Sometime in grade school my classmates and I were introduced to musical instruments.
For many of us playing the clarinet or flute was just a daydream. We could never ask our parents for lessons, even free instruction, because buying or renting an instrument went beyond our financial means. Anyone who grew up in a family strapped for cash knows what I’m talking about.
For more than 20 years at Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Back of the Yards, kids who would otherwise have no shot at exploring their musical talents have thrived playing the marimba, a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone.
Boy, these kids can play. I watched and listened along with some proud parents Saturday at a block party in front of the church at 46th and Hermitage. The group was disciplined and beautifully in sync. The sound was elegant.
Most train for years at the church and in their homes. There are 20 marimbas that move through the neighborhood so teens can practice on their own. Most of the instruments have been donated and maintained by Chicagoans.
“If you don’t practice, it gets taken away from you; it’s a privilege to have it,” Jorge Ocampo, 20, said. Ocampo, a student at Harold Washington College, started playing at 15 and is now a marimba teacher and leader for the church.
Rev. Bruce Wellems established the ensemble in 1990, years after hearing it on a mission trip in Guatemala. Wellems started with one marimba and four students. Since then, hundreds of teens in Back of the Yards have played.
Wellems is a charismatic, popular priest who made the ensemble his pet project at the parish. Last year he moved to the San Gabriel Mission in California and started a marimba group there, but his ties to the Chicago group remain tight.
“Marimba was a way of getting neighborhood kids involved,” he said by phone.
He remembers a performance the ensemble gave at the Daley Center years ago, one of its first outings outside of Mass.
“I had never imagined playing outside the church. Then someone wanted us to play at their wedding. And then another wedding.”
The group has performed at functions throughout the city, from backyards to ritzy Downtown banquet rooms. Ensemble members also have met or played for politicians, including President Obama while he was a senator. Donations for performing, and instruction by local musicians, keep the ensemble going.
Teens pick up the music by ear, imitating teachers and memorizing patterns. “I worked hard at it,” Ocampo said. “It took me four months to get a single song.”
He has come a long way. Earlier this summer he spent several weeks in California teaching Wellems’ new marimba students.
Last month ensembles from Chicago and San Gabriel united for a performance in Colorado Springs. The bigger treat was a trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Every summer, the group takes a trip to perform at another church or charity and see the sights of a new place. Ocampo has been to Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Miami and Washington, D.C.
These kids are opening their eyes to the world, courtesy of their dedication to the instrument.
Back of the Yards, predominantly Latino, is known for poverty, violence and a high drop-out rate. Ensemble members buck the statistics. Sister Angie Kolacinski says that in the last five years every member who stuck with the group through high school has gone on to college.
“Don’t underestimate where people come from,” Ocampo said his experience taught him. “There’s always a light somewhere.”