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Laurie Niles

Fiesta Mariachi: Keep Exploring!

January 23, 2013 at 6:40 AM

"Always grow, as a musician and as a teacher."

That's a philosophy that the teachers in my Suzuki group (Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena) share for our students and ourselves. Over the weekend we expressed that belief, and expanded our horizons, with a celebration of Mexican mariachi music for about 70 kids, representing 17 studios in the Los Angeles area.

For about two years we'd been planning Fiesta Mariachi: a day with classes in Suzuki repertoire, Mariachi repertoire taught by Mariachi musicians, a Mexican-themed lunch, a concert by a professional Mariachi group, Mariachi dance lessons, and then a big concert with kids and teachers playing with the Mariachi band.

This follows several other events we have presented as a Suzuki group: a Fiddle Fest in 2011 that featured the music of Mark O'Connor's emerging method as well as fiddler Pattie Hopkins; a Tango workshop with music composed by Michael McLean; an Irish music workshop and a Klezmer workshop. They all followed a similar format: playing new repertoire of a particular style, hearing professional musicians play in that style, working with those musicians, learning how to dance to that music, and playing a big, combined concert at the end.

For this particular workshop, I was a member of the planning committee, and for the event, one of three "point persons" for the day. Or as I preferred to be called for the day, "Laurita Rosita Fiesta Mariachi Chiquita"!


The pink dress, borrowed from a student, worked its Mexican magic on me, and I was speaking Spanglish all day.

We began by having our students play their familiar and shared repertoire from Suzuki books, with classes at various levels. Even those adorable beginners had a "Pre-Twinkle" and "Music and Movement" class. Here they are, practicing how to shake maracas so that they can participate in the final concert. They are gathered around teacher Nonie Reesor, who also thought to incorporate a little Spanish counting in there:

More advanced students had learned excerpts three Mariachi tunes: Cielito Lindo (muy popular), El Jarabe Tapatio (which you might recognize as the "Mexican hat dance") and La Culebra ("The Snake"). They worked with a Carlos Samaniego, a violinist from the group, Mariachi Bohemio.


Carlos' story is especially interesting for late starters: Carlos began studying music formally in middle school, with the guitarrón as his first instrument. He switched to violin when he was 14, began taking classical violin lessons and attended LACHSA (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts). After high school, he attended Cal State LA, studying both violin and voice. His Mariachi music has brought him to international folk festivals in both France and Italy, and to various music festivals in the United States, including at the Hollywood Bowl, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Madison Square Garden in New York City, and Radio City Music Hall.

Not bad!

When Mariachi Bohemio played for us, I noticed that every single one of the band members -- which includes three violinists, a trumpeter, guitarrón player and vihuela player -- all SANG. In fact, Carlos was teaching the students to sing as well:

Ay, ay, ay, ay
Canta y no llores
Por que cantando se alegran
Cielito lindo los corazones

Translation (non-literal)

Ay, ay, ay, ay
Sing, don't cry
Because singing makes us happy
My love, my dear friends

The singing style goes between extremes of tender expression and near-bellowing. Sometimes they showcase the ability to sing a note for an extremely long time. (I wonder, was fútbol announcer Andrés Cantor inspired by Mariachi?) But back to Mariachi singing, it's quite powerful and beautiful, when it's loud and long, or when it is soft and heartfelt. Why are we fiddle players so reticent to sing?

For me, one of the funnest parts of this day that I obsessively helped to plan was the part that did not go as planned! Our dance teacher, Marta Navarro, and her husband, were teaching our advanced violin students a dance to El Jarabe Tapatio, when they discovered that they actually did not have the recording they needed! I went running to see if someone else had it -- he didn't. When you are the Pink Muchacha in charge, you'd better come up with something, so I said, "We have no recording, but we have some musicians, willing to play for free."

So my colleague Liz Arbus and I played, while the students danced. It was so fun! At first we just played by ear, then a student found a copy of the extended music for this tune (which has many different musical iterations). My daughter shot just a few seconds of us playing with the dance class:

The dance teachers kept showing step after step, verse after verse. Not everyone could copy this final flourish:


It didn't really matter you couldn't exactly do the dance or play the tune perfectly today -- this day was about stirring the desire to do more later -- to learn more, to try new things. I hope everyone came away a few ideas, musical and cultural, and a little more curiosity and courage about exploring the world around them!

"Always grow," after all.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 23, 2013 at 6:15 PM
Very interesting piece and great pics, especially the one of you getting in touch with your inner Chicana.
From Erin Rushforth
Posted on January 24, 2013 at 2:49 AM
It looks like a great time! I miss you guys.

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