Article originally written by Susan Randall for USA Today.
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — When Steve Heil moved to Casa Grande several years ago, he wondered why its public schools had no programs for stringed instruments like those in some other states. Heil, who is principal of Casa Verde High School, was talking to students in September about the kind of electives they would like to have, and they told him they wanted a music program.
Several were taking private lessons on the violin or cello already, he said, and others played or wanted to play the trumpet or guitar.
"How can we be involved?" they wanted to know.
Kim Calderone, a Casa Verde parent and the owner of Accelerate the Arts mobile music store, suggested that he call Maureen Berger, musical director at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church and School and president of Golden Corridor Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that provides string classes to adults and children, puts on concerts and is developing youth and adult orchestras in Pinal County.
Heil, Berger and Calderone met last fall with about 20 Casa Verde students who said they would be willing to give up their lunch break to start a mariachi band, playing traditional Mexican music.
There was no money in the budget, but Calderone volunteered to begin working with the violin players in October so they could learn how to play before they tried mariachi music.
Berger volunteered to coach the trumpet players. Jazz musician and guitar teacher John Sutton volunteered to work with the string players. They started teaching the young musicians in January.
Berger said she, Calderone and Sutton are all part of the Golden Corridor and are volunteering to bring this program alive, "so there is some musical component in the high school charter school."
"The reason we are so successful," Calderone said, "is our love and passion for music and for the students. And they want so badly to learn."
Calderone said some of the students played by ear when they started the program but could not read music. Others had not played an instrument since elementary school.
"We want our students to learn how to read music, write music, understand the elements of music, experience the different genres of music -- and not just learn to play by ear," she said.
Even though the class and teachers are volunteers, they are following the general national standards for music defined by the Music Educators National Conference.
"I am so proud of these young people," Berger said. "They're dedicated to making this a success and taking ownership of the program. I think it will be highly successful because the kids definitely want to do it. They are motivated and they have the ability. They just so impress me with how far they have come in such a short time."
And mariachi music is enjoyable, she added.
"It has a lot of joy in it. It's not easy. There are musical challenges -- in particular with the trumpets, because they are in all the sharp scales and keys."
"I explained to them they are using the left side of their brain when they are playing those sharps. It's like math, only something musical."
Mariachi music also involves a dance form, she said, folklorico.
The group does not have dancers yet, but it will, Berger said. A folklorico teacher is "ready to jump on board."
The musicians meet during the school's lunch break: violins on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; guitars, guitarron and cello on Wednesdays; trumpets on Thursdays; and everybody together on Fridays.
Last week, an audience piled up in the hallway outside the open classroom where the group practiced "De Colores," "La Valentina" and "Las Golondrinas" (the swallows).
"There are two things that are really hard to play," Sutton told the group as he conducted the rehearsal, "slow and soft."
When the mariachis are ready for a real audience, there will be no conductor. The guitarron and cello will set the beat.
"This is so neat," said school nurse Lydia Montigo, who stopped by to listen to the rehearsal. "I love this."
More students are invited to join Casa Verde's mariachi program next year when it becomes a regular class, Heil said. The students are putting on a dinner-and-concert fundraiser late in April to fund the class, and he plans to look for grants.
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