The musical tunes of mariachi filled Colorado Park last Friday as local residents enjoyed the sounds of violas and guitarrons prior to a screening of “Coco.” And thanks to a partnership between the Santa Monica Youth Orchestra and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, residents will have many more opportunities to hear the local students jam out before the year’s end.
Visitors of local parks in recent weeks may have noticed dozens of students rushing oversized cases to and from buildings at Virginia Park in an attempt to make it to practice on time.
Herded by teachers who have performed at the Hollywood Bowl, Dodger Stadium and places as local as Samohi, the mini-musicians first crammed into their seats to prepare for last week’s show less than 4 weeks ago.
Since the initiative kicked off last year in the fall, the Santa Monica Youth Orchestra’s music program has allowed more than 100 local children the opportunity to improve their skills in European-based Western classical music, while also venturing out into other parts of the world by offering opportunities to learn Latin American, Chinese, Hawaiian and West African music, according to SMYO Executive Director Shabnam Fasa, who can be seen bustling from opposite ends of the practice room assisting students and answering parents’ questions.
“This is the first project of its kind,” Fasa said during an October practice at Virginia Park. “Our mission is to not only teach (the students) mariachi music but also teach them the different cultures that are in and around Los Angeles because there’s really so many.”
Fasa said students studied music from Japan, Bali and China earlier in the summer and are now focusing on seasonal songs like “La Bruja.”
“The other really cool thing is there’s no other program in Santa Monica where kids from multiple schools can come and meet each other,” she said.
When the program was in its early stages, Fasa asked for assistance from prominent mariachi artist Willie Acuña, who was initially hesitant to participate in the pilot program but now enthusiastically refers to the students as “My kids.”
“I was reluctant to do it because this is important to me. Not only is this my job but it’s my heritage and I really respect my antepasados — those who came before me — so I wanted to make sure the kids got that because it’s not just about them taking a music class. It’s about honoring the culture and traditions that are special to somebody else,” Acuña said. “So I didn’t know if they’d be able to explore all of that but, sure enough, we got in there and they blew me away.”
There are kids who don’t speak Spanish at home, “but they speak it here while they are singing and playing the music,” Acuña added, describing the program as an ideal situation for him and the students. “It’s been so rewarding. I can’t even begin to explain how much I’ve learned from the kids… It’s forced me to become a better musician, a better writer — and I’ve played for stadiums, but this is more nerve-wracking to me because these are my kids and you really want them to do well.”
Acuña and his peers Gracie McAleer and Dan Taguchi are fixtures at the weekly practices, which are free of charge to children in kindergarten through 12th grade and occur at Virginia Park from 4-6 p.m.
During the practice sessions, the twangs of guitars and violas ring throughout the room as students rehearse in sections for a few rounds until they are confident they’ve mastered a song. Soon after, the group is usually compelled by Fasa and the instructors to leave the shelter of the practice area and head outside to play the recently-learned pieces in front of anyone who cares to listen.
SMYO Board Member Susan Jain said in a letter to local councilmembers that the gathering evolves into an intergenerational event with parents actively socializing with each other, “and supporting the program both logistically (by) moving chairs, and musically (by) coaching, playing and singing along.”
Those who have witnessed the program in action have described it as historic and a once in a lifetime opportunity for the children.
The website states students should have previous experience with an instrument, but Fasa said all locals are encouraged to come whether they have musical knowledge or not.
Last year, students in the program performed at Los Angeles’ biggest Mariachi festival, the Hammer Museum and LACMA, and the group will have a few more opportunities to be seen again this year.
Although the program is now up and running, there is still a need for additional resources, according to those involved.
“We don’t have a lot of money to hire people, so we’re always looking for ways to bring in additional funding,” parent Warda Agsous said, mentioning the volunteers who make the program possible. “The quality of instruction is amazing here, and not only are (students) learning music but they’re also learning about culture,” which is very important in the development of a well-rounded person.
“I encourage you to drop by on a Tuesday afternoon to see the elementary and middle school programs in action,” Jain said. “While there, please sing along and have a discussion with the leadership about ways to support the program. In the meantime, please widely share the joyful news of Santa Monica’s new mariachi program. It’s something that we can all be proud of.”