Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Young mariachis thrive


The gymnasium at Franklin Elementary School sounds like a party.
Behind a thick green curtain covering the stage, the sounds of trumpets, guitars, violins and a chorus of young voices resonate.
A mariachi band is playing, but they’re not wearing sombreros and fancy outfits. They’ve got backpacks filled with books. They wear colorful T-shirts and shorts. They steal each other’s shoes during breaks and the instructors struggle to lasso the young energy.

This is the scene every Tuesday night at the Eastside school, where the Santa Barbara Youth Mariachi group practices.
A year ago, the majority of the 21 students who make up the band had never played an instrument.
Since then, the group has played the Santa Barbara County Bowl and other local venues.
Mariachi, like soccer or baseball, is just one more outlet first-year Franklin Elementary School Principal Casie Killgore says is culturally stimulating and goes a long way to help keep kids out of trouble.
“If it makes a difference in one kid’s life, our group is a success,” she said.
The students in the band are predominantly from Peabody Charter School, where Killgore was the principal last year.
The Mariachi Pantera program, as it was known then, started off at Peabody as a pilot program with a $5,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Mariachi Festival.
With this money, Killgore said she was able to purchase all the instruments needed for 21 students.
With her new post at Franklin and an additional $14,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation, Killgore said she hopes to grow the program, expanding it to all students between the ages of nine and 18 in Santa Barbara. She said private school students are welcome as well and the program is free.
Killgore said it became clear to her a couple of years ago that other outlets needed to be provided for the city’s young people, specifically for the area’s large Hispanic population.
While attending college in Guadalajara, Mexico, Killgore said she became interested in mariachi music.
The idea of offering mariachi to local students became abundantly clear, she said, after one of her former sixth-grade students, Ricardo “Ricky” Juarez, now 15, was arrested and charged with murdering another 15-year-old boy during a 2007 gang brawl.
“It became really clear really quick kids needed other hobbies,” she said.
What mariachi may provide that other musical forms do not is a cultural connection to the students.
While many of the students currently in the band say their favorite musical genre is something other than mariachi, most have grown up hearing mariachi, which originated in Jalisco, Mexico.
Of the 527 students enrolled at Franklin in 2007, 504 were Hispanic, according to the County Education Office.
“[The music] is a culture connection to the families,” Killgore said.
Since Killgore put together the first mariachi band last October, not only have 21 students with no formal training in music become experienced mariachi artists, the students’ self esteem has been boosted, grades have improved, and more importantly, she said she’s seen 100 percent participation from parents in school activities.
“It’s something they believe in,” she said of the parents’ involvement in mariachi.
Nick Coventry, the violin instructor for the mariachi group and an orchestra teacher at Franklin, said the students learn the music very intuitively, since they’ve grown up listening to it.
Coventry, who also teaches private violin lessons, also said the students learn much quicker than others because they are choosing to participate.
“They’re here to play and that’s awesome,” he said. “They really know the music.”
Christopher Alvarado, a sixth grader at Peabody who plays the trumpet, said his favorite part about being in the mariachi band is the concerts.
Christopher, 11, said he also manages to balance playing in a soccer league.
Maria Herrera, a seventh grader at La Colina Junior High, said her favorite part is performing.
“It just feels like we are famous,” she said.
Maria, who plays the guitar, said her mother loves mariachi music and is “really proud.”
David M. Mendoza, the musical director for the group, said the children, who all started in the group before turning 10, have learned quickly, and he hopes more will jump on board.
“It’s just given them another outlet to express themselves, which is what music is all about,” he said. “It just goes to show you’ve got to do it. If you can get these kids to concentrate you can get them to learn pretty much anything.”
Anyone interested in more information about the mariachi group should contact Killgore at the school at 963-4283.

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