Share story

Dajeanne Washington is concert mistress for the Garfield High School Concert Orchestra, a leadership position that reflects the quality of her musicianship, leadership skills and smarts.

But the 17-year-old senior probably wouldn’t have landed that position without a little help, and that’s what I wanted to talk about
when we met in the commons area at Garfield on the second day of school.

I heard about her through Seattle Music Partners, which helps students from three schools in Seattle’s Central Area connect with music. SMP chooses schools where a large percentage of students are from low-income families.

“I see a lot of kids in my neighborhood … who listen to music and love music, but who don’t necessarily have the kind of support to continue it and learn it,” Dajeanne said.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Most people know that Seattle has a national reputation for high-quality music programs. The jazz bands at Roosevelt and Garfield high schools are legendary. Washington Middle School, which draws students from the Central Area, shapes many of the students who go on to high-school success, but as in most areas of life, opportunities are not equally accessible to all children.

Some children arrive at Washington with years of private music training behind them, and if they’re serious about music, they continue working with private teachers in middle school and beyond. That costs money, and so do the instruments students play, something I know about from our son’s time in middle- and high-school bands.

Dajeanne said, “I know my parents would have never been able to afford getting me a private tutor.”

Not only is money a challenge, but many people come to see the music programs as exclusive and don’t even consider participating.

SMP was created 14 years ago to give more students a chance to become concert or band musicians. It’s not the only program working to expand access. In 2010, former band instructors from Washington (Robert Knatt) and Garfield (Clarence Acox) helped band mom Laurie de Koch start Seattle JazzED to reach students from all over the region who were outside the usual pipeline to music success. And there are others, including an effort in the Rainier Beach area to seed music participation there, the 5-year-old Southeast Seattle Community Youth Orchestra.

SMP provides tutoring, performance opportunities and help in making the transition to Washington Middle School’s bands, orchestras, fiddle club and choir. Scott Gelband, SMP executive director, said the program is operating at Lowell, Bailey Gatzert and Leschi elementary schools. He wants to add another school at some point.

Music education isn’t frivolous. Young musicians learn perseverance, focus, problem-solving and collaboration, among other skills that can contribute to classroom and life success later on. Who wouldn’t want more kids to have those benefits? For a few, music might be a lifelong pursuit, but for most, the side benefits alone are worth the effort. In fact, exposure to all of the arts ought to have a more prominent role in K-12 education.

Dajeanne is just glad she had a chance to excel in music. The SMP played an important role in that, but in her case it wasn’t the only factor. How often does one thing make a life-changing difference by itself?

Dajeanne said she wanted to play the flute, but she has asthma, so, when she started fourth grade her grandmother rented a violin for her instead. I asked which grandmother, and she said she actually has several of them, people who aren’t related by blood, but who are just as much a part of the family. One of those grandmas rented and later bought her first violin.

Dajeanne attended the old Martin Luther King Elementary until third grade, when she tested into Spectrum, an accelerated instruction program, and moved to Leschi Elementary School, where a school-district music teacher came to give lessons once a week. That’s not nearly enough time for real growth. One of the founders of SMP got her to sign up in fifth grade and she got a tutor, a student from Garfield who made music fun for her.

SMP is recruiting the 100 or so volunteers it will need this school year, and many of them will be high-school musicians. Dajeanne started volunteering when she entered high school. (For information on volunteering, contact

Tutoring from different SMP volunteers continued through middle school, and Dajeanne credits the help with preparing her to be chosen for higher-level orchestras in middle- and high school. Her parents helped, too, supporting her and making sure she practiced every day.

“Mom and Dad said anything I do, I have to take seriously,” she said.

She said that through the grades, students who had private tutoring tended to be in the highest-level orchestras and bands, while students who had free tutoring tended to be in the midlevel groups, and students without outside help stayed in the beginning level, and most dropped music along the way.

But music became essential for Dajeanne; it’s how she expresses herself. She added piano and guitar to her list of instruments, and she said that when she has a bad day, she goes to her room and plays to calm herself.

She’s not going to make a career of it though. Dajeanne is in the Running Start program and on track to earn her AA degree at the same time she graduates from high school.

“Because I’m multiracial and multicultural, I like different cultures,” she said.

Dajeanne once did an Advanced Placement history project tracing her family roots around the world. Her father has black and white ancestry, and her mother is Filipina with Spanish ancestry.

Her goal is to double major in international relations and bioengineering in college. She’s nearly fluent in French, is learning Arabic and wants to travel the world, see what the needs are and find ways to improve the health of women and children.

That career goal is also in keeping with another important part of her life, community service. She volunteered with her mom when she was little and on her own later, with City Year in middle school and now with Seattle University’s Just Serve program.

She not only gets help, she gives it, too, and she credits her musical training with helping her develop the multitasking skills to handle school and volunteering. “We need to support the arts more, because they make us more productive,” she told me. Yes, and because it’s good for the soul, too.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.