Colleen Phillips asked for forgiveness as she prepared to sing with the Lane Middle School mariachi band as it rehearsed “De Colores” for a December concert.
She might mispronounce the Spanish lyrics, she warned eighth grader Sofia Alvarez, whose family is Mexican.
Meanwhile, the students worked to master musical notes they don't typically encounter in concert or jazz band, such as G sharp.
“You're more likely to see an A flat than a G sharp, right?” said Phillips, band and orchestra teacher. “You are playing notes that are very uncommon for us.”
Lane's mariachi program began in fall 2019 but only had months to develop before COVID-19 forced it into hiatus. It is not only the first of its kind in Fort Wayne, Phillips said, but also one of the first in northern Indiana.
The effects of teaching the traditional Mexican music could go beyond her Fort Wayne Community Schools classroom. Although not everybody in the after-school group is Hispanic, she said, the band gives a voice to that culture.
The Hispanic population at Lane has grown to 22% of the student body as of last academic year from less than 5% in 2005-06. Districtwide, the population has grown to almost 20% from 10% during the same period, according to state data.
“It really gives students an identity and something to be proud of,” Phillips said of the mariachi program.
That's what got eighth grader David Ramos interested. He's not a music student, but Ramos said he wanted to do something traditional involving his Mexican heritage.
Alvarez shared similar reasons, saying she wanted to learn more about the music genre.
Jason Brown, an eighth grader with clarinet experience, is branching out to the string family through the mariachi band.
“I've only been playing about two weeks,” he said in late October, noting the opportunity to learn about another culture appealed to him.
Phillips said such lessons can lead to better relationships.
“If you understand someone's culture, you understand them a lot better,” Phillips said. “If you understand someone's music, you can have an appreciation for stuff. It breaks down a lot of barriers.”
Delayed by virus
With a trumpet in her left hand, Phillips raised her right hand and snapped her fingers as about a dozen band members prepared to try “De Colores” again.
“I'm not expecting perfection,” Phillips said. “I just want to try.”
Lane's mariachi program was only months old when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools in March 2020, she said. Music programs, in general, were affected by continued restrictions.
“Last year, nothing happened,” Phillips said. “We weren't even allowed to have after-school activities. There was no jazz band. There was no mariachi. There was barely our daytime ensembles.”
A colleague in Ligonier is in a similar situation.
Shaina Liv Lescano of West Noble Middle School said COVID-19 ruined plans to start a mariachi club in the 2019-20 academic year. It finally launched this year with about 10 students – a number that fluctuates because of sports, the orchestra director said.
Like the program at Lane, West Noble's group meets weekly but limits participation to seventh and eighth graders who are in music classes, Lescano said.
“I kept it that way so that I'm working with students who have some musical knowledge and ensemble experience,” Lescano said by email. “It makes rehearsals a lot easier to focus on ensemble playing, style and mariachi-specific technique.”
Any student can participate at Lane, Phillips said, naming a couple who aren't otherwise involved in the music department.
“We have a lot of students who are learning instruments,” she said, “which I love.”
Lescano knows of only one other mariachi program in Indiana, and that's at an Indianapolis middle school.
But Phillips said such programs are prevalent elsewhere in the United States, particularly the Southwest. A music educator with experience in mariachi programs didn't hesitate to help Phillips with resources to get Lane's program started.
“It was links to all this,” Phillips said, sharing a three-ring binder thick with music and other information. “If we were a legit program, this is how I could go for it.”
Steve Corona, a FWCS board member, has seen the strength of school mariachi programs while attending conferences in the South and Southwest. He told Phillips at a September board meeting he's excited she's brought the music to district students.
“It really spoke to me that it brought together band, orchestra and choir,” Phillips said, noting she was involved in all three as a Northrop High School student. “I love how it blends them together.”
Phillips said she would welcome help from adults who play mariachi music in the community.
Along with encouragement through social media from mariachi educators, Lescano is leaning on books, including “Mariachi Mastery,” as she begins West Noble's program. She hopes to expand the repertoire so she can dive into mariachi standards.
Lescano noted she is Argentine-American but grew up with a Mexican stepfather. It helps to know Spanish so she can help students with pronunciation, she said.
“Mariachi are the storytellers of Mexico,” Lescano said. “Their songs cover topics like love, history, nature, patriotism and life in Mexico. I'm looking forward to pushing students to tell their own stories through mariachi.”