Mariachi Is Inspiring a Revolution in Music Education
Acoustic guitars are flying off the shelves at Iowa-based West Music, one of the country’s largest and oldest distributors of instruments for schools and school districts. Not just any acoustic guitars, but Spanish classical guitars and guitars with exotic names and unique sounds—like the oversized, bulbous bass guitarrón and the tenor vihuela Mexicana—packed up and shipped off in droves to schools across the United States—East, West, and Central.
“It is really starting to blossom. There are mariachi programs everywhere,” says Lauren Calkin, director of customer relations at West Music Mariachi, who sees what educators across the country also report—mariachi programs have increased engagement among all students. Mariachi, the beloved folk music of Mexico, is just plain fun to play, hear, and see, with its high-style charro (cowboy) outfits and acoustic wall of sound, punctuated by trumpet and full-on vocals.
For a new generation of Latino students, mariachi is a direct connection to their heritage, music their parents and grandparents grew up with. “Kids are excited about going to school; graduation rates are going up. Parents are more involved, the community is involved,” says Calkin. “Mariachi instills a sense of pride.”
In a revolution of sound and spirit, mariachi has single-handedly boosted acoustic guitar sales—at least 20 percent at West Music, the company reports—by redefining both American music education and American music culture.
In school districts across the country—from California to New York; Chicago to Houston; small-town Denison, Iowa, to Oklahoma City, Tucson, and Las Vegas—mariachi has become a standards-based mainstay, joining traditional offerings like band and orchestra.
Its rise was initially due to the realities and challenges of addressing the demographic changes in American society. According to US Census data, the Latino population has doubled over the past decade, reaching 17 percent of the population and on track to rise to 31 percent over the next five decades.
But it wasn’t just the Latino population as a whole that made educators sit up and take notice: According to Pew Research, the Latino population is the youngest ethnic group in the nation: one in five schoolchildren is of Latino origin and two-thirds of them are of Mexican descent.
In 2002, Marcia M. Neel, then supervisor of the Secondary Music Education Program for the Clark County (Nevada) School District—which is the fifth-largest district in the nation and includes Las Vegas and environs—helped launch the district’s Mariachi Program, which today provides more than 5,000 students daily mariachi instruction led by upwards of 30 full-time teachers.
Neel’s spot-on reaction to a US trend seen more clearly in heavily Latino Nevada was visionary, for as mariachi settled into the curriculum there and elsewhere across the nation, demographic projections took a back seat to artistry.
Neel went on to found Music Education Consultants, which promotes mariachi through the National Mariachi Workshops for Educators. It was at a Las Vegas workshop that West Music President & CEO Robin Walenta was first introduced to mariachi. “I was in awe,” she said of the music and the enthusiasm of those attending. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to get involved.’”
Shortly after, Walenta began offering scholarships to the workshops for funds-strapped music teachers, and the company also carries a line of mariachi instruments designed by Jose Hernandez, a consultant with Neel’s organization. One of the true stars of mariachi, Hernandez is a composer, conductor, and player who founded Mariachi Sol de México and also America’s first all-female professional mariachi group, Reyna de Los Angeles.
Out of the Shadows
No longer an exotic outlier, mariachi today speaks to what all musical performance seeks to engender, in the schools and beyond: joy through musicianship, for players and audience.
“We are taking mariachi to its aesthetic heights,” says Daniel Sheehy of both the rise of mariachi in the schools and the growing appreciation of the music itself.
If anyone can speak to the musical and cultural artistry of mariachi, it’s Sheehy, director and curator of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and author of Mariachi Music in America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Oxford University Press). Under his leadership, the center has published more than 200 recordings and won five Grammy awards, including a Latin Grammy in 2009 for the album Amor, Dolor y Lágrimas: Música Ranchera (Love, Pain, and Tears) from Nati Cano’s ensemble, Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.
Cano, a vihuela player who died in 2014, is one of America’s most respected mariachis, known for his work to preserve mariachi culture and a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship of the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest honor in traditional arts. He also worked with Linda Ronstadt on her Canciones de Mi Padre, released in 1987 and still the biggest-selling, non-English album in US record history. “He was key to the mariachi movement in the United States,” says Sheehy, who speaks reverently of Cano’s memory and artistry.
“Something really beautiful was being excluded,” Sheehy adds of the days when mariachi was maligned as nothing more than bar music, and artists like Cano were victims of discrimination—bars often posted signs that advised “No dogs, no mariachis”—which rose in part, in Sheehy’s estimation, from a perception that mariachi was associated with the Chicano civil rights movement of the ’60s.
A trumpeter, Sheehy himself is a long-time mariachi. He founded Washington, D.C.’s first and still-performing mariachi group in 1979, Mariachi Los Amigos. He began his lifelong advocacy while studying at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he received his doctorate in enthnomusicology. Sheehy was asked by a student-based mariachi band to replace its departing trumpeter, Howard E. Scott, who was leaving to help found the iconic funk band War.
“Mariachi is straightforward music,” says Sheehy. “It is what it is. If it’s about sad emotions, it’s sad. If it’s happy, it’s happy. From that point of view, mariachi is honest music. It speaks to people; there’s not a lot of b.s.”
Teaching the Teachers
Mariachi in the schools is not new, nor is the emphasis on mariachi education. The country as a whole has simply caught up with the times and the population, beyond where the music was already ingrained—the American Southwest and Southern California.
Twelve years ago, Jeff Nevin, trumpeter, composer, and author of Virtuoso Mariachi and the Mariachi Mastery sheet music series, founded the world’s first mariachi degree program at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, where he is a professor of music and director of Mariachi Activities.
A youth mariachi in high school, Nevin is one of the country’s leading advocates of mariachi education (as well as an active player and leader of San Diego’s Mariachi Champaña Nevin). The degree was a solution for what he saw as a critical need: incentive for high school mariachis to continue on to college. And it serves, too, as a way to take these students the next step further: with the two-year Southwestern degree in hand, moving on to a four-year institution to study music.
A dozen years later, in the summer of 2016, Texas State University in San Marcos near Austin became one of the first universities to offer both a master’s degree and a minor in mariachi education as part of its Latin Music Studies.
“We have a saying in Texas,” says John Lopez, founder and coordinator of TSU’s Latin Music program. “Mariachi music was here before Texas became part of the United States. We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
For Lopez, the growing recognition of mariachi’s musicality and its cultural importance translates directly into what he sought to accomplish when he arrived at the university: establish a degree pathway for aspiring mariachis. Along the way, Lopez also recognized the need—as have other educators, including Nevin and Clark County’s Neel—to “teach teachers how to teach” authentic mariachi music.
“I wanted to build an academic structure deeply rooted within the institution,” says Lopez.
The work of creating the two degrees took time and also the effort to maneuver the academic system, but the numbers and the desire for the degrees were evident. “By 2013, [mariachi] had gotten so big, it justified perseverance,” says Lopez, adding that the growing interest in mariachi also brought into focus “the need to teach teachers to be better teachers. We needed to morph the degree for people who are already teaching.”
To that end, Lopez also created the means for non-academically-trained teachers to earn a state-sanctioned certificate. The certificate requires fewer academic classes, but offers a full complement of performance instruction. “We’re training people to understand the stylistic differences of mariachi,” which, Lopez says, “requires, like jazz, interpretation.
“You have to know the sound of mariachi, it has to be ‘in your ear.’ A teacher has to model the sound for students. And to do that, [he or she] has to know that sound, has to have that sound in them.”
Making a Deep Connection
Nearly 32 percent of the population of metropolitan Chicago is Latino—in overall numbers, second only to Los Angeles—and 90 percent of that total is of Mexican descent, notes Cesar Maldonado, who launched the Mariachi Heritage Foundation two years ago as a means for bringing mariachi instructors and instruments into the city’s public schools.
A Chicago native and son of Mexican immigrants, Maldonado is a successful investment banker and established the foundation in part as a means to give back to his community. But more to his point and the foundation’s mission, Maldonado is hoping the classes, certified by the Chicago Board of Education in January 2013, will help connect young Latino students to their culture and to the larger community.
“Mariachi is a connection you can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “We want students to feel good about themselves. When they feel good, when they have pride and self-esteem, they learn.
“Discipline is everything in mariachi,” says Maldonado. “We treat the kids like pros. They know they get what they earn.”
Currently serving nearly 1,800 Chicago students, the 60-minute classes are held twice a week and are led by the foundation’s roster of mariachi professionals, including musical director Roberto Martinez, a vihuela player who for 32 years was a member of Mariachi Cobre.
Classes are an integrated part of the curriculum and meet Illinois music and arts standards. And while the formally structured classes are tied to national Common Core standards, Maldonado has added a specific focus: literacy, “reading, writing, critical thinking.”
“My parents didn’t speak English, and it made them feel inferior to the system,” Maldonado says, noting that many of the new generation of students in Chicago schools live in similar households. “Mexican youth face an achievement gap because of language.”
Looking ahead, Maldonado expects that within ten years, students from the foundation’s classes “will be in some of the best university and colleges. Opportunities are going to open up because of mariachi.”
For now, he’s excited about the latest opportunity for his young mariachis, a fundraising project sponsored by Pepsi—an album produced by mariachi idol Jose Hernandez.
How to play the Mariachi guitar
Angel Humberto Duran grew up in Nogales, Arizona, a small city that shares the US–Mexico border with its much larger neighbor, Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora. Along with many of his friends and classmates, Duran played mariachi—and he still does. But today Duran is also studying classical guitar at the renowned Bolton Guitar Studies program at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
“Mariachi was originally folk music,” says Duran, a junior. “It was never education-based. It was people just trying to make music.”
Now, young music students like Duran are wondering if mariachi really is just folk music. “We have people like Jose Hernandez, a master in composition and arrangement,” Duran says of the long-honored, Grammy-nominated founder of Mariachi Sol de México. “When you hear his arrangements, they sound so modern . . . [and] he incorporates classical music.
“Mariachi has definitely changed,” says Duran. “It has become more pedagogical, and that’s a great thing. It’s keeping the music alive.”
Interested in giving mariachi a try? Duran has a few tips—beginning with the caveat: “People tend to underestimate mariachi, like it’s an easy style. To the contrary.”
Do not practice on an expensive guitar
The mariachi guitar plays a percussive role in the ensemble, much like the rhythm section in a jazz band, notes Duran. And, because a typical ensemble features a blaring trumpet, high-energy violins, and full-on vocals, guitars are played vigorously and as loud as acoustically possible. If you’re playing correctly, “it’s almost like you’re beating up the guitar, and you are,” he says. “You can easily put a hole in it.” Pickguards are a necessity for the serious mariachi. Also note: Mariachi guitars are played with a pick.
Know your instruments
The oversized, rounded guitarrón is the “heart of mariachi,” says Duran. “Without it, no group.” The vihuela mexicana, with five strings, is an octave higher than a guitar.
Don’t think you can sight read and come out swinging
Mariachi scores “look like a bunch of rhythms, almost like drum music,” says Duran. And unless you’ve listened intently to the pros, you won’t be able to differentiate between the notes as written and how they’re actually played. Sixteenth notes, for instance: They can be either “dragged or rushed,” says Duran, depending on the song, and are sometimes played interchangeably in the same tune.
Listen, listen, listen
In the past, listening was the only way to learn mariachi—and Duran urges any newcomer to listen to Jose Hernandez and also Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán before taking the mariachi plunge. An ensemble founded in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas, Mariachi Vargas is globally celebrated not only for its artistry but also as the keeper of the genre’s musical roots.
“Listening to Mariachi Vargas is a standard for anyone playing mariachi,” says Duran.
Dissect the music, watch the players on YouTube, “especially for the strumming patterns,” he advises. “Get together with someone to figure out rhythms. And listen to the guitarrón. It’s your guide.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. A previous edition mentioned that Jeff Nevin’s success stories included a young violinist who went on to attend Harvard University, where she founded the school’s first and ongoing group, Mariachi Veritas de Harvard. That young violinist, Claudia Garcia, did not study with Nevin until after she graduated from Harvard.