In Frankford, 'Mr. Holland's Opus' means mariachi

Thanks to a Melody Program grant award from the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, third-graders at Frankford Elementary School received instruments earlier this year that have enabled them to start a mariachi band.

According to the foundation, the Melody Program grant award is an award given “in recognition for an outstanding instrumental music program and dedication to music education.” The application for the award was written by Frankford Elementary music and band teacher Robin Gass.

“I wrote the grant [application] to the foundation because we wanted to do something to serve our large Hispanic population, to get the parents involved,” said Gass. “And I don’t think there’s any string programs around. So we thought it would be a good experience. I begged them, and we finally got it!”

“It was great,” Gass said. “Mr. Kosakaff, who is on the board of directors of the foundation, came and spent the whole day with me.”

“Mariachi” is music by a Mexican string orchestra composed of between three and 12 performers playing a variety of stringed and brass instruments.

The origin of the music and of the word “mariachi” have been debated. Many people refute the original theory that it was derived from the French word for wedding —“mariage,” because of the type of music played at these events — for it preceded the arrival of the French in Mexico. It is believed to have originated in the southern part of the state of Jalisco sometime in the 19th century. The word “mariachi” is used for the individual performer of mariachi music or for the music itself.

The grant to Frankford Elementary provided cellos, violins, vihuelas and trumpets —many of which were popular with the boys, according to Gass.

“I like practicing and playing the trumpet, and I like blowing my trumpet to get my sister out my room!” declared Mac Smith, a third-grader involved in the band.

Vihuelas are similar to a guitar, but with five strings and smaller. They, along with the cellos, violins and trumpets, make up the typical components of a mariachi.

Gass sent a letter home to parents to gauge the interest and to see if the parents would be able to help with costumes, etc. Once the children were signed up, she had them write what type of instruments they would like to learn.

About 25 third-graders and one fourth-grader who expressed interest make up the band. The students practice one day after school, by section, and will come together in April to perform “De Colores,” a song they are learning out of the book “Mariachi Mastery” (“La Maestria del Mariachi”).

Gass comes from a musical background herself and said she has always known she would be involved with music and teaching. She has a bachelor’s degree in general choral music and a master’s in applied technology.

“I sang in a band for years with my brother. Being a single parent, it was hard to keep it up, so I got out for awhile when I went back to school. But I love teaching. I have always loved music — and I have always loved kids.”

She added that she has a lot of help from Jeannine Nelson, a Spanish-language interpreter at the school.

Although the interest in the idea of a mariachi band came from trying to reach out to the school’s significant Hispanic population and their parents, the students who joined the band are as diverse as the student body itself — and most simply joined for a reason universal to childhood: to be with their friends.

Colby Chandler, who plays the trumpet because it is “very loud” and “very fun,” said he joined because he likes playing instruments. Gerald Foreman, who joined to play the trumpet, enjoys “playing the notes.”

Kaitlyn Shugar, who plays the violin — and has had past experience playing piano — said the best part about it is “being with my friends and having fun.” Mariah Lynch, who plays guitar, said she “likes to play it with [her] fingers.” Chloe Webster said she enjoys being with her friends and picked the violin “because I like the sound of it.”

Many of the Hispanic members of the band are familiar with mariachi and have relatives that either are or were involved in a band in some way.

Jasenky Rivera, who plays the violin because she “likes the sound of it” and “likes to be surrounded my friends,” has an uncle in Mexico who plays in a mariachi band. Rigo Parry, who plays guitar “because I like to play instruments,” has an uncle who used to sing in a mariachi band. Sammy Rojas, who joined because he likes “playing the instruments and being with my friends,” has a father who used to be in a mariachi band.

As for the group’s future, Gass said she would like to see it continue on after the school year, so the students keep playing.

“I’d like to do a summer camp. We started them in third grade, so they’d stick with it and grow with their instruments. Next year, they’ll be better, and the following year they’ll be really good!” she said.

According to their Web site, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation (MHOF) was inspired by the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” the story of the profound effect a dedicated music teacher had on generations of students. The film’s composer, Michael Kamen, founded MHOF in 1996 as his commitment to the future of music education.

MHOF donates new and refurbished musical instruments to underserved schools, community music programs and individual students nationwide, in an effort to give youngsters the many benefits of music education, help them to be better students and inspire creativity and expression through playing music.

Frankford Elementary was a U.S. Department of Education No Child Left Behind National Blue Ribbon School for 2004; National Title I school for 2004; the Education Trust’s “Dispelling the Myth” award winner in 2005; a Delaware Department of Education Superior School in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007; and an Intel and Scholastic School of Distinction winner for 2006.