Thursday, June 28, 2012 | 2 a.m.
At the Ramada Inn on Flamingo Road, which sits in the long shadows of the Strip casinos, a group of 40 music instructors spent eight hours on Monday and Tuesday in a mundane conference room.
On Tuesday, after being released into the oven that is a June Las Vegas afternoon, they did not make a beeline for the Flamingo, Caesars Palace or any of the other nearby casinos.
After dinner, instead of playing blackjack, dancing at a club or seeing a Cirque du Soleil show, most of the music teachers, who are all in town for a week-long workshop on mariachi music and instruction, returned to that small, windowless conference room and started to jam.
“It was awesome; we jammed for at least two hours, probably much longer,” said Forrest Jones, a music teacher from Reno, which is starting a mariachi program in four of its schools this fall.
“I sat down and picked up the vihuela,” he said, referring to the mariachi instrument that looks like a small, five-stringed guitar. “I watched another guy who knew how to play and I started to pick it up quickly. I feel like I know the instrument now. The really valuable part of the workshop is learning from professionals who can convey the nuances and subtleties of the music and playing style.”
This is the second year for the Las Vegas workshop, which is organized by Music Education Consultants, a company operated by Marcia Neel, the former Clark County School District coordinator of secondary fine arts.
In 2002, Neel hired professional mariachi and instructor Javier Trujillo to start a mariachi program in Clark County to better serve the growing Hispanic population. Today, with 3,000 students in 16 schools, it is the largest mariachi program in the country, Neel said.
Neel retired from the School District in 2007. Now she works with her husband, Keith Neel, who is the former Las Vegas Philharmonic director of operations and special events, on consulting with school districts across the country and hosting workshops.
Recent research indicates that, much like sports and other activities that help young people focus and set goals, students receiving music education do better academically. In the March 2012 study “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” the National Endowment for the Arts found that 71 percent of low-income students with high exposure to the arts attended college, compared with only 48 percent who had a low arts exposure. Students with high exposure to the arts earned better grades and test scores across all subjects.
“Kids in music programs do better,” Neel said. “Schools are realizing it's worth their while to get more kids involved in music. Many are seeing rapid growth in their Hispanic student populations, just like Nevada, and mariachi is a great way to engage them.”
The music teachers come from all over the country, from Boston to Seattle. Many are from public school systems that are starting their own mariachi programs while others are starting private programs.
“I’ve talked to the other teachers a lot about how to get the word out,” said Cara Rakowicz, who is the director of a private mariachi program in Highland, Mich. "I’ve gotten a lot of great tips and ideas from the other teachers, and the instructors are amazing. We are all music teachers, so we can pick these things up fairly easily, but the instructors go to the next level.”
Many of the instructors for the workshop are drawn from Clark County’s successful program.
“These are professional musicians here, so they learn very quickly,” said Noe Ramos, a mariachi teacher at Valley High School and workshop instructor. “It’s all about teaching them the style, the subtleties. For me it’s a blast because I know this means the culture is being kept alive and reaching new people in other parts of the country.”
Jose Hernandez, band leader for Mariachi Sol de Mexico, a Southern California-based band that performs internationally and has provided songs for movies such as “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and “Rango,” has also been an instructor both years.
Hernandez is a fifth-generation mariachi, and he said his father never really learned how to read music.
“Reading music is the key to being able to progress and adapt as musical styles change, as mariachi music evolves,” Hernandez said. “The good thing about the educational programs is that they teach the kids music. They learn music theory and how to read music.”
Perhaps most importantly, the workshop has helped give the music teachers, many of whom did not grow up on mariachi music, an appreciation for the genre.
“Oh, I’m definitely listening to more mariachi music now,” Jones said. “Here and in Reno I can just flip around the radio stations and find some, but I think I’m going to go home and buy some tracks on iTunes, too.”