Wichita Kansas | November 2, 2023
By Stefania Lugli
A THWACK stills the room. Seven mouths drop agape.
“She popped the string,” someone whispers.
“Broooo…. Are you kidding me?! You had one job! We’re going to have to take away your guitar privileges!”
This is the first few minutes of Panya Amphone’s mariachi class at Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts Magnet Middle School. The start of each 40-minute class begins with Amphone leading his six students through an instrumental warm-up — barring any snags.
“We’re gonna reteach Alyssa how to tune a guitar,” Amphone says to the class, gently teasing his student, before reassuring Alyssa that he breaks strings “at least twice a year.”
This is Amphone’s first year formally teaching mariachi. He took on teaching the school district’s only mariachi class after deciding to step down as director of choir and orchestra.
Amphone, 27, is half Laoian, half Chinese. So, what inspired him to instruct a musical class steeped in a folkloric history and culture outside of his own?
“As somebody from an underrepresented minority culture, I understand what representation means. One of the reasons I wanted to start this mariachi program is because — when you look at the demographics of our school district — it shows that almost 40% of our students are Hispanic. I think almost 80% of them are of Mexican descent,” Amphone says. “It’s crazy to me we haven’t had this program before.”
Amphone’s father was in a Lao band, which fully immersed him into his family’s culture. It helped him feel connected to his background, especially when he met other Laoian and they could bond over what a “bop” a Laoian song was.
Eighth graders Jatziry Ramirez Vazquez and Evelyn Soto joined Amphone’s class to immerse themselves in their Mexican background.
“I joined because it makes me feel more connected to my culture since I don’t live in Mexico. And because I love Mr. Amphone. He makes the class really fun and makes mariachi a lot better,” Vazquez says.
Soto echoes the sentiment, even sharing Amphone’s childhood memories of having a father play cultural music.
“Since I was a little kid, my father always used to play songs while my mother was cooking. All these types of mariachi songs. I fell in love with the music as I grew up with it,” she says. “So entering a mariachi class really connected me to my childhood and dad. The songs really remind me of him.”
A window, a mirror and a sliding glass door
This is an analogy Amphone frequently references when talking about his approach to teaching mariachi: “it’s a window, mirror, and sliding glass door.”
A window allows students not a part of a certain culture to be introduced to it — they can gaze through a theoretical windowsill and take in a fresh view. “So, hopefully, my mariachi class is providing a window to everybody else who is not Mexican.”
A mirror is “a way for kids to see themselves. Kids who are of Mexican descent studying mariachi, they’re seeing the representation.”
The sliding glass door, as Amphone explains it, is the experience. “Kids who are not Mexican can see through it, but they can also walk through it. They can be a part of it.”
Amphone includes himself in this analogy, fully embracing the quirkiness of having an Asian man with imperfect Spanish teach mariachi.
“I never really thought about Mr. Amphone not being Mexican,” Vasquez, one of his students, says. “He teaches as if he’s in the culture. He’s also never said he knows everything. He always tells us that he’s gonna learn with us. I feel like, if you’re gonna teach something, you need to have passion for it.”
Soto agrees, saying that its Amphone’s open approach and curious attitude that matters more than his background.
“Music is something for everybody. Him showing that he wants to teach us music for and about our culture and learn about it… that’s very nice,” she says.
The fine art(s) of mariachi
For the 2023 school year, 25 students were initially signed up for Amphone’s mariachi class, prompting him to order 25 guitars. The signups dwindled down to 6. The guitars remain at 25.
Amphone says that students’ interest in extracurricular courses don’t always line up with their desired schedules or core classes. He also thinks that the class being new can be daunting for others.
However, while mariachi is new to Mayberry Middle, Amphone says North High School originally had a mariachi class taught by former state representative Stephanie Byers prior to her run for office. The program ended with Byers’ retirement, a result Amphone hopes to avoid.
“The goal is always to grow the program, make it sustainable,” he says. “I want this program to outlive me and grow beyond (Mayberry). Because for the kids in it now, when they go to high school there isn’t a mariachi program waiting for them. My hope is that I’m giving them skills to teach other people how to grow this art.”
In the meantime, the students are flourishing. Vasquez and Soto note not just personal growth with their instruments and voices, but a true sense of community, too.
Vasquez says the small class has “become a little family of our own… which helps us make better music.”
Soto sees the emotional impact the music has on others. She says a video taken during a recent performance showed their choir teacher crying during it.
“She saw how connected we are in our singing or playing. That’s my favorite part, knowing that we are showing our connection to the music and seeing the reactions.”
Amphone elaborates that mariachi is beyond music — it is “fully encompassing of a fine arts program.”
“All the kids sing. You’ve got your orchestra: the string instruments. Then, trumpets. So you have choir, orchestra, band. But then you’ve got theater!” he says. “Because the kids, when they sing, they have to act. Their faces have to light up. They have to perform. And a real mariachi has a kind of dance, too. They’ll move around, dance, stomp… perfectly coordinated.”
The class, while small, is incredibly mighty. The sounds of guitars, violins, violas and vocals soar into the air, captivating anyone fortunate enough to hear it. Currently the group is learning De Colores and Cerca Del Mar.
The practice runs have a few pauses. One student plays the wrong note, another gets lost reading sheet music. A reporter reassures the class that they don’t know anything about music, so they can’t tell when something goes wrong.
“When you’re singing — y por esOOOO — really make sure you’re singing out. Because right now you’re like…” Amphone lowers his voice to a whisper and concaves his chest to demonstrate a hushed tone. The class erupts in giggles.
Amphone smiles, then returns his hands back to the guitar slung across his chest.
“1, 2, 3. Ready, set and…”