“Like Bread and Butter”: Mariachi Programs Across Conroe ISD Bring Music and Culture to Life – Houston Chronicle | Directory Mayhem

Mariachi music has always been a part of Christian Ponce’s life and now he has made it his career. Ponce has taken the helm of the mariachi group at Woodlands High School, an opportunity he says he enjoys.

“I grew up in a Mexican household, so this music is a bit like bread and butter to me. I used to listen to this music growing up, my parents used to play it on the weekends while they were cleaning or cooking,” Ponce said. “It’s always stuck in my mind and I’ve always wanted to be a part of that world and luckily this is where I got the chance and I jumped at it.”

The mariachi program is the second in the Conroe School District after Conroe High School, which began as an after-school program in 2015. Ponce now joins other principals who lead mariachi programs at about 120 public schools in the state, according to the University Interscholastic League, which hosts the state competition for eligible groups.

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The Woodlands program reflects the changing demographics of the community, where Hispanics make up approximately 17 percent of the population, according to the 2020 census. This is an increase from 12.3 percent in 2010.

The school’s orchestra leader, Aaron Michaelson, formed the group last year at the urging of the community and school officials. Not having much experience with mariachi, Michaelson put the program together using YouTube and Google Translate.

Ponce joined The Woodlands this school year and welcomes the opportunity to share a cultural staple he grew up with and right some misunderstandings.

“Growing up in the professional music world, especially the classical world, we got this misconception that mariachi is the group that plays out of tune, they just show up at parties and stuff. But it’s a lot more than that,” Ponce said. “Everything, even what we wear and how we play our instruments, has meaning.”

music and guidance

Ponce wants more schools to start mariachi groups and is proud of the diversity of students he teaches. Students can not only become accomplished mariachi players, but also practice leadership skills.

“My goal with this group is to continue to educate them about the traditions and values ​​of mariachi,” said Ponce. “But also to give — especially some of these older kids — some of these leadership positions where I can say to them, ‘Go teach these newbies the vihuela or the guitar.’ And help educate the next generation of children.”

As more schools across Texas start their own mariachis, he wants his students to set a positive example.
Many of the students in the mariachi group are also in the orchestra, but are learning a new instrument in the new group. Ponce teaches them to play with the confidence a mariachi musician needs.

Monday through Thursday after school, junior Vanessa Tetz plays cello and bass in the Woodlands High School Orchestra. But on Friday, she’s learning to play the Mexican vihuela, a five-string guitar typically played in a mariachi band. She signed up for the mariachi program as soon as she heard about it.

Connect with culture

Tetz’s mother is Mexican and her father is white. She grew up with her mother’s family but said she never felt fully Mexican or fully Caucasian.

“When I found out that there was an opportunity to be part of a mariachi and connect with that part of my culture, I jumped at it,” Tetz said.

Now her grandmother brags to her church members that her granddaughter is in a mariachi group.

When the mariachi program started, it had about 15 students. This year it has doubled its number to over 30 members. While the program receives financial help from the district, it still needs to raise money for instruments and uniforms. The group chose the name Rojo y Verde, red and green, in honor of the school colors.

Anna Stenstrom is a Senior and Student President of the Mariachi Group and has designed her custom shirts. She plays violin for both orchestra and mariachi and appreciates the difference in genres.

“It’s such a contrast to the traditional orchestral music we play. Classic, beautiful, slow,” Stenstrom said. “Then you get the mariachi band out there and everyone’s cheering and it’s a whole different vibe.”

This energy makes performing mariachi one of her favorite parts of the program. She also appreciates that while she’s been using an instrument she’s been playing for about a dozen years, learning a new genre has taught her more about her instrument and about music.

“It’s an adaptation of style. So I feel like even though we play the same instrument, we’re still learning something new,” Stenstrom said.

The program accepts any student who wants to join and is willing to learn, and several members are learning instruments they have never played before. It’s not often that a student finds their instrument in a high school music group for the first time.

“They’ve been playing for several years when they come to me,” said Michaelson, the orchestra’s conductor. “So we refine what’s there, we expand their abilities, we take them on a journey, but we don’t experience those beautiful moments of first realization or first creation. It was really cool for me to see a different side of learning music that we don’t usually work with.”

Last year, as a brand new program, the mariachi group only had a handful of performance opportunities. This year, Michaelson said the goal is to add more performances and possibly even start competing. After performing at a district-wide event over the summer, the group received invitations to perform at other CISD locations this year.

State competition

Before the group begins the competition, Michaelson wants to make sure the students and the program feel safe.

“Competition is a great thing,” Michaelson said. “The problem with that is that it’s not an authentic musical experience if it’s all about competition. Whatever I do, I want to stay true to the music first and then we bring in the competitive elements.”

Mariachi became an official University Interscholastic League event in 2008 as a purely regional event. UIL launched the Mariachi State Festival in 2016 after seeing the program grow and develop. The state festival started as a pilot program until it became a fully sanctioned UIL event in 2019.

“We are seeing growth and development of mariachi activity statewide in our schools, which was part of the intention that we sanction mariachi,” said Bradley Kent, UIL’s music director.

Pilot programs like the ones Kent described are not part of the rules and are more of a test drive. Many of the UIL activities start out as pilot projects until the organization is satisfied that it will be a successful event with significant participation.

When the UIL mariachi pilot program began, approximately 80 high schools in Texas had mariachi programs. According to the UIL, around 120 schools now have mariachi programs.

Beginning in senior year, only teams competing in regional competitions in the traditional mariachi category will advance to state competition if they qualify, but experimental teams can still compete in regional competitions. Keeping the experimental option allows growing teams to participate even if they don’t follow the rules of a traditional team.

“We believe it will continue to grow,” Kent said. “Mariachi music is important to the lives of so many children in our state. It’s part of the culture of many of our students, their family culture, their family history. We are seeing more and more schools starting mariachi programs.”

Regional mariachi competitions for this school year begin in January in most regional areas. The festival begins on February 24th.

“Almost like a dream”

The district’s first mariachi class began five years ago at Conroe High School. Last school year, the campus had 2,573 Hispanic students, more than double that number of white students, and almost five times that number of black students, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“They need that because it’s part of their culture, part of their heritage,” said William Cordova, associate orchestra leader and senior mariachi director at Conroe High. “The fact that we were able to deliver it first and it’s still alive is really a joy.”

The group started there as an after-school program where students would meet after school when they could and didn’t have many of the necessary tools.

“They didn’t have a guitarrón player, they had a couple of trumpeters, they had a fiddle player or two, and then of course singers,” Cordova said.

The year Cordova began, the 2017-2018 school year, mariachi was made a class of its own as well as an extracurricular class. Currently, the program has 35 students, including four trumpeters, 12 violin and viola players, four guitarrón players, and 15 guitar and vihuela players. When Cordova started, there were only seven students in the program.

Cordova studied violin in college but took mariachi classes for fun. Being able to teach both mariachi and orchestra was never something he expected until the position in CISD became vacant and the district was specifically looking for someone with mariachi experience.

“It’s almost like a dream for me,” Cordova said of the opportunity to teach mariachi. “It’s so much fun to stand in front of these kids every day and show them the culture that I know a lot of them inherit from their parents. A lot of them get these songs, these traditions passed down from their families, but they have no other way to express it than through this ensemble.”

musical heritage

Brayan (yes, that’s how it’s spelled, with two a’s) Carbajal is a junior at Conroe High School who joined mariachi this year as a viola player. He’s in the orchestra too, so he’s part of the after-school mariachi.

Raised in Mexican communities, Carbajal says mariachi music was an integral part of his childhood. That’s one of the reasons he joined the program.

“I love music, I’m Mexican, so I love my culture, so I thought wouldn’t it be nice to join something that combines the two,” Carbajal said.

His family is proud that he is in mariachi, he said, and keeps their culture alive. His mother recognizes some of the songs he learns from growing up on mariachi. One day, Carbajal said, he wants to inspire others to join mariachi.

Before joining, Carbajal said he was beginning to feel disconnected from his culture, but joining mariachi helped him fall in love with the music and its heritage. One thing he discovered is that mariachi requires a lot of preparation and has a lot of meaning.

“With genre, there’s a whole look at how you should present yourself, how you should sound, how consistent you should look,” Carbajal said. “Everyone there should look like they’re there for a reason and playing from the heart.”

jamie.swinnerton@chron.com

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