Mariachi band brings new sounds to Mason Elementary School

  • Members of the Mason Elementary Mariachi Band play their instruments. Maksim Ziemiecki plays ukulele, while Liam Casey plays violin, Alexa Blanchard plays her own guitar, which she got last weekend; and Caleb Juvera adjusts his facemask so he can play his violin. Julia Stinneford

  • Deborah Prince Smith directs the Mason Mariachi Band while Christopher Greenwood plays the xylophone.

  • Deborah Prince Smith leads the band on accordion, with Caleb Juvera and Maksim Ziemiecki playing violin and ukulele. —Julia Stinneford

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/5/2021 11:14:03 AM

When Deborah Prince Smith was asked to offer a band program for Mason Elementary School, she did not anticipate that it would someday become a mariachi band.

“I am not a traditionally trained music teacher,” she said, although she majored in music at Swarthmore College, sang with the Boston Camerata for seven years, has been an organist and choir director at the Mason Congregational Church for three decades and taught music in Massachusetts for 18 years. But she had never played in a band or played a band instrument.

Now, she is leading a group of seven students through the process of learning to play mariachi music at weekly rehearsals.

On Thursday afternoons, they gather in the music room of Mason Elementary and learn how to play songs on various instruments, including violins, ukuleles, guitars and xylophones.

The program came about in a roundabout fashion, Smith said. She started with a string band program in 2018, with 10 students learning how to play the violin. This continued into 2019, but when the pandemic struck and sent the school to remote learning, Smith had a hard time keeping it going.

“String band was the least of our worries,” she said. “I suggested activities and supplied encouragement through the music page on the school website, but families were struggling to cope with work assigned by their children’s homeroom teachers, so there was little feedback for me on how to do that.”

In the fall of 2020, hybrid learning made it difficult to get interested students all together for string band, and the program began to fall off, with only two students involved by January 2021.

“It was hard to feel that we were a ‘band,’ and the kids had no contact with each other beyond that violin practice,” Smith said.

Finally, Smith asked one of the students to help her brainstorm ideas about what she liked about the group and what could make it more fun.

“I stood at the whiteboard with markers and created a list from our discussion of what was good about the group and what was not so good,” Smith said. “It was a good discussion, and I went home with a better understanding of her needs as a person and as a musician.”

Then, the idea of mariachi struck her. The girl Smith had been conversing with had Hispanic heritage, and in a prior job, Smith had explored the possibility of starting a mariachi band.

“At the time, I had proposed a mariachi band because it would provide a performing group for string players and guitar players, who did not fit into the existing music programs,” she said. “It would also provide music that would appeal to the Spanish-speaking kids at school – sharing the musical cultures of all students has always been a teaching goal for me.”

With this idea in mind, Smith wrote up an invitation to join the Mason Mariachi Band, and by March, ended up with four students playing violins, ukuleles and xylophones.

The group performed in June for other classes at the school and for families, and Smith decided that she would try to keep the program up in the fall.

When school started and she posed the option of the mariachi band, she was startled by how many students were excited about it.

“I was stunned when eight kids raised their arms to do both violin and mariachi band,” she said. Another signed on when he was told that he would be allowed to play drums.

Now, six of those nine – plus a homeschooled student – make up Mason’s current mariachi band.

The practices can be chaotic, according to Smith.

“Think ‘meat-balls,” ‘meat-balls’ droning along while other voices pile on ‘spa-ghet-ti’, ‘spa-ghet-ti,’ using different instruments, and you get the idea,” she said.

The group members are working on familiarizing themselves with their instruments and learning basic rhythms, and Smith is hoping to guide them through the many songs that she has found for the program. And performances may be in their future.

“Time will tell what flavor of mariachi music will develop from this group,” Smith said.

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