Melissa students learn new music, culture through mariachi group

Joshua Baethge / For the Anna-Melissa Tribune
In its first year, Melissa High School’s mariachi team competed in the UIL State Mariachi Festival, which was held in February in Edinburg.Team members include, front row from left, students Ravyn Hathorn, Aryes Morgan, Jaime Sweat and Elizabeth Reynoso; middle row from left, Emma Piyakhun, Meagan Paul, Roland Aluko and Assistant Director and Melissa High School teacher Annette Hernandez; back row from left, students Lucas Wormington, Christian Borges, Rex Dooley and Melissa High Band Director Jerry Whorton. [Courtesy photo]

It was about a year ago that a school administrator approached Melissa High School teacher Annette Hernandez about sponsoring a mariachi group at the campus.

In February, the school’s first ever mariachi performance group more than held its own at the state meet that was held at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, in south Texas.

The group was the only class 4-A representative from North Texas at the event.

Judges gave them high marks for their musicianship, putting them ahead of several schools with well-established mariachi programs.

“We traveled the furthest and we did remarkably well,” said Hernandez, who serves as the group’s assistant director. “The judges gave us some great ideas on how to improve for next year.”

Last spring, Hernandez discussed the idea of establishing a mariachi group with Melissa High’s band director, Jerry Whorton.

“Prior to this year, mariachi was not in my skill set,” he said. “I think I chuckled and said, ‘Annette, if you can find the kids, we can find the money.’”

Hernandez managed to recruit 10 students. Her only requirement was that the teens knew how to read music and could play at least one instrument.

Hernandez has taught Spanish at Melissa High School for 16 years, but is not a musician. However, the San Antonio native is well-versed in the mariachi sound.

All of the students who signed up for the group were musically talented, but none had mariachi experience.

The group met in a small room near the band hall during the Mega Lunch period on Wednesdays.

Mariachi involves nontraditional instruments.

A bass guitar player learned to play the guitarrón, a six-string acoustic bass. Another guitar player took on the smaller vihuela, a similarly shaped string instrument.

According to Whorton, the community pulled together to help students get the instruments, equipment and tools they needed.

Meanwhile, school administrators allocated funds for uniforms, other equipment and the fees required to perform at the UIL State Mariachi Festival.

As practices progressed, Whorton worked with the students on the technical aspects of the music while Hernandez strove for authenticity.

The students also spent hours teaching themselves the music with the help of YouTube videos.

“The thing that just absolutely amazed me was how students embraced learning about the culture along with learning the new music,” Hernandez said. “They just ran with it.”

Whorton also turned to YouTube as well as other literature to learn how to teach students to play the instruments.

Not one to shy away from a competition, he said he was eager to take on the new challenge.

The group began practicing with instruments in mid-October. It didn’t take long for them to show some impressive progress.

“I’ll never forget,” Whorton said, “after two or three weeks, I turned to Annette and said, ‘There’s a UIL competition for this. ... We might as well go ahead and enter.’”

Since there were no other mariachi teams in UIL’s Region 25 for the students to compete against, a UIL judge came to Melissa High School to evaluate the group. It was the first time that any school in the region had attempted mariachi.

The students performed two songs that they had been rehearsing. The judge gave them a score of 1, which allowed them to compete at the state mariachi festival.

Out of 10 teams at the state meet, only Melissa and Wise County’s Bridgeport High School were first-time participants.

The other eight schools, from the San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley areas, were competition regulars.

The competition judges said Melissa High School had great musicians who were ready for harder songs.

“Mr. Whorton and I were so excited and so pumped,” Hernandez said. “They were just spectacular.”

Whorton said the experience was one of the most fulfilling of his career.

For students and the community, it was also an opportunity to learn more about a different culture through music.

Mariachi is set to return as a club at Melissa High School for one more year. If the interest in the group maintains, there is a chance that it will be offered as an official music class in two years.