For four weeks in June, 12 middle school students spent 20 hours a week learning the art of mariachi.
This year’s Mariachi Summer Academy drew four times as many students as last year, said Anna Sanchez, Dennis Chavez Elementary music teacher and academy instructor.
“We had a very soft start last year, and took three kids to the (Mariachi Conference),” Sanchez said.
This year, the dozen Belen students will attend the conference, more commonly known as Mariachi Spectacular de Albuquerque, thanks to the support of the Rio Grande Education Collaborative, Sanchez said.
RGEC is paying the $100 per student entry fee, plus providing transportation to the event and back for the performers.
Sanchez said Max Perez, the former Belen Consolidated Schools superintendent, was instrumental in connecting the budding Belen mariachi program with RGEC, which helped purchase instruments.
At last year’s conference, Sanchez and Belen Middle School band instructor, Jeffery Anderson, took three students to the conference — a middle school student and two high school trumpet players.
“We went last year but did not perform as a group. We did play with the large group that took instruction during the conference,” she said.
While there, Anderson learned to play the guitarron — essentially a mariachi bass guitar — and has continued with the instrument, even though he’s the group’s brass specialist.
“He’s the band director so he plays everything, but the guitarron was a new instrument for him,” Sanchez said.
Most of the dozen students going to the conference this year were Sanchez’s students from DCE and she’s known them since kindergarten.
The idea of 20 hours a week of music instruction seemed daunting at first, but once the academy began, things went well.
“They were able to take breaks for the free breakfasts and lunch, get reenergized,” she said. “Then come back together and work.”
Other instructors for the Belen academy included Carolina Gonzales from Atrisco Heritage Academy and Jordyn Montano, with Bosque School.
“Carolina is a high school mariachi instructor. After the first week, she said ‘Wow, you guys are reading music, reading rhythm, matching pitches to sing. I have high school students who can’t do that,’” Sanchez said. “I was so proud. It was very ego boosting for them, such a self esteem boost.”
Learning music has multiple benefits for children, she said, including building muscular movements and fine motor skills.
“It gets a lot of synapses firing, teaches them rigor, determination and discipline,” she said. “We told them to practice every night and they did; every morning they would come in and you’d see growth and renewed interest.
The BMS Mariachi Aguilas de Oro — Eagles of Gold — will be performing in the free Mariachi Showcase Concert on the evening of Friday, July 12, the last night of the conference, at Civic Plaza in Albuquerque.
Sanchez said the exact lineup hasn’t been determined yet, but performances start at 6:30 p.m.
The group will be performing De Colores and Cerca del Mar (Search for the Ocean).
“This is an international conference, with groups from all over the world coming,” she said. “We are so lucky it is right up the road from us. I hope the community can come out and support these students.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.