The Positive Effects Of Mariachi On The Education of Hispanic Youth

by Gil Sperry on February 21, 2010

in Mariachi, Special Report

This article has been contributed by Gil Sperry, author of Mariachi for Gringos.
By Gil Sperry

Tucson has always led the way in nurturing the positive effects of mariachi on the education of Hispanic youth. As far back as the 1970s, a scholarship fund was established by the local community to provide college educations for the groundbreaking members of “Los Changuitos Feos”, the group that later evolved into the world-renowned El Mariachi Cobre. When the TIMC began in 1983, its maestros and the leadership of La Frontera unanimously agreed that a main focus of the conference would be the educational experience for the youngsters who participated. Mariachi Vargas, the first event’s headliner, joined Cobre in implementing the music school-quality training that was offered at The Tucson Convention Center workshops. By the end of the third conference, over 1000 young musicians were being trained…and it was not just music that was being taught. The proper focus and concomitant behavior that must be present in any fertile learning environment were stressed, along with an appropriate dress code. The instructors were very definitely the role models for their students.

As a direct result of the TIMC’s efforts, a formal mariachi curriculum was introduced into the area’s schools. Several of the individuals who were workshop participants as grade school students graduated from college and returned home to become the teachers of the next generation. Tucson had become the epicenter of the mariachi education movement which spread all across the nation and, ironically, to Mexico. The next steps, though logical, were not easily anticipated.

Fast forward to 2006 when Dr. Elizabeth Arnot-Hoppfer came up with a ‘eureka moment.’ Her seminal idea was to use mariachi music to teach math skills. As Associate Director of the U of A’s GEAR UP Project (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), she saw the clear-cut connection between the two disciplines as she contemplated utilizing the ideal combination of culture, community, and family to achieve the program’s minimum goal: 65% of the enrolled students entering… and succeeding…in college after high school graduation.

My first exposure to “Math Through Mariachi” was in San Jose (CA) last September when I heard Adam Romo and Cobre’s Roberto Martinez discuss it in depth at a seminar. Both are native Tucsonans who are spreading the word through their deeds. Adam is an accomplished mariachero who is also an Algebra Teacher in the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada; he is also one of the organizers of the CCSD’s Annual Mariachi Conference. Roberto was an early recipient of one of the TIMC’s college scholarship grants and is spreading the word about the efficacy of the program wherever he travels. They told me of the tragic accident that cut short the meaningful life of Dr. Arnot-Hoppfer in 2009 and of their pledge to continue the wonderful program that she had created.

Through their efforts and those of another Tucsonan, Linda Ronstadt, the Santa Clara (CA) County School Board is instituting the program in their school districts. In addition, Ms. Ronstadt, presently the Artistic Director of The San Jose (CA) Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival, recently testified before The United States Congress that “…research shows that kids in sustained, culturally relevant, music education programs do better, both academically and socially, and acquire the tools for success in life.” After her testimony,  The House and Senate passed a concurrent resolution which stated, in part, that:” “School music programs enhance intellectual development and enrich the academic environment for students of all ages; students who participate in school music programs are less likely to be involved with drugs, gangs, or alcohol and have better attendance in school; skills gained through sequential music instruction, including discipline and the ability to analyze, solve problems, communicate, and work cooperatively, are vital for success in the 21st century workplace; the majority of students attending public schools in inner city neighborhoods have virtually no access to music education, which places them at a disadvantage compared to their peers in other communities; and finally, the arts are a core academic subject, and music is an essential element of the arts.”

Is there empirical, as well as anecdotal proof, for these claims? Check out these facts:

  • Music enhances the process of learning. The systems they nourish, which include our integrated sensory, attention, cognitive, emotional and motor capacities, are shown to be the driving forces behind all other learning. (R.R. Konrad, “Empathy, Arts, and Social Studies,” 2000)
  • The College Entrance Examination Board found that students in music appreciation scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math than students with no arts participation. (“College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers,” Princeton, NJ: The College Entrance Examination Board, 2001)
  • U.S. Department of Education data show that students who report consistently high levels of involvement in instrumental music during the middle- and high-school years show significantly higher levels of mathematics proficiency by grade 12. (J. Catterall, R. Chapleau, and J. Iwanaga, “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development,” 1999)
  • Young children who received a year of musical training showed brain changes and superior memory compared with    children who did not receive the instruction. (T. Fujioka, B. Ross, R. Kakigi, C. Pantev, and L. Trainor, “Brain, A Journal of Neurology,” Oxford University Press, Sept. 2006)
  • The vast majority — 96 percent — of the school principals interviewed in a recent study agree that participation in music education encourages and motivates students to stay in school. Further, 89 percent of principals feel that a high-quality music-education program contributes to their school achieving higher graduation rates. (Harris Interactive Poll, 2006)
  • A study of rural and urban inner-city schools found that arts programs helped schools in economically disadvantaged communities develop students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. (L. Stevenson and R. Deasy, “Third Space: When Learning Matters,” AEP, 2006)
  • A study examined the influence of music education on nonmusical abilities, the effects of music lessons on academic performance, and cognitive abilities. The study revealed that students who participated in music lessons showed statistically higher intelligence quotients. (G. Schellenberg, “Music Lessons Enhance IQ,” Psychological Science, Vol. 15, No. 8, 2004)

In short, research reveals strong correlations between quality music education in school and academic achievement. Music education develops skills needed by the 21st century workforce: critical thinking, creative problem solving, effective communication, and team work. It keeps students engaged in school and less likely to drop out. It improves the atmosphere for learning and helps students achieve in other academic subjects like math, science, and reading. A recent Harris Poll revealed that 93 percent of Americans agree that the arts are vital to providing a well-rounded education for children.

For the latest local news on the positive effects of mariachi on the education of Hispanic youth, we decided to contact John Contreras, Director of the award-winning Mariachi Aztlan de Pueblo Magnet High School. He is an accomplished mariachi musician with over twenty five years of experience. The connection between John, and Richard Carranza, who started the school’s mariachi education program when he was Principal back in 1992, has been a defining factor. The latter has gone on to positions as Superintendent of the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Dr. Arnot-Hoppfer’s “Math Through Mariachi” was implemented and has recently been appointed Superintendent of The San Francisco (CA) Unified School District.

Contreras, who arranges the music and conducts the musicians for all performances, has grown the program from eleven members in its first year to currently over one hundred and twenty. Students, ages 14 through 18, are offered three levels of involvement based on their experience and expertise: Beginning, Intermediate, and the Advanced/ Performing group – “Mariachi Aztlan”. Students entering the performing group must, after audition and acceptance, maintain a high level of academic achievement in order to remain on the “first team”. Their extensive practice and performance schedule also demands most of their free time. They are motivated by pride and dedication to their cultural heritage of Mexico but, they realize that without the maintenance of classroom excellence, they can not be participants in the program.

As the state of Arizona’s most awarded and most popular youth mariachi, they have gained a reputation for excellence, sharing the stage with many of the world’s finest musicians. As Contreras, also a member of The TIMC’s Advisory Board tells it, “Through their music, they are continuously promoting a manifest pride in their cultural background and are an excellent example of the best our youth has to offer.”

The demonstrably positive effects of mariachi on the education of Hispanic youth are more apparent now than ever. There is no doubt that the influence of the TIMC’s many disciples spreading the original gospel of the connection between excellence in the classroom and on the stage will continue to grow.

You can contact the author Gil Sperry at the Mariachi For Gringos website, or call (619) 887-9288.

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