For Jean Gomez Fonseca, being an assistant professor and orchestra director at the University of Texas Permian Basin fits his personality.
Very passionate about music education, he leads a variety of groups — harp, mariachis, guitar, piano — and courses and personally plays a number of instruments.
“I also teach music history, and the mariachi was a project that also grew because I’m originally from Costa Rica and back home I had the chance to have some years playing with mariachis,” Gomez Fonseca said.
When he came to UTPB, he thought he was just going to be overseeing the orchestra. But he heard about the mariachi program that started in 2001 lasted 11 or 12 years and then stopped, so he decided to take it up again.
“… I am really enjoying the music. Mariachi is always really uplifting and happy and you know every time that you play, you are going to see people smiling. It’s just a really, really beautiful experience just playing in the group,” Gomez Fonseca said.
He added that the 15-person group has kept growing since he arrived.
“Last week I just received two extra players interested in singing and playing … We have just one semester working on this,” Gomez Fonseca said. “… It has been a really good experience. We have been performing as much as possible now with COVID. It has been a little bit hard, but the performances have been really well received and the community is just excited. We are trying to have this group as a professional ensemble, as a place where the students can learn and preserve the music and the style.”
In the fall, he plans to have mariachi auditions. He added that many students have gotten interested in mariachis and it’s open to people in the community who want to audition.
Gomez Fonseca said the other programs such as orchestra have grown as well, from eight to 60. Because of COVID, building relationships with high school music teachers was difficult at first but he has started to make connections.
“… I really hope that it just keeps growing and growing. Many students have been reaching that they want to join the program and the interest is … there. It has been a really good experience …,” Gomez Fonseca said.
He noted that increased activity has also helped the orchestra gain momentum and motivated the students.
When he visits high schools to recruit students, he tells them he doesn’t care if they go to UTPB, although he would be happy if they did, but “go to college.”
“There are many opportunities. Apply for scholarships and try to guide them and motivate them just to continue studying. Some of them just like think, okay I’m going to finish high school and go on and work and make money and many of them do that. But I also have some students that they actually realize that they are working so hard and it’s like, oh I really want a degree. I want to go and do whatever I want to, to be doing music, or whatever passion and they come back and they keep studying,” he said.
Gomez Fonseca said he can identify with the students having to work for everything they have. Hailing from Cartago, Costa Rica, he was always musical, but it took a long time to work up to lessons.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Costa Rica. The university was geared toward technology, but it had a guitar orchestra so he tried out. He learned guitar by downloading and he practiced for hours that summer. He got into the guitar orchestra and it was also a way to get a scholarship and pay for school.
He earned a master’s degree in conducting and viola performance from Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., and a doctorate in conducting with a minor in piano from the University of Georgia.
Gomez Fonseca started with piano, then added violin, viola, guitar, cello and the tuba.
He also enjoys conducting.
“I am not just trying to be the maestro and artist of… just showing how beautifully I moved my hands, but I actually tried to teach them how to play better. … I really enjoy working with the students because the energy is completely different. I had experienced conducting professional ensembles, and I feel that sometimes the environment is a little bit colder because they see it more as a job,” he said.
And if you try to tell professional musicians how to do things, they don’t always take it well.
Gomez Fonseca also teaches violin and viola at UTPB.
“I have really enjoyed the lessons. I always feel that I learned a lot …,” he said.
Adrian Ramirez, a violin player, is just completing his freshman year at UTPB and plans to earn a music education degree. He attended Midland High School. Ramirez said Gomez Fonseca does a lot for the community.
“… I’m also in the band, so I have a lot of experience with the other directors, too, and I really notice he does a lot of local outreach with the local schools and communities … He added that the UTPB music program is inclusive of everyone.
“No one seems like they feel left out and we’re all a family,” Ramirez said.
He added that having high school musicians join them for programs as a recruitment tool is fun and a good way to meet people.
“… It’s a really good program,” Ramirez said.
Zshnedria Robinson, a senior who will graduate in fall 2022, has Gomez Fonseca as her orchestra director, private viola lesson teacher, history of music and music technology instructor.
She plays the violin as her main instrument and outside of school, she sings in her local church choir. But as music majors, they have to learn a little bit of every instrument.
Robinson said Gomez Fonseca is an “awesome” teacher.
“… He really knows his stuff as far as music and music education goes. He covers all sorts of things. Also, I was able to get his input on some conducting stuff because our university has just recently had student conductors for the first time ever. I actually conducted a piece for the first time at our concert this past weekend. And leading up to the concert at rehearsals and stuff, he was able to give me a lot of tips and feedback on conducting.”
After she graduates, she plans to teach music, expand her international performing career and work in music ministry within her church.
Robinson added that it’s been amazing to work with such talented musicians in the UTPB music department.
“And as far as the conducting thing goes, for me I would have never imagined I would get to do something like that. It takes a village and the UTPB music department, I call it my own personal village because I’ve gotten this wonderful opportunity to do stuff such as that whole conducting experience this past weekend at our concert and I’m still not done yet. (I’m) pretty sure I’m going to be learning a whole lot more before I graduate, so it’s just really been fun and I just can’t wait until next semester,” Robinson said.