Making their community debut on Tuesday evening, May 4, at the annual Spring West Liberty High School Band & Choir concert, Los Cometas Mariachi may be a springboard for Latino-inspired music in the community among the community’s younger generations.
West Liberty High School's first mariachi band got inspiration last week from Cielito Lindo, a family Marianchi band from the Chicago area.
The West Liberty ensemble, composed of 16 students, was founded in January 2021 with funding from a Racial Justice Fund grant awarded by the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine.
"Music education is a critical part of any public school system," said Ashley Smith, director of bands at West Liberty High School. "However, most school ensembles, like concert bands, orchestras, and jazz bands, reflect the musical heritage of Western Europe and the United States. In a community and a district where many families come from Latin American countries, I felt it was important to make sure the musical opportunities we provide reflect the diversity of our students."
Smith said the idea to start a mariachi program with grant funds began last summer in a conversation with Ed Moreno, president of West Liberty’s Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 310. He suggested completing the grant application for the Racial Justice Fund.
When writing the application, Smith said she spoke with other Midwestern band directors who had started Mariachi programs at their own schools. "I had a few great conversations with Randy Newell, a band director at Denison, Iowa, who started a mariachi program there in 2010," said Smith.
"Before Denison's Mariachi program was created, the percentage of Hispanic students in the Denison High School marching band was less than half of the Hispanic percentage of the total student population,” Smith said. “Following the formation of the mariachi program, the racial percentage of Hispanic students in the marching band increased rapidly as more Latino families became involved in the school music program. By this year, the racial demographic of the high school music program is reflective of the student body population as a whole."
Smith said she is hoping to see similar results following the implementation of a Mariachi program at West Liberty. "By using a mariachi ensemble as a tool for outreach, recruitment, and retention, we hope to bring the racial diversity of the high school music program into alignment with the diversity of the student population," she said.
Smith received notice in November 2020 that the grant proposal had been accepted, and the district received $7,550 to begin Los Cometas Mariachi. She ordered instruments through local music retailer West Music, and by January, deliveries of violins, guitars, vihuelas, trumpets, and a guitarron began to arrive.
The ensemble currently has five violin students including eighth grader Celeste Vargas, freshmen Jose Camarena and Dominic Hernandez and sophomores Ashley Barahona and Beatrice Goldberry. There are also six trumpet students including eighth grader Zair Calderon, freshman Isaac Hernandez, sophomores Tye Miller, Caylee Oaks, Karla Velasco and junior Neddie Sasmazer.
The Mariachi band also includes two students each on guitar, sophomore Mason Benedict and junior Victor Romero as well as another pair on vihuela, juniors Leo Garcia and Reynolds Heath, as well as junior Daniel Zeman guitarron.
Instruction on the string instruments is provided by instructors hired from the local community who come to rehearsals to work with the students. They include Rachel Stultz as the violin instructor who also has a role as a band parent, substitute teacher in the district, who has degrees in violin/world music.
Sr. Guillermo Najarro also helps with violin instruction, and is a graduate student at University of Iowa in music education, who has played violin in music theatre pit orchestra at West Liberty.
Sr. Eugenio Solis is the instructor for guitar, vihuela and guitarron. The West Liberty resident teaches string lessons and has played in a mariachi for many years.
Smith is the instructor for the trumpet players while also teaching singing, something the entire ensemble needs to learn as part of the band.
Smith explained that every Friday, the band begins rehearsal in separate groups by instruments – the trumpets together, the violins together, and the harmonic instruments together. “We work on individual technique for about 45 minutes, and then play together at the end of the rehearsal for about 15 minutes," said Smith.
The director hopes to see the program grow in future years. "The mission statement of Los Cometas Mariachi is 'Empowering youth, building community, and teaching culture through authentic music education.' and I hope to bring that to as many students and audiences as possible," she said.
She said interest has always been high for the band, even during the pandemic. “We have kept our rehearsals short and socially distanced. I look forward to expanding the program with more rehearsal time and more performances next year,” Smith said.
"Once we are able to safely reduce the precautions we've had to take for COVID-19, I look forward to being able to take the students to perform in more places, to have more interactive rehearsals, and to work with more community musicians," she said, noting one of the goals is to be able to perform in September at the Latino and Children’s Festival.
“Students already know how to read sheet music, which is helpful, but the technique of playing each instrument is brand new to them,” Smith said of the change. “We had to start with learning just three notes, like beginners, and gradually each week we learn more and more. The song we are performing at our concert, ‘De Colores,’ is the first "real" song we have learned.” The students are still beginners and Smith said it can take up to a year to “gain proficiency on a new instrument.”