lee. “The kids don’t have access to that type of music or those musical instruments anywhere else.”
“It is a motivator for the kids,” said Newell, describing a former student who struggled with behavior issues but worked hard to be in the group. “Music kept him interested. For a few kids it’s that lifeline. For some it’s just pleasure and joy.”
According to fifth-grader Keyonna Davis, Zingamarimba is “a blast. And it’s really easy when you get the hang of it.”
This confidence permeates the group, and every student was eager to share why they choose to give up Friday afternoons to play marimbas.
“I like it because the sound inspires people when we go places,” said Anthony Hazel. “People hear how we perform and see the effort we make.”
“I like the fact we can make nice music and be a team,” said Larissa Caldeira. “The music makes you escape from the stress of school work. You can relax and have fun.”
Asanté McKinney said she enjoys how the music influences younger students. “Smaller kids want to play and share the music, too.”
Since Newell also uses the marimbas in daily music classes, all Whitman students learn to play lap-size xylophones and a bass marimba so large even the oldest students stand on a ladder to reach the bars.
But the performing group has special status. “More kids want to be in it than we have instruments,” said Newell. To join the program, students meet high expectations for behavior and grades.
And students are eager to meet those expectations. “It has given us a unique identity,” said Lund. “There isn’t another Zingamarimba. It has done so much for the kids’ self-esteem.”