When they finish performing, even if it was only a rehearsal, children come bounding toward their parents, beaming broadly, with a sparkle in their eyes. “Did you hear me? Did you hear that song we just played?”
“Yes, we heard,” say the parents, “and it was wonderful.”
There are about 50 kids, ages 6-17, who meet every Saturday at the Old Gilroy Hotel on Monterey Road where they learn to play guitar, violin, trumpet, vijuela and guitaron—traditional Mariachi instruments—under the tutelage of Felipe Garcia and Jorge Rodriguez, who co-founded the Gilroy Mariachi Academy in May 2014.
Garcia, 27, plays violin and serves as director of Mariachi Tapatio, a professional band that also includes his 21-year-old brother and fellow violinist, Anthony Angeles.
Rodriguez, 21, a trumpet player, is director of another group, Mariachi Estelar.
Both were introduced to mariachi music at a very young age, when their parents enrolled them in a mariachi academy in San Jose.
“At first, I hated it. I couldn’t relate to it. It sounded like something my parents or grandparents might listen to, but not me,” Garcia said. “If they put it on the car radio on the way to school, I’d just tune out.”
Rodriguez felt the same way, especially when at age 8 he was forced to choose music over soccer.
But strange things began to happen. They got better at reading music; they started hearing that music coming from their own instruments; they began to learn how to play and sing traditional mariachi songs, alongside other children who were enjoying similar discoveries. And they fell in love.
Their passion for the genre ascended to a much richer level as they learned more about the history and tradition of mariachi music, which has been a part of Mexican culture since the 19th century.
“One of the things we came to realize is that far fewer people are listening to mariachi today than in previous generations. As those older generations die off, so will this art form—unless someone passes it along,” Garcia explained. “That’s something we decided we had to do.”
Garcia and Rodriguez see much of themselves in the children they teach. They understand the challenges and frustrations children endure in early stages of music education and, according to parents whose children are enrolled at the academy, they have unique instincts to help those kids conquer those obstacles.
Violinist Leila de la Torre, 7, became a rising star in the program just five months after she dissolved into tears on her way to a Saturday morning class.
“She was at a stage where she didn’t want to practice anymore, didn’t want to participate,” said Leila’s mother, Tracy de la Torre. “When we drove up that day, she suddenly just started crying. She didn’t want to go in.”
It was “a teachable moment,” said Tracy, who, after a chat, began to realize her daughter wanted to keep playing, but felt overwhelmed by the challenges of reading music.
“So I reached out to Felipe and Jorge, who put her into private lessons (with Felipe’s brother, Anthony). Suddenly, her self-esteem started to grow. She started understanding and feeling more confident. She started practicing on her own, without being prodded, and learning, and becoming more and more excited.”
The academy’s roster of private tutors also includes Rigo Campos and Rene Lambert, who teach guitar; Victor Singh, who specializes in trumpet, Isidro Alvarez for guitaron, and vocal instructor Jose J. Hernandez.
The cost? Families pay a tuition of $60-$90 per month, and must purchase instruments for their children, which are available from the academy at roughly one-third the price they’d pay at a traditional music store. For example: A $330 violin is sold at the academy store for $125.
The co-founders’ goal is to eliminate all expenses, become a nonprofit organization and make the academy free to the community. For that, they’ll need to find donors and sponsors.
“We’re working toward that objective right now, but we need help and support from the community to make it happen,” Rodriguez said. “We want to reach out and make this opportunity available to as many kids as we can.”
The duo also teaches mariachi at two locations in San Jose (Wednesdays at 70 S. Jackson Ave., Fridays at 2960 Story Rd.) and does outreach at several local schools.
“We are the ‘parents’ of over 1,000 kids in Pleasanton, Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Jose,” laughed Rodriguez, who, with his partner, is also currently teaching mariachi classes to all 544 students in an eight-week course at San Martin Elementary School in Morgan Hill.
“That’s very new to us, but being able to reach that many kids at one school is something we really enjoy,” Garcia said. “As we walk from one class to another, or walk through recess, the kids are still singing the mariachi music we taught them—not the rap songs they’re hearing on the radio. And you can tell it’s something they enjoy.”
Rosa Chavez enrolled her 11-year-old daughter Kayla in the mariachi academy alongside eight-year-old twins Emma and Kate. All three are flourishing violinists and each has fallen in love with singing mariachi songs.
“Kayla is bilingual. She refuses to speak Spanish unless she’s forced, but she loves to sing mariachi in Spanish,” Chavez said. “My twins don’t speak any Spanish at all, but they’ve learned to sing mariachi songs. How cool is that?”
Equally amazing to Chavez and her husband, Jorge, has been watching Kayla’s progress with her violin, on which she can now play 10 Mariachi songs, and currently is learning eight more.
“In the beginning, it was overwhelming: We’ve got a song, we’ve got an instrument, they want her to put this finger on that string, then use her bow in a certain way,” she said. “But after she got some one-on-one help, she began to learn how to read music, understand which string to play, and how to play it to produce the note on the music sheet. That’s when she became very excited and started practicing on her own.”
It’s an emotional experience, Chavez says, to watch her children perform, regardless of their level of proficiency.
“I get goose bumps. My husband and I look at each other and say, ‘She’s got it! She knows the song!’” she said. “It’s just so wonderful, because Mariachi music is beautiful and with the right kind of instruction, anyone can play it.”
Garcia and Rodriguez say several parents have reported rising grade-point averages among their kids, which they attribute, at least partially, to the discipline and work ethic they’ve gained through their experiences at the academy.
The children of the Gilroy Mariachi Academy have been invited to open this year’s prestigious Vargas Mariachi de Tecalitlan concert at the San Jose Civic Center on May 7. Showtime is 6 p.m. and tickets are available online.
Visit the website at mariachi-academy.com or call (408) 386-2373 for more information about the Gilroy Mariachi Academy.