Spelling champion takes up new challenge

By Cathy Spaulding Phoenix Staff Writer | Posted: Monday, April 27, 2015

Letters mean special things for Richelle Zampella. For the past four years, Richelle recited letters in proper sequence to win regional and state spelling bees. She won the Eastern Oklahoma State Spelling Bee as a fifth-grader, sixth-grader and eighth-grader. She placed second in seventh grade. She also has used Braille letters, numbers and phrases to win the Regional Braille Challenge in 2013 and 2015.
The Muskogee eighth-grader now focuses on a whole new set of letters: E-G-B-D-F and F-A-C-E, the lines and spaces of the musical treble clef. Richelle, 14, plays saxophone for the Oklahoma School for the Blind’s jazz band. She first picked up a horn just two years ago when she was in sixth grade. A love of music clicked. Richelle now wants to seek a career in music education or music therapy. Unless, of course, she finds a way to play professionally. She also has used Braille letters, numbers and phrases to win the Regional Braille Challenge.

Richelle Zampella started spelling competitively when she was in the fourth grade. She started winning in the fifth grade. “I went out in the first round my fourth grade year,” she said. “I think a lot of that had to do with nerves. I remember, the word I got was hibachi,” Richelle said, spelling the word out correctly. “I think I misheard the word. I did ask for the language of origin, which was Japanese. But I still fumbled on the word. Once I got home and read the word. I was like ‘oh, I remember that.’ And I was frustrated because I knew all the other words that the other students before me got.”

The next year, as a fifth-grader, she wanted to be ready. “I definitely studied the words a lot more,” she said. “I had my teachers go over them a lot more. A lot of it was committing it to memory.” The spelling list also was a lot harder, she said. “The French words I read over a lot because of the silent letters and strange letter combinations,” she said.

She won that one. She said she was surprised to win, especially after she had gone out early in the fourth grade. She recalled not even being aware at first that she had won. “It kind of hit me a little bit after, after I get down off the stage,” she said. “It doesn’t register just as it happens.”

Richelle recalled really wanting to win this year because it was her last major bee. “I really wanted to concentrate on this one because it would win my school $1,000,” she said.

While competing in area and national spelling bees, Richelle also competed in the National Braille Challenge. The competition tests skills in reading, writing, proofreading and transcribing with the Braille alphabet. Richelle won the Regional Braille Challenge in 2013, the year she won her second Eastern Oklahoma Spelling Bee. She and her younger sister, Katelynn, also managed to be among the 60 finalists to qualify for the National Braille Challenge, held in Los Angeles.

As a result, Richelle got to take two trips. One to Washington, one to Los Angeles. She said the Los Angeles trip was exciting. She recalled attending a banquet and winning second place in her division. “The night after the banquet, we went to Universal Studios. We just kind of looked around. It was night, and there were a lot of people there, and it was lit up,” she said. “And I got to see a palm tree. I had never seen a palm tree, and I wondered what one looked like.”

Richelle said the Braille competition was similar to ones at school. Students competed in reading, charts, graphs, proofreading and transcribing audio files. She said she did not have to prepare as intensely for the Braille Challenge as she had for spelling bees. “It’s something I do pretty much every day,” she said. “It’s basically testing how well we can use our skills. So, I really don’t have to practice any extra.” Richelle was an overall winner at this year’s Regional Braille Challenge, but will not know until May if she qualifies for Nationals. She remains confident.

Richelle discovered her latest love — and a potential career — when she picked up a saxophone in the sixth grade. “I actually didn’t know what I was going to play, but my friend said she was going to play the saxophone and thought I would be real good at it, too,” she said. “So, I took it home and started practicing on it every weekend. I think I knew five notes, and from those five notes, I started playing from songs I heard on the radio and I discovered notes, what they were. I started experimenting.”

This year, as an eighth-grader, Richelle is playing in the OSB high school jazz band. She practices whenever she can. “I absolutely want to play professionally and get into music education,” Richelle said. “Also, most of the people I know don’t listen to jazz and aren’t familiar with it. And I want to show them. I want to help other people find the enjoyment I get from music.” She said she loves listening to jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, as well as contemporary artists such as Candy Dulfer. “They’re able to express their ideas in a way that makes you want to listen to them,” she said. “It’s really liberating and exciting. They are some of the most moving musicians in the world because they can use all their background knowledge on the spot.” Richelle said she had always loved music, but didn’t discover jazz until recently. She said it’s hard to describe why she loves jazz so much. “Everything is happening in the moment,” she said. “It’s like, expressing my emotions.”

HOW DID YOU COME TO BE AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE? “My parents actually came to Muskogee because of me, so I can go to Oklahoma School for the Blind. I was born in Tulsa.”

WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE? “I like that it’s not too big. It’s easy to get around. Every week, I have a class where they teach me mobility. It’s basically independent living. Whenever we go out, we don’t have to worry about too many people out or too much traffic.

WHAT WOULD MAKE MUSKOGEE A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE? “More music stores. We went to Tulsa to get my horn. And maybe more places to hear music. The only jazz band I’ve heard live was in my school, and I’m in it.”

WHAT OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE MOST? “The teachers at my school. The classes are really small. So they have more time to explain things. They are always there for me and they want me to do my best.”

WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE? “It definitely would be the spelling bees. My fifth-grade year because that was the first time I ever won the Spelling Bee.”
WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME? “I practice, of course. A lot of friends don’t live here. So I like to talk to them on the weekends on the phone.”

HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR FEWER? “The only place I’ve ever lived, and I wouldn’t want to leave here.”