Mariachi Camp inspires children to connect with Spanish music, instruments and culture

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In 2015, the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts launched a summer camp to teach children how to play mariachi music with a budget to work with 30 children – fifty showed up.

Since then, the camp has grown in popularity. This year there were over 200 students ages 9-18 in Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Cloverdale who each spent three weeks learning to play mariachi music, all at no cost to attendees.

The program is led by music scholar José Soto, a classically trained musician who grew up playing the violin and learned the art of traditional mariachi music in Mexico. At age 15, Soto and her family moved from Tapalpa, a small village about two hours south of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, in Sonoma County where his passion for music grew. He started a mariachi club at Elsie Allen High School and after graduating from Sonoma State University he focused on passing on his passion to young musicians.

That passion came in the form of working with one of the largest arts centers in Sonoma County.

The Soto program began seven years ago alongside Ashleigh Worley, director of education and community engagement at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. The Luther Burbank Center for the Arts is a Santa Rosa nonprofit arts and events center offering educational, arts, and community programs.

“I was the first story, if I’m real about it…come to this country and go to high school and start a mariachi camp,” Soto said. “I’m also living the dream, just like those kids.”

The program offers students in grades three and up the opportunity to learn guitar, violin, or trumpet in a three-week program, providing instruments at no cost. It culminated this year with a performance at the art center on July 22, where the students were able to show off their new skills in traditional mariachi costume in front of a crowd of around 1,000 spectators.

Finding a family through Mariachi

Mariachi is a genre of regional Mexican music. Similar to orchestras, mariachi ensembles use instruments like trumpet, violin, and classical guitar. Additionally, however, the mariachi uses two uniquely Mexican instruments: the guitarrón mexicano, an acoustic bass guitar, and the vihuela mexicana, a high-pitched guitar, Soto explained.

What further distinguishes the mariachi from other musical ensembles, he notes, is that all the students sing. “Singing is a big part of mariachi,” he said.

When the summer program started, some of the kids who showed up for mariachi class were honest that there were other reasons for being there, other than their desire to learn music, said Soto. Some admit they’re there because their parents don’t have other childcare options or because their parents think they play too many video games.

During the summer program, students stick to a routine where they are taught to play their individual instruments, then sing, and finally come together to practice as an ensemble each day.

“Watching a child fall in love with an instrument or music in general is one of the most satisfying gifts I can receive as a teacher,” he said. “I feel good when children discover new skills and practice them. I have nothing against video games, but I do believe that art forms help you become better people by exercising the abilities to communicate, move, express, see, feel, etc.

Through this process, they learn to read music, memorize it, and prepare their assigned songs before the July performance date.

The students seem to particularly enjoy the beats and lyrics of each new song, Soto said. “There’s a new story every time, and kids connect with those stories.”

Most often, at the end of the summer program, many students want to play mariachi all year round. The number of students returning to the program varies. In 2021, from summer to fall, the program had about half of the students returning, but overall it was a much smaller camp than usual, mainly due to COVID restrictions. -19.

Small, but mighty, the students were ready to get back to music.

“He created a family out of the year-round program,” Worley said. “He (Soto) has built an environment where they don’t want to leave.”

Some students who began their musical education with the summer program have become so accomplished that they help inspire other budding musicians and teach. Eight recent high school graduates were hired to work as camp instructors this summer before heading off to college, she said.

Create a cultural link

One of the strengths of the program, Soto said, is how parents respond to the music their children are learning. And an unexpected benefit of the program is how it seems to naturally bring children and their parents closer together, Worley added.

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