Iowa high school introduces mariachi band as new program to encourage equity in education

Ottumwa High School Marching Band teacher Troy Gerleman opened the doors to the rehearsal room after the bell rang on a Tuesday afternoon. He was about to set up a meeting with some students to see if there would be any benefit in starting a mariachi band at school.

Mariachi is a genre of traditional music in Mexico. And just over a quarter of the neighborhood identifies as Hispanic. Gerleman said that one day he noticed that only about 6% of the orchestra was Hispanic and that he wanted the orchestra to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood.

“So it seemed to me: how do we lose all these students when the musical culture is so rich? So we can brainstorm like, how can we try to reach out to some of these kids and get them into a group? “” Wondered Gerleman.

So he met with other staff, including the superintendent’s office, who all agreed that the new option would benefit students.

Gerleman expected maybe five students to show up. Instead, 20 came.

“When we had the reunion the kids walked in, I was really blown away by how proud they are of their heritage. I would ask them about certain vocal exercises they do, ”recalls Gerleman. “I didn’t have to coach them or beg them to try them. They were just doing demonstrations for me, and they’re really proud to show off some of the mariachi techniques. “

Gerleman has explained how the learning curve for him will be quite steep with the mariachi, but he has the support of students, parents and other teachers. The orchestra teacher and the conductor will help Gerleman prepare and train the students. Mariachi includes stringed instruments and vocals, unlike traditional harmony.

“I have had teachers who respond like, ‘This is a very good idea, like an idea that has been needed for a long time. “So there was a lot of support from our teaching staff to start this as well,” he said.

For Gerleman, this new group program is more than a new class on his schedule, it’s about providing a fair education in the fine arts. He cited research which has shown that children who are involved in music, and any other subject in the arts, have higher test scores and even higher “soft skills” such as time management and discipline. .

“It teaches all of these soft skills that employers are looking for today. So yes, I firmly believe that kids really need to be involved in an activity, and more so in an artistic activity,” said Gerleman.

He said he wanted the steps at Ottumwa High School to inspire surrounding schools and community programs.

“We have a lot of Hispanic populations in our surrounding communities who I think would really benefit, because there are a large number of students who have such a rich musical heritage, that it’s just sad to think that they don’t. aren’t, you know, exploring that, “he concluded.

The district has agreed to financially support the new program, so there is no charge for students to participate. And Gerleman said he hopes students can be prepared for their first performance by March and possibly attend a music festival in May. Even though the students haven’t had their first rehearsal yet, people are asking for gigs and performances on social media and via Gerleman.

At the moment, these requests are pending. The new group expect to receive their instruments and new musical literature in about a week, and the first rehearsal will follow shortly thereafter.

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