Because I love music, a lot of musicians end up in my novels. In MARIACHI MURDER, Andy Veracruz is a band leader in Southern California… until he really gets into trouble!

Posts tagged ‘violin’


Why I Love Mariachi #2 Classical Differences

I love mariachi music because it’s immediate. When you’re playing for an audience, you’re usually right there next to them. Once in a while you might be on stage, but at any rate, you’re still close by. That makes the music more vibrant, more exciting, more alive. As a performer it’s wonderful because you constantly make eye contact with your audience either to let them know you empathize or that you’re joking or that you’re simply checking in to make their experience the best one possible.

This is in complete contrast to classical music. Last month I had a chance to hear the Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert. Steven Moeckel played John Corigliano’s concerto “The Red Violin,” and because he’s Steven Moeckel, he played it really, really well.


I could see him perfectly because I was sitting in the third row. I couldn’t see the oboes or the trumpets, but I didn’t care. As a violin player, I’m biased. During an orchestra concert, I want to keep my eyes on the violins.

I watched in awe as Steven played harmonics and double stops. He played sustained notes with graceful vibrato and crunched through passages played for effect. Because I happened to be sitting close to him, I could see his expressions and feel his triumph as he crashed through difficult passages that were high and fast and loud.

But as he performed, most of the audience was completely removed from him. (He and the conductor did give a half-hour talk before the performance, however.) The regular concert-goer wouldn’t have left the theatre with any sense of Steven the man behind the violin.

This is a shame. The reason I wanted to hear this concert was not merely because I knew the violin playing would be top-notch or that the symphony members would do a wonderful job with Mahler #5. I wanted to hear Steven in concert because a few years ago when I started back up with the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Steven performed with us. I got to meet him and talk to him in person. And that’s how I found out he’s a tremendously nice guy. Never mind that he’s played concerts all over Europe, never mind that he’s been concertmaster of both TSO and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. He’s there for all of us.
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As I heard him perform tonight, I was well aware of that. I felt bad for the audience members who only knew about him through the biography in the program and hearing the notes he played on stage. He’s much more than that, but in classical music, the audience is almost always a distant concept. They’re specks of dust on the horizon or drops of rain in a storm. They’re far away.

What I’d really like to see is Steven Moeckel playing up close and personal in a mariachi band. Now that would be worth seeing every night of the week.

For more on mariachi and my new novel MARIACHI MURDER, please visit


Why I Love Mariachi: Brass versus Strings


There isn’t one reason that I love mariachi. It would take a book to explain my feelings about this musical form (I’m working on it!) But I can give a short musical answer, which is good enough to start with. I love the crazy dialogue between the violin and the trumpet.

In most mariachi music, the melody lines travel among the violins, the trumpets, and the voice. Occasionally a rhythm instrument, particularly a harp, for more formal groups, gets a solo line. And naturally the voice gets most of the melody lines. But honestly, a dialogue between violins and trumpets? And I thought it was difficult to compare apples and oranges. But a brass instrument with a huge sound that can blow your ears out versus a stringed instrument that has strong but limited sound?

Let’s take things to a practical level. Lately most mariachi groups have had to downsize. This is bad since most of the music is written for three-part violin harmony and two-part trumpet harmony. (Highly professional groups will double the violin players to six to ensure better intonation and bigger sound.) Given that the rhythm consists of a guitarrón (like a string bass) and a vihuela at a minimum, a strong professional group should have at least ten players, and that’s if the group dispenses with a guitar and a harp.

Most of the gigs I’ve played over the last years have consisted of four or five players at the most. That means that most of the time, I’m a sole violin player fighting to get my line heard over the trumpet. Crazy, right? On the other hand, this arrangement gives me the chance to really focus on our crazy dialogue.

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the first thing the dialogue reminds me of is a couple, one that has a lot to fight about. No matter which instrument starts a line, the other instrument often answers it. Lots of songs have an effect. “You played it first,” the trumpet might be suggesting, “but I played it louder.” This statement is hard to contest. I simply cannot compete with brass no matter how much pressure I put on the bow. (Yes, I go through bows fairly often, and no, in mariachi playing, violin players don’t spend much time going between “pp” and “ff.” Most of the time, I’m trying to play “fff” in self-defense.)

There are other passages where the two instruments play in harmony to one another, as if the instruments suddenly decided to like each other after all. These harmonies are often in soothing sixths, less often in thirds. Usually the violin line is on top, where the instrument can sing out a little more. These harmonies are lush and exciting.

But they don’t last. Soon enough the instruments are back to quarreling with one another, both trying for one-upmusicianship. Try as I might, I wouldn’t say I’m able to win any of the fights. The trumpet blows past me every time, and no matter how many times I tell J. to use his mute, he rarely listens. On the other hand, it might not be his fault. After years of practicing, his poor ears probably aren’t what they used to be!

In the meantime, we continue our ritual of fighting with one another, going along with one another, echoing one another, and then fighting again. But no matter how many songs we play, our intricate dialogue always sounds fresh and surprising. Each song is a new adventure in communication, one which I love sharing with every audience members.


To see how I worked this into a mystery, check out MARIACHI MURDER.


Since Mariachi Murder came out, a lot of readers have asked just what a mariachi is. That’s a good question, especially in the current economical climate. What a mariachi should include are the following instruments: guitarron (like a string bass except that it’s easier to carry), vihuela (looks like a mandolin), violin (3), trumpet (2). A big group might also have a guitar and a harp.

No matter what the cheap restaurant owner tells you, if the group doesn’t have four musicians, it’s not really a mariachi. Both rhythm instruments are crucial because one has the downbeat and one has the upbeat. Both violin and trumpet are crucial as well. On many songs, the two instruments answer one another. Other times they play harmonies.

Lately I haven’t gotten to play many gigs in Tucson because the restaurant owners don’t have enough money to pay a group on a steady basis. Sometimes we get calls for house parties, but people want the smallest group possible. I realize music is a luxury, but it’s an important one. There’s nothing like a mariachi group to liven up a party. Whether the customers ask for dance music or sweet love songs, they’ll get a real treat–that is, as long as they’ve hired a real mariachi!

Are you ready to hire a mariachi for your next party? You’ll have an unforgettable evening… and so will your neighbors!