Some 20 Odessa High School mariachi students will strum their way to Edinburg for the third year running for the UIL State Mariachi Festival later this month.

Usually held in San Antonio, this year it will be Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 the Performing Arts Complex at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg. The festival is still under pilot status, the University Interscholastic League website shows.

Jerimie Hernandez, director of Odessa High School Mariachi, said the mariachi program has 115 students. At Ector Middle School, which feeds the OHS program, some 230 students participate. The group traveling to this year’s festival said they are confident they will do well and bring home a medal.

“The secret is really just motivating the kids and reminding them their potential for success is unlimited. It’s taken a lot of working individually with students, helping them recognize their potential and not have them just play but actually give them constructive feedback on how they can make things better,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said his students have worked really hard this year.

“They have learned to work smarter, not harder so they’re not just practicing as in repeating something without it being productive. Every time we stop I ask them what they learned about what we just stopped for, so they’re constantly making corrections to what they’re doing. They are actually practicing, not until we can get it right but practicing until we don’t get it wrong anymore,” he added.

Hernandez said he does expect perfection.

“Because if we lower the expectations, then they’ll never really understand their full potential. I tell them several times a week, the music won’t get easier and that’s because I’m not going to drop the expectation,” he added.

The discipline of mariachis can translate to the academic side, as well.

“Being a musician helps build character,” Hernandez said. “A lot of what we’re doing has to do with our own integrity on how we interpret the music, so whatever integrity they’re learning from being a performer of music they learn to carry over that into other disciplines. I keep telling them that they need to do things right as if someone’s always watching them because when someone’s always watching, we tend to do our best.”

Eighteen-year-old Justin Lopez, is a violinist in the group. He has been in mariachis since seventh grade.

“Whenever I was younger, I never really liked mariachi music. I actually hated all music in Spanish but what changed my mind is that whenever we went to El Paso for my mom and dad’s wedding anniversary. We found a mariachi over there and I heard them playing and I just loved it. I don’t know why it just amazed me. I loved the sound of the violins,” Lopez said.

He added that he got to sing with the group because they had been contracted for his parents’ anniversary.

“I had no idea what I was singing, but I got to sing with them it was really nice it was a really good experience,” Lopez said.

He added that this year’s group of mariachis is better than what he’s experienced before, but the competition is going to be fierce.

“It’s crazy. There are so many different groups from all over the state. You get to hear some of the playing” and they sound like professionals, Lopez said.

Ibrahim Martinez, a 17-year-old senior, is in his fifth year as a mariachi. He started on guitar, then with nudging from Hernandez, Martinez moved to vihuela, guitarra de golpe, guitarron (the bass instrument), and this year, to harp.

Learning the different instruments helps in Martinez’s capacity as a section leader and makes it easier to give advice to other players and help them with their technique.

Listening to the group outside the classroom recently, Martinez observed that the group was catching on fast to a piece of music they just got that day.

It’s one indication that the group is coming together as a team.

He said he doesn’t let the competition get to him and just works on himself.

“If you’re focusing on other people, you get distracted. There’s nothing good to come from distraction,” Martinez said.

Sebastian Arenivas, a 17-year-old senior trumpet player, will be making his first trip to state competition. He has been playing for six years and had earned a spot in honor band previously. He liked band, but mariachi is more of an expressive art.

“I’ve been wanting to go to it and come home with that experience. It’s once in a lifetime, and for me, it’s something that I won’t get to do again because it’s my last year here,” Arenivas said.

Sixteen-year-old junior Janyssa Valdez plays the violin and sings. She has been in mariachi for five years. She said she loves the music and learning how to play it.

What she enjoys most is being able to perform, show other people how it sounds and “give them the privilege to hear it.”

As for state, Valdez said there will be a lot of competition, but “I think we can get past it.”