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When 12-year-old Jesus Aguilar spent three weeks last summer at mariachi camp in Santa Rosa, he ate breakfast and lunch with friends, played Mexican folk tunes on the violin and sang aloud with dozens of other kids.

The experience was so enjoyable that Aguilar is returning to the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts’ free mariachi camp on July 5. But this time around it’s going to be a little different.

Students will start their mornings as usual — at Lawrence Cook Middle School — but after lunch they’ll be bussed over to the Sonoma Country Day School, where Santa Rosa Symphony instructors will teach them classical music techniques.

“I want to learn more music styles,” said Jesus, a young violinist who learned to play at camp traditional mariachi songs such as De Colores, Los Barandales del Puente and El Son de los Aguacates.

Wendy Cilman, the symphony’s education director, said the afternoon sessions will provide solid technical foundation.

“It’s just an ideal pairing,” she said.

The mariachi camp is taught in an oral tradition, where students often learn music through demonstration.

With the symphony collaboration, students will combine two different styles of learning music — “family style” in the morning and academic in the afternoon.

“They get two perspectives, and a more well-rounded experience,” said Ray Gargano, the arts center’s education and community engagement director.

They’ll have up to 45 kids in the program, but there’s a sizable waitlist, Gargano said. Students can choose to learn the guitar, trumpet or violin.

Mariachi camp instructor Jose Soto Jr. said some students have never picked up an instrument before coming to the camp. The collaboration with the symphony is good for the kids, Soto said.

“It opens new doors,” said Soto, a 25-year-old who recently graduated from Sonoma State University with a music education degree. “The more preparation for the kids the more opportunities they can have. I feel happy this is happening.”

This year, they’ll be offering a master class for the first time on July 28 with Jeff Nevin, a San Diego Symphony classical trumpet player who has a Ph.D. in music theory and composition.

Nevin, whose band, Mariachi Champaña Nevin, will play a free concert with the Santa Rosa Symphony at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park on July 29, composes mariachi orchestra music and authored “Mariachi Mastery.”

He also devised the world’s first degree in mariachi music and serves as president of the Mariachi Scholarship Foundation.

The master class will be free to students through a grant from the National Education Association.

“I’m really, really excited for that,” said Soto, who’s in a family band called Mariachi Barragán.

Soto partnered with the arts center in 2015 to introduce music and instruments to underserved children in southwest Santa Rosa. Since then, the program has continued to grow in popularity. It expanded into Cloverdale two years ago.

And this past school year, a group of 33 advanced mariachi students continued to meet and play after the summer camp ended. The mariachi ensemble met Thursday nights and Saturdays at LBC and Cook. Five of them drove into Santa Rosa from Cloverdale to keep practicing.

This summer, they’ll come back to Cook for afternoon mariachi sessions, separate from the morning camp and symphony collaboration.

Some mariachi campers expressed interested in playing songs from the Disney Pixar movie “Coco,” which came out last October. Some song requests from “Coco” include “Un poco loco,” “Remember Me” and “La Llorona.”

The free camp is open to students 9 and older. Soto said many students have ties to Mexico. Soto immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with his family about a decade ago, so he relates to many of the students.

“The families are working very hard. They don’t always make enough money to send kids to the camp, or for daycare or a babysitter,” Soto said.

At the end of mariachi camp, on July 26, there will be a closing reception at LBC. Last year, 800 people attended, Gargano said.

“Part of the culture is sharing within the community,” he said. “Our goal isn’t necessarily to build musicians. Our goal is using music to create a better community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com.

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