Students in a unique mariachi music program of the Clark County School district have attracted the national attention of the American String Teachers Association. It's trying to broaden its musical repertoire so it invited the students to open its National Conference last weekend in Reno. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: Between Mariachi music classes at Rancho High School, the students erupt into what seems like a celebration. It's nearly impossible to wrench the instruments from their hands and none of them want to leave.
CADENA: Take your instruments, where are we going.
PLASKON: Mr. Gabriel Cadena usually lets them play as much as possible, but this day is different. He has to move them to the auditorium.
CADENA: Today's hectic day, first time any of us have taken any trip like this, the way this group's about to go so we have to make sure everything is right. Perfect.
PLASKON: Cadena is the 6th period mariachi band teacher. He says when it's time to discuss music history and theory; the students do reluctantly put down their instruments. But the discussion on this day wasn't about music, it was about being on a plane. Many of them have never flown before and their next gig was hundreds of miles away: The American String Teachers Association National Conference in Reno. In the auditorium Mr. Cadena gets them ready.
CADENA: Okay, lets play one song, what song do you want to play? Get your trumpet please. Here we go, you are on stage, Juans up at the front and who else, okay, one time one song, you are up on the stage in Reno.
SONG UP AND UNDER:
PLASKON: This is one song of an hours worth of repertoire the Mariachi hand planned to perform, opening for the national conference in Reno.
CADENA: Is this how we are going to perform tomorrow?
PLASKON: Mariachi violinist Dianna Godinez is no stranger to publicity. She's known in Mexico, because Las Vegas Spanish language networks often film her and send the tape to air on Mexican news stations.
GODINEZ: Ya in Mexico everybody knows that I play the violin. I come out on TV. Sometimes I come out like on the Spanish channel. They record and send it to Mexico and then they see it.
PLASKON: She says her family is really proud. They attend all her performances and take pictures.
SANJUAN: This is just what I do. I learned this I don't think it's right though."
PLASKON: Juan Sanjuan is the front man for the band. He plays the guitaron - a giant guitar.
SANJUAN: It is not boring like all the other classes. We only have three or four written assignments.
SOUND: Music under and out.
PLASKON: There is a curriculum for the Mariachi music program, its not just about how to play an instrument. And that's what makes this program unique. Most school districts in Arizona, Texas and California have part-time and after school Mariachi programs. But according to the American String Teachers Association Clark County is the only school district in the nation to have a full-time Mariachi music program, taught by accredited teachers. Javier Trujillo developed it.
TRUJILLO: The history of the region, where the song came from, the composer so we try to integrate some history, even math, the kids have to learn to count whole notes, half notes eight notes, In terms of writing, many of the teachers assign essays for the students, write an essay on this composer, do some research, get on the internet and write a quick biography of this composer so we are trying to bring into the music classroom many of the skills that they are learning in other classes.
PLASKON: It's a giant leap from what is offered in most communities around the nation says Trujillo. In most communities teaching mariachi culture is still just like when he learned at the age of 7. His parents put him in a band called Los Changitos Feos, or the ugly little monkeys. Because of that experience he can make a greater impact today he says.
TRUJILLO: We are impacting over 1,00 students as we speak. Then when I was in Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos in the 80's was a group that had 16 members and so today we are talking about 1,200 students in 10 schools.
PLASKON: The Clark County School District Program is extremely popular. It's grown to more than 10 schools in 3 years and is offered during 5 full periods at 6 of those schools. Next year Rancho High is expanding to run a Mariachi class each period too and Trujillo is requesting funding to double Mariachi program teaching staff.
SOUND: Rancho's auditorium
PLASKON: Back at the Rancho High School auditorium Principle Robert Chesto admires the Mariachi students who are about to leave to perform in Reno. He says there is no doubt in his mind that the program has encouraged these students to raise their grades more than 100 percent.
CHESTO: When we started this group the students had to have a minimum GPA of 2.0 now we have raised that standard to a 2.5, I think the average for the group is a 3.2 so we set a very high standard for them and we are going to keep it at a 3.0. We spent a tremendous amount of money on them and they are my pride, my heart, my joy.
PLASKON: It's part of a greater shift in after school programs.
SOUND UP AND UNDER: Baile Foclorico
PLASKON: For the first time this year Rancho is offering a Baile Foclorico program, where dancers wear colorful traditional Latin dresses. The idea is to eventually partner the Baile with the mariachi band for performances. Reflecting the culture and language of an increasing number of students says Chesto.
CHESTO: So we watched our theater program continue to diminish so we had a request to have Spanish theater, this year we will produce our first Spanish speaking play and it will be west side story and so we have hundreds of kids applying for a few positions. It's something we have never done in this community before.
PLASKON: He says the tremendous success of these programs is a result of simply listening to what students want. Some of the graduates of the Mariachi program are taking home their new cultural skills, performing in bands outside of school and playing in church and family functions.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR
SOUND: Mariachi Band out.