CHARLESTON - The Hispanic student population at Stall High School has more than tripled in the past five years, growing to roughly 10 percent of the student body.
Band director Braeden Kershner wanted to offer more musically that would appeal to those students. About a year ago, he suggested starting a mariachi band, a traditional Mexican ensemble that includes violins, trumpets and guitars.
Students seemed excited, and the state's first student mariachi band got its start. They're not a big or well-trained group of musicians yet, but Kershner can envision a time when they will have increased in number and skill and play at local festivals and restaurants.
Scot Hockman, who oversees visual and performing arts programs for the state Department of Education, said he was unaware of another student mariachi band in the state, but called it an innovative practice that's helping meet the needs of the state's diverse student population.
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"We're filling a need within our students for them to understand music from a global perspective as well as how to play in that genre," he said.
It's not uncommon for Stall High's Hispanic students to download mariachi music to their iPods because many have grown up hearing it. It's the music of Mexico, and some see it as a point of national pride.
"It's classic," Kershner said. "It's never going to go out of style."
Kershner has asked permission to teach a pilot mariachi band course next year, and he said that would give him more time to work with his beginning musicians and grow the program.
For now, it's tough to find a time when every member of the band can meet, so sometimes they practice during a general band course. Other times they meet after school.
Because this is the first student band of its kind in the state, Kershner has had to educate himself about the music's rhythm and style while looking elsewhere for curriculum.
The biggest hurdle facing the mariachi band is finding instruments that aren't cheap or available locally. Students raised about $1,500 last year for necessities such as a guittaron, a guittara and a vihuela, but they have enough for only seven students.
Other Hispanic students wanting to join the band have approached Kershner, but he's had to turn them away.
Senior Elias Leon, who plays trumpet, said it's been a big change to learn a different style of music, but it's an experience he's enjoying. He plans to come back to the school after he graduates to watch, practice and perform with the band.
Senior Jaime Lopez, who plays guittaron, said this is the only cultural activity related to being Hispanic that he gets to do at school, and his fellow band mates seemed grateful for the opportunity.
"It's going to be cool," Leon said.