Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Chris Donlon | Desert Sounds (Mesa, AZ)
Chris Donlon was in the audience at a national music education conference one summer 25 years ago as an all-student mariachi group performed. The pageantry of the uniforms, the excellence in their playing and singing, and the exciting energy the young group brought to their performance was a cathartic experience. “It was at that moment, Chris recalled, “that I realized I would like to start exploring that and teaching that to my students.”
A music teacher in the Glendale public school system, Chris quickly garnered the support of the administration and mariachi music was inserted into the curriculum. It became a hit with students and parents, but after a dozen years or so, Chris and his wife, Su and their two children moved to Mesa.
The Arizona State University graduate with a degree in music performance was looking for an opportunity to continue the program when one of his new students mentioned Desert Sounds, a nonprofit that provides kids from underserved communities access to instruments and musical programming. Chris had never heard of the organization, but soon after he connected with Jennifer Crews, the president of Desert Sounds and “Mariachi Sones del Desierto” was formed.
That was some 12 years ago, and it is now the organization’s most popular and longest-running group program. “Chris’ love for teaching mariachi music to the next generation is infectious and inspiring to everyone around him,” Jennifer said proudly. “Because of his dedication as the mariachi program director, it is a sought-after premier mariachi program with five levels and eight ensembles.”
Desert Sounds believes that everyone regardless of background, should have the ability to learn and play music. Music brings countless benefits to individuals who play and communities who listen. Desert Sounds also recognizes finance as the biggest barrier parents and children in Arizona face in accessing music education. More than music education, their staff also encourages kids to come together to have a say in their education. As a result, the youngsters learn to work with others of diverse backgrounds and share a common goal.
And teaching how to play the joyful Mexican melodies it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The typical instruments of contemporary mariachi include the vihuela, a five-string guitar related to an instrument popular in the Spanish Renaissance; the guitarrón, a large, fretless six-string bass guitar; a standard six-string acoustic guitar; and violins and trumpets, which usually play the melody. Chris has also added a harp as an option.
“Kids that come to us sometimes are shy and want to be on their own, they don’t want to speak out, they don’t want to be extroverted,” Chris explained, “but the very nature of being in a mariachi is that you are out there, you’ve got it all up in your head, you’ve memorized it and you’re playing for an audience. Over the years I have seen kids that have been completely shy just turn into fabulous singers and fabulous players and very much on the extroverted side of things when it matters. It’s very rewarding to see them get up in front of an audience and them realizing ‘Yep I got this, I can do this and the audience really enjoys hearing me play.’ That confidence they gain to know that they can do anything they want, anything they can set their mind to, is really where it empowers them. It’s nice that music got them to that point.”
And just as importantly, it stays with the students after they leave the program. “Some of the kids that started with us are now coming back and teaching other kids, teaching younger kids. Now it is the next generation of teachers that are teaching,” Chris added happily.
His volunteer role at Desert Sounds is a confluence of two long time passions: music and the desire to help others. “I have always enjoyed helping people even before teaching,” he reasoned. “As a student myself I just wanted to do the right thing.”
One of his first encounters with music came as an elementary school student in Maryland. “We were able to go to Washington, DC to see the National Symphony Orchestra play a kids concert. They played the music from Star Wars, and I realized those were real people playing those instruments not just something that you saw on a screen. And I thought, that’s something I definitely want to do. I think that’s where it got started for me,” he recalled.
Speaking of concerts, the Mariachi Sones del Desierto players have a schedule of their own. “We take them out to different performances depending on their level,” Chris explained. “We could have them perform at a birthday party all the way up to the Mesa Art Center. It’s a wide range of performance opportunities that the groups have. We just have to fit the right group to the right performance.”
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation