Mariachi – Yes, It’s Part of the Music Program

by Herman Méndez

One might deem a program as successful when it has been fully embraced by students, school staff, parents and community to the degree that it becomes an integral part of the school curriculum.  Over a number of years now, mariachi music programs in schools have been growing in numbers in the southern and western United States, and have successfully been integrated into their respective schools’ music programs.

I think that successful integration comes about by way of a number of factors, one of which stems around the recognition that a highly involved student makes for a better learner.  Tapping into a student’s personal cultural heritage, or expanding a student’s knowledge of a culture different from their own, not only is a great tool for student engagement, but coupled with stakeholder support, works to help a new program integrate.

For a Hispanic community, in particular one with a strong Mexican cultural heritage, a music program that draws on mariachi music is a great vehicle for expanding a school’s music program offerings, which for many schools has been limited to three programs, i.e. orchestra, band and jazz band. 

It’s been my experience that a collaborative mindset is an effective vehicle in helping with program integration.  Collaboration helps a program take root and become a fundamental part of the overall school program.  Teachers, as research has pointed out, are more effective when not working in isolation.  Coordination regarding the course of study is also best done working as a team, with music teachers determining how, when and what to best teach in the context of broad music program. Working with other teachers not only helps share the workload, it spurs on program integration, and buy-in from those people who help to build it. 

As mentioned earlier, we often see a school present a student with three music program offerings, orchestra, band and jazz ensemble.  The mariachi instructor would do well to look to work with these programs’ respective instructors to recruit students for a mariachi program.  These programs provide a pool of music students to play some of the instruments needed for a mariachi ensemble; violins, trumpets, for example.  Student recruitment may involve a mariachi performance assembly, for prospective students, by an established student group or a local community ensemble.  It is indeed very impressive to not only hear, but to see a Mariachi in full performance attire.

When possible, drawing on students’ family and local mariachi musicians provides a vehicle for parent and community involvement, and supports the mariachi teacher’s instruction.  One should not be afraid to draw on family and community players.  Mariachi after all has a folk origin tradition. Community players are the day-to-day practitioners of the art form and can be a source for student mentorship.  In this setting, the mariachi instructor acts as the conduit for expanding the oral and hands on teaching of mariachi music to more formalized music instruction.  Additionally, the inclusion of mariachi genre in school helps elevate the art form as “legitimate” and on par with other music genres and worthy of study. 

About Herman Méndez: My first exposure to the deep sound of the guitarrón was at our Mexican family fiestas. There was often a musical group performing mariachi music, and the guitarrón served as the bass voice of the ensemble. The bass sound of the guitarrón was responsible for the frequent shifting between the syncopated and on-beat rhythm of the music. In recent years, there has been a great interest in music from around the world and a desire by musicians to explore the use of instruments from a variety of cultures to create new sounds, develop new genres of music, and to celebrate the rich music traditions of other people.

My guitarrón method book will provide the reader with a foundation in the fundamentals of music. The goal is to bridge the gap between playing by ear, which can often be the case with non-traditional western instruments, and playing by reading notated music. Additionally, there is a benefit to standardizing guitarrón performance technique, as it provides for improved performance in the areas of intonation, rhythmic accuracy, and note fingering, for example. Finally, the book can serve to expand the inclusion of the guitarrón’s rich bass voice in other genres of music beyond the mariachi by increasing its access to a broader range of musicians.

Purchase Méndez’s Guitarrón Method Book

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