Texas Tech University

Alumna Takes Violin to Grammy-Winning Mariachi Group

Heidi Toth

October 13, 2015

Felicia Rojas grew up playing classical music but found a love for mariachi when she moved to West Texas.

Felicia Rojas
Felicia Rojas
All photos courtesy Felicia Rojas

Felicia Rojas can be her own backup music if needed.

The Texas Tech University alumna, who graduated in May with a doctorate in music performance, grew up in a musical home in Cleveland, Ohio. Both her parents were guitar players and she quickly developed a love for music – so much that she came home from school crying one day because she had not been given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument.

A maternal letter to an understanding teacher got 8-year-old Felicia into music classes. When presented with a wall of instruments, she didn't hesitate.

“I just for some reason knew I wanted to play the violin,” she said. “I must have seen someone playing it on TV and thought it was a really cool instrument. I just had it in my mind that I had to play the violin.”

She learned to play the violin, along the way also studying piano, harp and voice. The violin, however, remained her first love; she studied it in college and it brought her to Texas Tech. Her violin also introduced her to mariachi, a type of music she'd never played before coming to Lubbock, despite her love for ethnic music like Peruvian musica criolla.

Felicia Rojas

Mariachi didn't need much time to get into her blood, though. After two years with a local mariachi group and a semester with the Texas Tech Mariachi Los Matadores, she got a job with Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, a Grammy Award-winning group that performs at California Adventure every day. Rojas is already talking about building her own home recording studio and fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, among other plans.

Love of music

Rojas' mother is from a classical music background, while her father, who learned to play the guitar from his father in Peru, played traditional folk music and improvised new songs but couldn't read music. Out of this marriage came Rojas, who's known she wanted to be in music for as long as she can remember.

“They didn't want to push me into music, but I think they always hoped their kids would be interested in it,” she said.

After a few months of listening to scratchy violin sounds, Rojas' mother started her 8-year-old daughter on piano. Her teacher, Jan Bis, a Polish immigrant, told Rojas' mother after a lesson one day that Rojas had perfect pitch. Her mother sat down at the piano and played note after note, trying to stump Rojas, who was sitting across her room with her back to the piano. Rojas named each one.

Felicia Rojas

From there, voice lessons were a natural evolution. The two instruments and singing kept her busy, but when the Padua High School orchestra visited her grade school, Rojas became entranced with the harp. After much deliberation, her parents found a harp teacher. They also said no more.

“I realize how lucky I am because not a lot of kids get the opportunity to play that many instruments,” Rojas said. “But my mom drew the line at drums.”

Music became her primary focus. In high school when she wanted to get a part-time job her mom said no – her job was to practice. At Baldwin-Wallace University she studied the harp with Cleveland Orchestra harpist Trina Struble and the violin with professor Julian Ross, who both nurtured and pushed her in her music.

When she finished her bachelor's degree, Rojas auditioned at a number of graduate schools. At Texas Tech she met John Gilbert, a friend of Ross. After a 5-minute audition with him she knew she wanted to study with Gilbert. He supported her plan of competing, which would raise her profile as a solo artist, and helped her start on that path. Under his tutelage she learned to practice more efficiently and refine her technique.

Rojas turned around and shared these lessons with her students, and they had the same reaction she had: “Oh, you were right. It's like magic.”

Getting into mariachi

Rojas got involved in mariachi music by coincidence. She was out to dinner in Lubbock one night and was carrying her violin, and as she passed a long table full of people they stopped her and asked if she wanted to play mariachi music. They were the Mariachi Mexico Lindo, a local mariachi group. Her focus up to this point had been on classical music, with occasional forays into Celtic music and her background in Peruvian musica criolla. She'd never thought about mariachi, and she was busy with school and work, so initially she said no. A member invited her to one rehearsal to check it out.

“I ended up really liking it, so I stuck with that,” she said.

Felicia Rojas

Her final semester at Texas Tech she also joined the university's mariachi group, which gave her the opportunity to learn from visiting artist Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán, a Grammy Award-winning mariachi artist from Mariachi Los Camperos who plays half a dozen instruments and knows all the parts to every song.

She joined the Texas Tech group in part on the recommendation of musicology professor Christopher Smith, who she knew through participation in the Celtic Ensemble. He'd seen her perform arrangements of the Peruvian musica criolla, her family's musical tradition, and knew how much she loved ethnic music.

“Felicia sang those pieces beautifully with great intensity, and after that I suggested she join the mariachi ensemble,” he said. “She is a tremendously skilled person in instrumental music, voice and dance and is a great resource for any performing ensemble.”

Through Texas Tech Rojas also attended the Mariachi Spectacular in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in July. Well-known mariachi musicians from the United States and Mexico gave lectures and taught classes. Rojas was one of eight selected for the violin master class, where an elite mariachi instructor taught the group three songs, after which they joined the musicians from the other master classes in a full-size mariachi.

Rojas sang a solo during the performance of “Al Mariachi de Mi Tierra” in addition to playing her violin. The entire experience was incredible.

Felicia Rojas

“We got to play side by side with these big-name groups,” she said. “These are the best mariachi musicians in the world all there on stage, and we were standing right next to them. They're fabulous musicians. They can all play concertos at a very high level, but they want to play mariachi.”

This was an especially good experience for her because a week earlier she'd accepted a job with Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, a musical group that performs every day at California Adventure in Anaheim and records albums yearly. While she was hesitant to tell people at Mariachi Spectacular, Texas Tech musicology professor Lauryn Salazar had no qualms about introducing Rojas to other musicians and telling them she'd just been hired by the Divas.

Although her career plans have morphed since she dreamed of following Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, being part of a well-known group like the Mariachi Divas fits nicely into the future she wants.

“This is definitely in the realm of what I envisioned myself doing,” Rojas said. “I get to play, and I get to sing and dance and interact with a crowd.”

Life as a Mariachi Diva and beyond

Every performance for Rojas now is a little different. During the summer she plays at Pacific Wharf in California Adventure on weekdays and does concerts every Sunday at the Paradise Garden Bandstand. For weekday shows, which are more informal, the group performs near the food stands, singing and playing mariachi music that has been jazzed up a little. It's a cross between mariachi and pop, she said.

“I think this group has found a niche,” she said. “When we do a stage performance, the fans go nuts. It may not be traditional, but people like it. It's something they enjoy, and they'll go see a concert.”

Felicia Rojas

For the Sunday shows they actually go on stage and perform, though the set list is a moving target. The group's founder will call out songs, and they'll interact with the audience, taking requests from couples celebrating their anniversary or singing to a birthday boy or girl.

It's different than what she's used to – sometimes there's no recording or sheet music to follow along – but she's having a good time. When she's been in the job a little longer Rojas will take the lead in the weekday performances, calling out songs and visiting with the crowds.

In January the Mariachi Divas will record a new album with mariachi legend Rigoberto Alfaro as their new composer, arranger and musical director. The group won a Grammy in 2015 for best regional Mexican music album with “15 Aniversario.” They also do concerts through California, across the United States and in Mexico.

Performing with the Divas also allows Rojas time for side projects. She wants to build a home recording studio and create YouTube videos of herself performing and teaching. She gives Suzuki violin lessons and performs at weddings and other events. Plus, she's learning the business side of music so she can continue building her brand.

She has plenty to keep her busy, yet Rojas has more plans. One of her longtime dreams is to play with the world-famous Trans-Siberian Orchestra. She's reached out to violinists Mark Wood and Asha Mevlana, both of whom have played with TSO. She met Wood while performing with the Texas Tech University Symphony Orchestra at the Texas Music Educators Association, and Mevlana used to be a Mariachi Diva, so Rojas is keeping her fingers crossed while she learns to play electric violin.

Life is pretty much where she wants it to be, the Red Raider turned Diva said.

“Performing in general is just a thing I love to do,” she said. “In a way it isn't what I expected, but it's exactly what I wanted.”