By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager
Tuesday afternoon, rush hour traffic is roaring, and there’s a neighborly din outside the Bishop Arts Theater in Oak Cliff. But inside guitars are strumming. If you walk up to the theater’s second floor, you’ll hear the whip-bang-boom of a drum kit.
La Rondalla workshops fill the Tyler Street venue with music. In the auditorium teacher Michael King has the largest class, 15 children learning the rudiments of beginners’ acoustic guitar. The tween-aged kids, about evenly divided between male and female, finger the fret, strum, then repeat. King counts down the rhythm as he gingerly surveys his students.
“They are very tender so we want them to learn the finger patterns, the rhythms, the chords,” says King, who also teaches 6th grade language arts at Alex W. Spence Talented/Gifted Academy. “They are learning motor skills, show and do, cooperative learning. They communicate in their own way. When I instruct them, that exposure gives them trust and confidence. It establishes relationships.”
La Rondalla, now in its sixth year, has never been just about learning to play guitar, bass and drums. Conceptualized by Big Thought and multi-instrumentalist Dennis Gonzalez, himself a veteran of recording, performing and teaching, La Rondalla aims to nurture social, emotional and psychological growth in children through the power of music.
“These kids realize what a mystery music is,” says Gonzalez. “It helps them emotionally, psychologically. They communicate with each other without speaking.
The free program, which is under Big Thought’s Thriving Minds umbrella, has been immensely successful from its 2010 onset. It was housed at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center through June 2015, when it was obvious Rondalla was in desperate need of more space. About 81 students are enrolled through the end of 2015, 96 percent of which are Hispanic.
“That was not by design,” says Gonzalez about the high Hispanic involvement, “but we are in this neighborhood.”
At the core of La Rondalla is the faculty. In addition to patient talent such as King, Rondalla benefits from two of Gonzalez’s sons, Aaron teaching acoustic bass and Stefan leading the drum kit instruction, as well as Kenny Withrow, a founding member of Oak Cliff’s own Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, on advanced and intermediate guitar, and Gregg Prickett on intermediate guitar.
“I set the direction with Aaron’s help, and then we moved and grew and tried this and that, always succeeding at every turn,” says Gonzalez. “The choice of faculty was key.”
It also helps to have passionate support. Local businessman and Havana, Cuba native Jorge Baldor, who founded the Latino Center for Leadership Development, is an ardent benefactor of La Rondalla.
“La Rondalla changes lives,” says Baldor, a graduate of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University. “It goes well beyond being a great after school music program. They bring students together from a number of schools to form a close bond with them and among them. Their lessons are life lessons, not just musical. Each student’s individual confidence is bolstered as they learn life skills and social skills among each other and while performing for the community.”
Kids come in from more than just Oak Cliff. Rondalla students make the trek from as far as Balch Springs, DeSoto and Mesquite. Community performances are plentiful, most recently La Rondalla opened the Oak Cliff Coalition for the Arts festivities at Oak Cliff’s Cedar Crest House. Past performances include the 2012 Conference for Community Arts Education at the Fairmont Dallas, TEDxSMU 2012 at the City Performance Hall, the 2013 Linz Award at the Hilton Anatole, and the 2014 U.S. Conference of Mayors, to name a few.
Professional showcases cap the communal spirit of playing together during the daily two-hour workshops. Karina Fuentes, 16, keeps soaking up that positive energy. Fuentes, who attends Mesquite’s Poteet High School and is a four-year La Rondalla student, studies drums and guitar. She also plays piano and marvels as the musical diversity that defines her Rondalla experience.
“The teachers put a lot of effort into trying to teach kids music and build up their creativity,” says Fuentes, who plans to be a nurse practitioner. “I like the teaching style because they are like jazz players and there are a lot of musical styles in it. To be able to play a song you have to practice, so it’s like staying in school.”
Jose Christopher Torres, 18 and a student at Oak Cliff Faith Family Academy, also studies drums and guitar at Rondalla. In his spare time he composes classical pieces on the piano. Torres feels the connection that music creates; he revels in the communal learning atmosphere he shares with his Rondalla classmates.
“It’s helpful for me and for others because I learn something that they didn’t pick up and I can teach it to them later instead of interrupting the class,” says Torres, who is interested in entomology and astrophysics. “It is a community so we all learn together as one. It’s a feeling of one. Our feelings are united toward music.”