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Rare elementary school marching band, drumline thrive under Morgan alum

Drum lines and marching bands are deeply ingrained in the culture of America’s historically black colleges and universities.

In elementary schools? Not so much.

But on a recent Wednesday afternoon, around 45 fourth- and-fifth-graders at Maple Elementary School in Cambridge stood in formation, awaiting their cue to begin.

“Band!” yelled drum major Hallmark Pinanzu, 10, with a baton in hand. “One, two, ATTENTION!”

“M-E-S!” the children called. Hallmark blew his whistle.

“Up, two, three, four!”

The band began to march and drum. Flags, glistening green, silver and black began to wave.

The Marching Lions have been making waves in recent weeks, here and across the country. They’ve appeared on local TV stations and on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Oct. 13. They performed at a high school pep rally earlier this month and in a parade at Morgan State University’s homecoming. They performed last weekend during a football game at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School and in the Elks Lodge Parade in Cambridge.

The band has a profound impact on the pupils, say those involved with the school, where 87 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“It’s given kids that wouldn’t have a focus, a focus,” said Principal Patricia Prosser. “I don’t think it would have been possible without the success of the drumline.”

It’s all sprung from Ray Washington Jr., who founded the marching band. As a Morgan State student, he performed for four years in the drumline of the university’s Magnificent Marching Machine. He moved back to his hometown in 2015 in search of temporary work but instead landed a full-time position that has changed pupils’ outlooks on what they could achieve.

“Drumline was life,” said Washington, 32. “I didn’t know band could be like that.”

He was in awe when he first encountered the university’s show-style band. There was dancing, the swift choreographed turning and tossing of drumsticks, and an energetic marching, characteristic of most marching bands at HBCUs. Playing on the drumline was challenging, even after years of playing in a high school band, Washington said, but he loved it.

After graduating with a bachelor of arts in music in 2009, Washington stayed in the Baltimore area, DJing and working at banks before returning to Cambridge. He expected to be back only a couple of months when he began to substitute-teach at Maple Elementary, the same school he attended and where he learned to play the drums. Then a position opened for a full-time music teacher.

“I just went for it and I ended up getting it,” said Washington.

But he soon became restless and needed a challenge. That’s when he decided: “It’d be cool to have a drumline.”

Washington drew upon his experiences at Morgan to create a bustling elementary school marching band and drumline. The state school board doesn’t collect data on school bands, but the existence of an elementary school drumline appears to be a rarity. He helped raise money through local organizations to help offset costs of the instruments and uniforms, because every band should have a uniform, according to Washington.

“It’s been amazing because every time we see them, it’s just getting better and better. Everyone just has so much fun … and it makes the school so proud,” said Principal Prosser.

Around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, there was clanging and shuffling as students filed into the music room, grabbing their instruments before making their way down the hallway and onto the school lawn as a group. It was time for practice.

Hallmark blew the whistle with fervor, and the band began to march starting with the flag line — a group of girls who rhythmically swayed the flags. They were followed by the marching band — pupils playing flutes, clarinets, saxophones and trombones — and then the drumline. Kids played snares while also performing choreography with their sticks, thrusting them out, then over their shoulders and back toward their drums again; Then, the bass drums, which includes fifth-grader Grant Searcey, 10, who plays the largest of the drums and is the very last part of the drumline.

“Drummers, y’all gotta play!” Washington commanded. “Y’all playing like y’all sleep.”

But the band, which has been under Washington’s direction for its second year, didn’t take it hard. They are motivated.

“He pushes us. He’s the best band teacher I ever had,” said Ay’Rhana Harris, 10, who plays the snare drum.

The way the band starts, stops, marches and plays — including drum cadences such as “Jack,” “P-Funk,” and “Head Up” — is the same as what Washington learned in the Magnificent Marching Machine — just simpler, he said. The children are learning quickly, he adds. The first drum cadence the Marching Lions learned took them two months to master. Now, it takes the band less than two weeks.

“The kids know Morgan inside and out now,” said Washington, who has shown them numerous videos of Morgan’s band performing and introduced them to the band during their homecoming.

Washington said the Marching Lions have no expectations.

"They think this is how band is at every elementary school. They have no idea that other elementary schools don’t have a drumline, a drum major, a marching band or don’t travel. … This is all they know," he said.

There’s no doubt in his mind that the Marching Lions are the most advanced of elementary school bands in the state, he said.

“They’re ahead of the game.”

Hallmark, who began playing the trumpet in the marching band and was later promoted to drum major, feels he’s been given a major responsibility.

“I have to be an example for the whole band,” along with making sure the band is at attention and keeps the tempo, said Hallmark.

Kimore Stanley Guzman, 9, a fourth-grader on the flag line, enthused about the weekend trip to Morgan State.

“We get to do so much stuff,” she said. Washington “taught us a lot. I’m so happy to be in band, and I wouldn’t have done it without him.”

Melvin N. Miles Jr., the director of university bands and instructor of music at Morgan State, taught Washington. He said it was rewarding to see his former student heading the Marching Lions during the visit.

“There’s nothing that gets me going more than to see kids playing music. ... I’m a Baltimore City kid, and I grew up in Baltimore public schools -- that’s where I learned and got started. So, to see that he’s gone back and he’s helping kids to introduce them to music and performance in music this early in life, it’s impactful for me,” said Miles, who remembers Washington as a dedicated music student, always lending ideas to the drumline.

“This is something they’ll be able to do for a very long time.”

Tina Weber, 41, mother to fourth-grade clarinetist Savanna Weber, 9, and a permanent substitute teacher at Maple Elementary, has been a part of the school’s community for around 13 years.

“I’ve never seen band this big,” she said. But with Washington as music teacher and band director, she sees her daughter becoming more inquisitive about music and playing other instruments. Washington has pushed the children out of their comfort zones, while also incorporating a form of discipline — all through music, Weber said.

“He's really making a difference. It’s the only positive thing some of these kids have in their lives,” she said, emphasizing that some of the children in the group are homeless or don’t have enough to eat at home and are, in turn, offered dinner before practice.

Being a part of the program has given them something to look forward to despite the hardships, she said.

“They’re becoming a tight-knit family.”

Weber said she and other parents are now brainstorming ways to raise funds for trips Washington has dreamed up for the Marching Lions, including performances at Six Flags or even Disney World. Washington said the Marching Lions will likely play a Christmas concert and at more local high school games this year. There are even plans for the drumline to play ahead of a Washington Wizards NBA game in April, according to a Wizards spokesman.

"All these kids are from the area that I'm from. They don't just go to the school that I went to. They play on the same streets that I played on growing up as a kid, so they're children of friends I went to school with. That's why it means much more to me than teaching at an elementary school anywhere else,” Washington said.

And Miles, his former teacher, has no doubts about the impact that Washington will make.

“I can imagine some of these kids will play an instrument for the rest of the life because they’re performing,” Miles said. “And the community is cheering them on.”

bbritto@baltsun.com

twitter.com/brittanybritto

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