Mariachi music is undoubtedly tied to Latino culture, but it’s a style of music meant to transcend heritage and appeal to many. Performances are an intimate experience between the musicians and the crowd. The infectious, powerful rhythms of the guitarrón weave against the violin’s melancholia. Trumpets burst with sound and seize the moment, as strong, forceful vocals cry out, releasing passion in the harmonies. Mariachi music tells a story through the tone and style in which it is played.
Since the fall of 2015, the sweet sounds of mariachi can be heard coming from room 293 in the Arts Building every Friday. The music course Mariachi Ensemble is offered at MSU Denver for academic credit. The diverse music offered in this course expands beyond the classroom by being applicable in the real world.
Prior to the existence of the course, students had the opportunity to join the club Mariachi Los Correcaminos, but it wasn’t enough education for the dedicated few in the group.
Through the persistence of former club president and music education major Isahar Mendez-Flores, MSU Denver created this course. “The Mariachi Ensemble is an amazing opportunity for students of all backgrounds to be introduced to and play authentic Mexican music,” Mendez-Flores said.
The real reward for the students is being connected to something that keeps the Latino culture alive. “It’s a huge step forward to preserving the musical culture,” Mendez-Flores said, “and that in itself is very important to me.” Students strive to perfect the iconic mariachi sound by learning its unique style. For many of the students, earning academic credit is a bonus.
Miles Justice, vocalist and guitarrón player, found his true passion playing mariachi music. “Having a mariachi class being provided by Metro is a big step for the university. It’s been a pleasure seeing all the hard work that Isahar Mendez- Flores has been doing to get the mariachi program at the school where it is today,” Justice said. Students like Justice hope Mariachi Ensemble becomes “the best academic mariachi [class] in the nation.”
Bringing mariachi education to students at the university level persuaded musicology professor Lorenzo Trujillo to take on the position. Trujillo is a purveyor of the arts and has worked tirelessly throughout his career to promote and be a part of the mariachi culture, as a means of keeping kids in school.
Mariachi Ensemble equips students with diverse music abilities beyond the traditional music majors.
More than half of the students in the class are earning a degree pertaining to music, like music education major Benjamin Kellogg. Kellogg is using this class to expand his music skills beyond his extra-curricular involvement with Mariachi Los Correcaminos. He plans on using his mariachi abilities to help him teach in the classroom.
Trujillo said mariachi teachers are in high demand. “I’ve actually got calls from schools because they can’t find mariachi teachers,” Trujillo said. Trujillo is sharing his experience and extensive mariachi knowledge with students, in hopes of keeping the culture alive for younger generations.
Giving students the opportunity to take Mariachi Ensemble also supports MSU Denver’s HSI Initiative. This plan, created in 2007 with the goal of becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution, promotes Hispanic enrollment and caters to MSU Denver’s existing hispanic demographic.
“I feel the mariachi class adds an opportunity for an authentic, unique cultural experience that reflects the diversity and population of our campus,” Kellogg said.
Most students trained in jazz and classical composition find the switch to mariachi difficult because the style is performed with no sheet music, all members must sing and there is improvisation. “It’s impossible,” joked Jorge Dominguez, an audio engineer and music business major at CU Denver and member of the class. Dominguez describes mariachi as more rhythmically challenged and heavily syncopated than other styles of music he is used to, but the music is worth the effort, he said.
The dedication to the style and the level of musicianship it takes to play mariachi are defining elements of this class. Trujillo expects a lot from his students and eventually wants them to compete in mariachi events. Till then, the mariachi sharpens their skills in the classroom, getting ready for their performance in December.