Spotlight Program


December 2013

Marimba Ensemble (Holy Cross)

Chicago, Illinois

Holy Cross' Marimba Ensemble started in 1990 with 4 young players. Over two decades later, the group has grown to become one of the parish’s most successful programs, inspiring leadership, ambition, responsibility, and creativity in approximately 45 young people each year.

The marimba is a large musical instrument consisting of wooden bars that 3-4 players strike with mallets. Multiple marimbas can be played at the same time, and percussion instruments and a bass guitar often accompany them. The sheer size of the instrument requires the musicians to perform as a team, working together and listening to each other to create a range of rhythms and songs.

The Marimba Ensembles’ members typically begin learning to play by ear in 7th or 8th grade; most of the group’s performing members are in high school. Former marimba players serve as paid teachers and mentors to the younger musicians. Dedicated players are given one of the 20 parish marimbas to keep at home so they can practice on their own. As long as players remain consistent about practice and performance commitments, they are allowed to keep the marimba, some for as long as 2 or 3 years. These dedicated players are also invited to play in the group’s 100+ annual performances.

These performances are a huge motivating factor for the young players to stay involved in the program and out of trouble. Over the years, the group has played all over Chicago at locations ranging from City Hall, the Museum of Science and Industry, and Midway Airport to parties for families and businesses. In addition to these local performances, every summer the Marimba Ensemble travels around the country playing at cultural events and other parishes.

These summer trips, funded in part by food sales organized by Marimba Ensemble parents, enable the young musicians to broaden their world view and see what’s beyond the Holy Cross parish community. This reality has the ancillary benefit of recharging the youths’ commitment to productive and nonviolent activities during the summer months; the absence of daily classes in the summer can create too much time on the street. While on the road, the group stays with host families or at churches, and they stop at national parks and other points of interest that could expand their horizons and give them experiences outside of an urban setting.

For many of the players, being part of the Marimba Ensemble offers them a stable support structure for making solid decisions for themselves—immediately as well as in the future. Membership also boosts their self-esteem, expands their understanding of who they are, and highlights how their talent impacts other people. At each of their performances, members of the group are expected to speak with audience members, both as an entire group and one-on-one. These interactions give them experience navigating professional social settings and making connections with people from all different walks of life, including important political and business professionals. By talking with these adults, the young musicians often gain an interest in issues they might not otherwise think much about—like politics, religion, and social action—which they can then bring back to the parish community and share with others.

The staff at Holy Cross has found that the longer young people stay committed to the Marimba Ensemble, the more likely they are to go to college. In fact, 100% of the players who have stayed in the program for 3 or more years pursue education beyond high school. The group also gives youth an opportunity to express themselves creatively. Young people in the neighborhood often say that they have no talent. Outside of the parish, there aren’t many opportunities to develop a talent or other positive forms of self-expression. Excelling at the marimba and sharing that talent with others, the members start to see themselves as having real potential, true talent, and a future.  This new awareness of positives they already own makes pursuing higher education a way to continue their growth—possibly even as future community leaders.

The Marimba Ensemble is designed to give the young musicians ownership of most of the group’s day-to-day responsibilities so they learn leadership skills and create something to be proud of. In addition to teaching newer members how to play the marimba, more experienced members also pass down the traditions of the group. The players have collaboratively written their own handbook with the rules and policies for the group.  They also choreograph the dance moves for certain songs. These are the traditions, along with a deep sense of pride and investment, which are gifted from one generation of players to the next.

In addition to keeping young people off the street and positively engaged in a creative form of self-expression, the Marimba Ensemble also enriches the young players’ relationships with their parents. As parents see their children more engaged in the community, more responsible, and driven to succeed at something requiring great discipline, they tend to become more involved in their children’s lives and then in parish life in general.

Want to help support Holy Cross’ Mariamba Ensemble? You can make a donation directly to this program, share this post on Facebook or Twitter, or join our monthly email list to help us spread the word.

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