Mariachi membership tunes up grades and turns on pride

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Members of Tucson’s Mariachi Casabel Youth Organization take pride in new costumes and higher grades

Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization
Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization

Last year the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation funded the Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization (MCYO), an innovative program attempting to combine academics with community engagement using music, specifically Mariachi music, as the binding agent. With Tucson’s Sunnyside Unified School District’s diminished music budgets there didn’t seem to be much hope for the group, especially since they needed new costumes. For mariachi, image is just as important as musical ability. Their costumes, called Trajes de Charro, don’t come cheap, especially if you want quality and authenticity. Organizer Daniel Dong proposed a unique project for improving not only the image of the musicians but also their success in math and science. Funded in 2013 by the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation, this unique and special music education program has already made an exceptional impact.

… students in arts-integrated classrooms are more creative,
engaged,
and effective at problem solving
than their counterparts who are not in arts-integrated classrooms.”
Arts in Education Research Study, Kennedy Center ArtsEdge 

Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization
Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization

Setting the tone for academic success

Research has indicated that students that who receive music education tend to do better, across the board, academically. This program takes it a step further by including a cultural component that has true community value. Daniel Dong’s idea was to help the Mariachi Cascabal Youth Organization Program, serving a primarily Hispanic district, be available to play in the community for all the most important celebrations. Even before funding they were able to play at a number of events including the Annual Latina Breast Cancer Conference and Mexican Mother’s Day festivals. He also coordinated within the school district to help MCYO get regular gigs at school carnivals and other related events.

Because within the district there is no other program like this, demand to get in is high. Here’s where the alignment with academics found a harmonious fit. The program instituted a requirement where students must retain passing grades or seek tutoring for those subjects. Now, not only were the students getting the benefits of a musical education, they were also more motivated to perform well in their other courses.

Costumes and instruments build pride, Tutors nurture brains

Because looking authentic was important for their success as legitimate mariachis within the community, the Foundation’s investment also went toward new costumes for the organization. They have currently received sixteen out of seventeen Trajes and are just waiting for the final jacket to come in to make their ensemble complete. The funding also provided new instruments for the group including two Prelude Violins, two Michoacána Vihuelas and four Yamaha Guitars from a local music company. Furthermore, students received three digital video cameras from Walmart to help document their experiments with the MCYO.

While a couple of students have fallen behind in their other academic courses, the tutors in math and science that have been provided are helping them reach their academic goals. In September, they held a large parent meeting to inform students and parents of all the benefits students receive by being involved in the MCYO. The prospects laid out got many parents excited which in turn helps the students realize the value of such a program.

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Photo courtesy of Mariachi Cascabel Youth Organization

There were, as always, some unexpected but not insurmountable costs. Trajes wear out quickly and they found they needed to bring their tailor up from Mexico City to do the measurements to make sure they got the highest quality Trajes. The Trajes were completed and shipped back to America in late April.

Culturally relevant music education and tutoring add up to better grades

From the beginning, the educators responsible for this project saw the value of a tutor. While the students were less than happy, initially, about being required to attend tutoring and a few stopped coming due to the requirements, many of those students returned and participated in the tutoring and watched their grades improve – a win for everyone involved.

Project educators also reported on how they could improve on this project for the next school year. Though they noted how enthusiastic parents were about tutoring, they couldn’t help but acknowledge how adverse the students were to it. They discussed ways to better sell that idea to students, so that this program and others patterned after it would find a lot more success. There were also important considerations that could be fine tuned in the future, such as streamlining the auditions, assessment of initial abilities and tutoring placement procedures.

Anecdotally, Daniel Dong reported, one of the biggest challenges was procuring the Trajes, which took about six months to obtain. Because they were authentically handmade in Mexico, however, the time was worth the wait.

All in all, the MCYO has been successful with their approach to using music education and tutoring to improve student success and creativity. They are on track to meet and exceed their proposed goal “to acquire mariachi outfits and musical instruments to help motivate students to be more engaged in their academics and to be positive role models in their community.”

What did the students have to say about their work?

MCYO members wrote about their experiences in the program and about attending the Tucson International Mariachi Conference.

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Similar programs could be proposed in your other schools; take advantage of your local musical genres that impact your community the way that Mariachi music does in Tucson, Arizona, will be your real challenge.

For more information on the magic of music in academic enrichment, read on:

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