The band room at Memorial Park Middle School is buzzing with activity on a sunny afternoon in early October. “Controlled chaos,” says Colleen Phillips, the school’s Orchestra/Assistant Band Director.

She’s describing the Mariachi class that meets every Monday after school. “I really love teaching Mariachi,” she says with her trademark smile. “I’m not from the culture, but I find it so beautiful and amazing.”

Colleen Phillips has been teaching music for 20 years in Fort Wayne Community Schools.

About 15 students signed up when the class was first offered. That number has grown to around 30 this year.

The Mariachi class is the only one offered in Fort Wayne Community Schools and one of a handful being taught in Indiana.

Students not only learn the music, but the culture behind it.

Students play the trumpet in Mariachi class at Memorial Park Middle School.

Phillips thought the class could be a hit in Fort Wayne. She started a program at a prior school, but the pandemic brought everything to a halt. When she moved to Memorial Park, she was delighted to find support to start the class again.

Students were excited for the opportunity. “I’m of Mexican Heritage,” says 7th grader Alondra Valdeztorres. “I wanted to learn more about the music because I don’t know that much. I decided to join immediately.”

“It’s such a vibrant culture,” says Phillips. “It’s been a great chance for our students at Memorial Park to learn language and music skills.”

Phillips isn’t a master of the language. “I encourage them to correct my pronunciation,” she says laughing. “I tell them I can teach you the music, but you guys have to teach me the language.”

The students are more than happy to oblige.

Memorial Park Middle School 8th grader Stephen Robles and another student in Mariachi class.

“Mariachi is a true Mexican form of music,” Phillips says. “In parts of the southwest, it’s more prevalent than jazz band or show choir.”

Stephen Robles is in his second year of the program. “My parents had it back in Mexico,” he says. “It just feels like a part of me.”

Phillips says the class gives students of the culture, and new to it, a chance to belong.

Robles, an 8th grader agrees. “I go home to my mom,” he says. “I’m like, hey Mom, do you know this? She says yeah, and then she tells me about it which is really cool.”

Samarah Hughes enjoys playing the Vuela in the Mariachi Class at Memorial Park Middle School.

Samarah Hughes is also in her second year in the program. “I’ve learned a lot about the culture, a culture that is different from my own,” she says. “I play the Vuela, which is similar to a guitar, but has five strings.”

“I just like the ownership the kids take from it,” says Phillips. “It’s really become their group.”

“I love playing the violin,” says 7th grader Amy Sotamba. “It’s the harmony and the melody. You get lost in those notes. You’re just into something you really like to do.”

Amy Sotamba plays the violin in Mariachi class at Memorial Park Middle School.

Valdeztorres says she’s grown in her two years in the program. “I’ve learned a lot and I’ve built confidence because of her help.”

Phillips encourages the class to do their best and not worry about the rest.

“She’s a great teacher,” says Robles. “She’s everywhere.”

Huxley Chamberlain, a 7th grader who plays the Guitarron agrees. “Some classes, the teacher tells you what to do, but they don’t show you. She shows us what to do and you can tell that she cares.”

Huxley Chamberlain enjoys chips and salsa after Mariachi class.

As the class wraps up, you can hear a jar pop open. “I try to practice music until 3:45 or 3:50 and then we get out the chips and salsa,” Phillips says. “We have a little social time and the kids can just be themselves.”

“Most classes don’t give you food at the end,” says Hughes with a big smile. “This one does!”

Laughter fills the room as the kids devour the snacks.

“It’s like a family group,” says Chamberlain. “It’s really together.”

“These are going to be my friends for a long time,” says Hughes. “I can tell you that for sure.”

“It’s just cool to see that people want to play,” says Robles. “It makes me happy.”

It’s easy to see why the Mariachi program at Memorial Park Middle School is Positively Fort Wayne!

Memorial Park Middle School is located at 2200 Maumee Ave in Fort Wayne.