UpClose: Noe Sanchez

Mike Lawson • Features • October 19, 2006

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Spicing up Music Education through Mariachi

The success of any music education program is predicated upon the ability to capture and retain student interest. The finest educators, most robust budget, and active parental and community support all matter little if the kids, themselves, are unengaged and apathetic. As such, it would behoove any music director to take note of the growth of mariachi programs over the past few years. Offering a different musical aesthetic and lower “price point” than many more traditional school music ensembles, mariachi is resonating with a number of students who perhaps might not otherwise be drawn to music education.

An accomplished mariachi performer in his own right, Noe Sanchez has been teaching mariachi at the Somerset (Texas) Independent School District since 2003 and is presently chairman for MENC’s Mariachi Advisory Council. SBO spoke with Mr. Sanchez about what makes mariachi unique and why it is such a vital component of contemporary music education.


SBO: Mariachi, as part of school music programs, seems to have become a much more high-profle phenomenon in recent years. Do you have any notion how many schools are currently incorporating mariachi into their music curriculum?

Noe Sanchez: Well, according to the Mariachi Connection (www.themariachiconnection. com), which is the largest distributor of mariachi music, uniforms, and equipment, there are over 2,000 mariachi programs throughout the United States.

SBO: That speaks to the music’s popularity, for sure. From your perspective, does it seem as if mariachi is “growing?”

NS: Without a doubt. Mariachi programs are growing everywhere. It seems that wherever there is a Mexican population, many schools in that region are starting to incorporate mariachi into music education.

SBO: One comment I keep hearing repeatedly from directors who start offering mariachi, is that the material really energizes and captures the attention of the students. What do you think is the unique appeal of mariachi?

NS: Many students are not interested in the traditional music settings offered within orchestra, band, or choir, but are interested in mariachi. These kids have musical roots inherited from their families and many of them listen to mariachi at home. Naturally, these students want to learn to play this music – it is part of their culture. When mariachi is offered as a class, not as an after school program, the students feel that their music is accepted – It has been placed at the same level as the other music classes.

SBO: That makes good sense, of course. The obvious expectation would be that mariachi would flourish in the Southwestern United States, but the surprising flipside of that, however, is that I keep hearing of successful mariachi programs far from the border. Are you aware of programs succeeding in other “unexpected” regions of the country?

NS: Sure. Off the top of my head, I know that there are strong programs in Michigan, Washington State, Colorado, Virginia, and Chicago, as well as the likes of Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and of course, Texas.

SBO: How did you, personally, become involved with mariachi?

NS: I fi rst got involved in mariachi as a high school student in Roma, Texas, a border town between Laredo and McAllen. In high school, I belonged to the choir and the director, Jose Flores, decided he wanted to start a mariachi program. I already played trumpet in the band and also played guitar, so it was a good fit.

SBO: When did you fi rst pick up the guitar?

NS: I learned guitar at an early age when I was growing up and started playing it at church. My uncle, Oscar Sanchez, also had started me on piano, so I had a good musical background.

SBO: You continued playing mariachi beyond high school, of course.

NS: I played with a mariachi trio throughout my college years, yes.

SBO: I see. What was that group’s name and what was your role?

NS: The name of the trio was “Trio Los Jinetes” [The Riders Trio] and we were mostly comprised of students from The University of North Texas. I performed the guitar and sang.

SBO: It was while you were at Univ. of North Texas that you really became interested in becoming a mariachi teacher, yourself – correct?

NS: Yes, while there I met my mariachi mentor, Dr. William Gradante, who has fi elded a mariachi program in the Ft. Worth I.S.D. school district for over 25 years. I met Dr. Gradante through one of the violin players in the trio, who had studied under Dr. Gradante while in high school. Dr. Gradante started his program in 1980 after attending the first mariachi conference in San Antonio, Texas in 1979. I was able to observe his classes and then, when I graduated from the University of North Texas (BM-1991; MM-1999), I moved to San Antonio and soon started a mariachi program of my own. I currently teach at Somerset I.S.D. (www.somerset.k12.tx.us) – in a suburb located about 15 miles southwest of San Antonio.

SBO: How did you first secure the position at Somerset? Was it originally with mariachi in mind, specifically, or is that a development that you spearheaded?

NS: Well, Somerset already had a mariachi program, butcould not find a suitable teacher. I knew about the opening because I had been teaching in a neighboring district. Also, my wife worked at Somerset and the administration was interested in hiring me.

SBO: What grades do you currently teach?

NS: I teach mariachi music to students in grades 6-12.

SBO: How did you become chairman for MENC’s Mariachi Advisory Council?

NS: I was recommended and then voted in by the MENC board.

SBO: What is MENC’s stance on mariachi as part of school music programs?

NS: MENC has committed to have a strand of mariachi education within their organization. As you mentioned, I am currently the chairman for the Mariachi Advisory Council and one of the our tasks is to create a national curriculum for mariachi education. MENC will have a membership for mariachi educators and will provide a Web site with information and advice on topics such as starting a mariachi program, teaching resources, et cetera.

SBO: Sounds good. When will this be? Any details – links, e-mails – to pass along?

NS: We are currently still working on our Web site but there is a link at www.menc.org [http://www.menc.org/connect/mariachi/english/main.html].

SBO: Do you feel mariachi is afforded the same degree of respect as “traditional” band and orchestra programs?

NS: I’d say that, at this time, mariachi is getting more respect than it had previously. Schools that have budgeted money into the programs have had the most success. Like band or orchestra, if you provide funding and faculty that knows how to teach the subject, the program should be successful. Some school music programs do seem to be threatened by mariachi programs because they grow very quickly.

SBO: To what do attribute that quick growth? This is revisiting a topic we discussed earlier, but: why are these programs so popular?

NS: Many students are changing and our music is changing, also. The truth is that students are interested in pop music more than classical. Mariachi music is unique because it is folk music from Mexico, but is now highly refined. Students must be classically trained in order to play it with justice.

SBO: Are there specifi c challenges that you feel are unique to teaching mariachi?

NS: Music supervisors should be responsible to provide fi nancial support for these programs. In many cases, teachers don’t plan ahead or don’t anticipate the large enrollment of students into the mariachi program, so their solution is to take away money that was funded for other music programs. Mariachi is unique because the instruments are not as expensive as band or orchestra.

SBO: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about mariachi?

NS: Perhaps the biggest misconception about mariachi is that the musicians don’t know how to read music or play in tune – that any “serious musician” should not be in a mariachi group. This is not true. Most mariachi programs are teaching music fundamentals and correct technique. Many of the students who graduate from these programs go on to study music at the college level. Mariachi music today has changed a lot – especially here in the States. The United States, in fact, leads the way in providing educational workshops and conferences to mariachi students and teachers in the world. Mexico only has one conference in Guadalajara and that began only after they received pressure from many citizens.

SBO: For what reasons do you think band directors or music teachers might want to consider adding mariachi to their programs?

NS: Many band directors would want to incorporate a mariachi program to further community involvement. When I have a mariachi concert, it is packed – standing room only. The entire community comes. Many band directors in the Rio Grande Valley are also the mariachi directors and they have been able to incorporate both programs. As a result, students have improved in their instrument technique. Also, the students love the music. While most band programs play their marching music, Jazz, concert music, et cetera, mariachi music provides a different outlet and connection to pop music culture – although it is Mexican pop (folk) music.

SBO: What do you think the future holds for mariachi music education?

NS: I see more students involved in mariachi music more than ever. I see universities offering degrees and specialization in these programs. The emergence of teaching books and manuals will start happening very soon. I have co-authored Mariachi Mastery with Jeff Nevin, which is the fi rst mariachi method book published by Kjos of San Diego, Calif. With the help of MENC and the Mariachi Advisory Council, I see many more mariachi programs being started throughout the United


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