Here’s a quick summary of how the School of Mexican Music works: Every day students show up at 4 p.m. and buckle down for four hours of non-stop music study. They clap out esquemas rítmicos (rhythmic schemes) to dozens of Mexican music styles, sing scales and practice complex strumming patterns over and over again. They leave at dark, instruments slung over their shoulders, and go home to practice more before class the following day. Repeat each week for three years, which is how long it takes to complete the program.
Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays are talleres, or workshop days. Students practice their instruments under the guidance of experienced musicians, tackling one popular Mexican song after another. I’m currently taking two talleres, in Mariachi and Singing.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the school’s 300 students gather in classrooms to hear lectures on Mexican music history, composition theory, and a crucial subject that the school administrators call “Genres & Styles.” This three-year course teaches students to properly identify Mexican songs by their defining elements, a subject so huge that the teacher often sighs mid-lecture, complaining that three years won’t be enough to cover it all.
These defining elements are usually a unique rhythm (as is the case with huapangos, joropos, and boleros). But songs can also be categorized by their lyrical content, such as corridos (story songs) and canciones (songs about emotions – usually heartbreak). And then there is the mother of all Mexican music genres, the son, whose musical traits fill up an ENTIRE YEAR of curriculum in the Genres & Styles class. More on the son later.
Why do I bring this up? Because in the mariachi workshop, all aspiring mariachis must learn to play a little bit of everything mentioned above. Unlike the tropical Danzón or the Violin Huasteco workshops, in which students hone their skills in a single regional style, Mariachis, by definition, must know how to play songs from all over Mexico. If you look at the staples of any good Mariachi’s repertoire, you’ll see a panorama of Mexican rhythms, melodies, and lyrics. The only thing that stays the same is the instrumentation, the basic ingredients of which are as follows:
Guitar + Vihuela + Guitarrón + 2 Violins + 2 Trumpets = A Modern Mariachi
After a few rough starts, Maestro Pedro Gutiérrez patiently walks us through our first successful attempt at “El Tirador.”
You can listen to it in this player: