SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — With each child who trickles in, the hollow, melodic thunking crescendos into a sound somewhere between harmony and cacophony until it all ends with four girls huffing and puffing through their smiles.

“My arms hurt already,” said Olivia Puente, a fourth-grader at Pioneer Elementary School.

And that’s just warm-ups. Pretty soon the other members of Pioneer’s marimba club show up and the rehearsals take on more structure under the guidance of teacher Traci Honeycutt, who dances and claps along.

Pioneer is one of 23 schools, mostly elementaries, in the area with an eight-piece marimba band thanks to numerous federal and private arts grants worth a combined $2 million that began in 2006. The newest teachers — all from the Wahluke School District — are wrapping up their marimba construction and training this spring. Part of the training required teachers to assemble the marimbas.

The instruments range from hip-high to those that require a step-stool for an adult to reach.

“It just blows me away how good these elementary students can get at playing these marimbas,” said Aurelio Garcia, regional arts education coordinator, for the Education Service District 105.

In 2009, teachers from six districts led their students in a festival of 90 marimbas, packing the floor of the Yakima Convention Center. Garcia had considered repeating the feat with the full list of schools — up to 14 districts now — but doesn’t know where he would find enough room.

The floor of the Yakima Valley SunDome comes to mind but “that’s pretty expensive,” he said with a laugh.

The grants enabled schools to provide marimbas to students in grades 3-6 for use in their music classes. Marimbas are relatively easy to learn, work well with group settings and involve a lot of dynamic movement that kids like. Much like xylophones, marimbas are percussion instruments consisting of wooden bars arranged like a keyboard and banged with mallets. They usually are bigger than xylophones and hit deeper notes.

Historians trace their origin to African slaves in Central America, when musicians hung tubular gourds near the bars to boost resonation.

Teachers throughout the Valley tell Garcia they use their marimbas every day.

“I love it,” said Honeycutt. “They are amazing.”

Her fourth- and fifth-graders stand in formation behind a line-up of xylophones, glockenspiels and a contra bass, all similar percussion instruments, taking up about half her classroom.

“Top people, when can you start? You start the rhythm,” Honeycutt told them.

A girl’s voice counts in, “Five, six, seven, eight” and the room fills with sound.

When they finish, they swap instruments and do it all over.

• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or