This spring, UM-Flint Music Department Chair Brian DiBlassio, presented a unique opportunity to some of his students: to expand their repertoires by learning to play mariachi music. The offer arose out of a need for music to complement the existing dance programs of El Ballet Folklórico Estudiantil, a local non-profit group focused on teaching traditional Mexican culture and arts.
Their experiences so far have been much more than learning a new style of play. They have been learning new instruments, new ways to interact with their audience, and also to teach mariachi to others. They have performed in schools, at the grand opening of the Flint Farmer’s Market, and at the Flint Hispanic Tech Center. At the end of June they traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, to participate in a conference workshop on mariachi for music educators.
Sue Quintanilla, Director of the group, is passionate about ensuring that Hispanic culture is represented in positive and accessible ways, “Without programs such as ours, Hispanic youth are overlooked and their vibrant, cultural heritage is ignored. When youth are taught methods for positive expression through the arts, and shown that their heritage has value, their self-esteem is elevated. The results are positive role models and active citizens of our community.”
Nathan Cross, one of the UM-Flint students, is excited about the experience. Beyond the fun of playing new music, he discussed the value of learning teaching and rehearsal skills, gaining cultural knowledge, and getting to better know his fellow musicians. When asked to discuss the experience, he said, “I learn more about mariachi music at every rehearsal. With classical music, there is a certain formality and etiquette when attending a performance. Mariachi music is much more relaxed and personal. Our audience typically sings and dances along with us. This style of music also embodies the community and that is what is wonderful about it.” He found particular value in attending the Las Vegas conference. “We learned beginning methods for playing every instrument in the typical mariachi ensemble. The instructors worked closely with each participant to ensure we were playing in the traditional style and using the proper technique. I took this opportunity to talk to other educators who attended the conference. There were teachers from all around the US, so this was an excellent chance to start building a network.”
Another of the students, Kaleigh Taylor, describes being both surprised and intrigued at the possibility of playing in a mariachi ensemble. “Never in a million years I would have expected to, but it has turned out to be a wonderful decision. Having been a classical musician for the past 13 years of my life, mariachi has added a whole new dimension to my musical world. It has taught me to come out of my ‘musical shell’ a bit.” She also found the Las Vegas trip to be “an amazing experience all around.” All participants of the conference experimented with several instruments, learning the basics of each. “I, myself, chose guitar and vihuela (a small, stringed instrument similar to guitar that’s indigenous to Mexico). I had so much fun learning the vihuela that I came home with one! There was just something about it that clicked and I decided to buy one and start learning it. The instructors were all outstanding musicians and it was evident their love for mariachi. Watching all of them perform together really inspired me and I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity to become involved in all of this.” In addition to her new instrument, Kaleigh has gained lesson students and is also assisting in teaching a beginner mariachi ensemble.
Desmond Sheppard echoed his classmates’ feelings on the value of learning mariachi and the experience of the educators’ conference. He has also found great pleasure in the outreach opportunities he’s been afforded, “At present I teach guitarron, piano, and ensemble work for El Ballet Folklórico Estudiantil. The ability to demonstrate not only the joy of music (which is so evident whenever the kids grab their instruments and play through a song or an exercise that they’ve really worked at) but also the culture of a people who are ever more becoming a large part of the modern face of the US is, well, amazing to me.” The lessons learned at the conference are already paying off when it comes to his teaching, “The seminar in Vegas, if nothing else… empowered me to improve my own skills for the sake of the students that I teach and for the appropriate representation of the culture that the music comes from.”
Even as the students are grateful for the experience of expanding their musical, teaching, and outreach horizons, Sue Quintanilla is equally grateful for their participation, which has allowed her programs to expand. Through their efforts and the financial support of the Ruth Mott Foundation and the Stella & Frederick Loeb Charitable Trust, El Ballet Folklórico Estudiantil will continue to teach cultural awareness and enrich lives across the state.