Efrain Casillas and Tolleson Elementary School District Superintendent

Efrain Casillas and Tolleson Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Lupita Hightower were flown to the CMA Awards, where the teacher was honored.

Efrain Casillas schooled himself in mariachi so he could help his students bond with their families. For this, he was honored by the CMA Foundation.

Tolleson Elementary School District teacher Efrain Casillas knew nothing about mariachi when he headed to the Valley from Connecticut. 

Learning the demographic of his district, the Puerto Rican-born teacher schooled himself in the genre so the kids could connect with their family and each other.

That’s one of the reasons the Country Music Association, along with its philanthropic arm, the CMA Foundation, named Casillas one of its 2020 Music Teachers of Excellence. 

The group of 30 educators from across the United States was honored Nov. 10 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville during “Country Music’s Biggest Night,” the CMA Awards, hosted by singer/“American Idol” judge Luke Bryan. Casillas received a $2,500 bonus for himself and $2,500 for his class from the CMA Foundation.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the CMA Foundation created the Music Teachers of Excellence honor to recognize educators across the country who have the greatest impact on their students, using music as a vehicle for change. 

Casillas’ class of teachers was announced March 9, 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. The teachers received tickets to the CMA Awards, where they attended a preshow reception at the arena before attending the ceremony later that night. 

Like all CMA Awards nominees, the teachers received similarly designed medallions to honor the accomplishment. The teachers’ principals were given tickets to the CMA Awards and invites to the ancillary festivities celebrating the Music Teachers of Excellence.

“Day in and day out these incredible educators play an integral role in achieving and furthering the CMA Foundation’s mission of creating equitable access to music education programs across the United States,” said Tiffany Kerns, CMA Foundation executive director. 

“They dedicate their time, energy and resources to serving and enriching our next generation, ensuring that each student is encouraged and celebrated. We are thrilled to be able to put the spotlight on these 30 Music Teachers of Excellence who so often shine the light on others. We cannot wait to welcome our special guests to this year’s CMA Awards for a night full of celebration and country music.”

Casillas called the show “amazing,” and “it was something to remember for a lifetime.”

National recognition

Kerns told Casillas of the honor on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” an episode that also included Billy Ray Cyrus as a guest.

Casillas told Clarkson how music has had a profound impact on him. 

“When I was a little kid, my parents used to take me to church and I was mesmerized by the musicians,” Casillas said at the time. “I was really hyperactive, and nobody wanted to deal with me.”

Sitting in church, he played air drums and guitar. At age 11, the church’s pastor invited him to participate in the marching band. Unable to afford a trombone he was eyeing, he sold newspapers to pay for it. 

Back in the Valley, Casillas teaches general music, concert band, guitar, piano, mariachi, and jazz and Latin jazz to the Tolleson district’s students. His days run from 5:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. at Desert Oasis and Porfirio H. Gonzales elementary schools.

He also helms the P.H. Gonzales marching band, which has walked in Disneyland parades and back home in the Fiesta Bowl Parade, Parada Del Sol and the APS Electric Light Parade. 

Casillas, who moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico at age 16, founded the mariachi program. 

“I wanted the kids to relate with their grandparents when they go over to Mexico to see their grandparents or their parents,” he said. “Some of them have not met their parents, because they’re here and their parents are in Mexico. 

“What is mariachi? It’s a melting pot. You throw all styles of music there and you mix that, and you get that mariachi sound. It’s a way for the kids to connect to the culture. If you go anywhere, music is a universal language. I didn’t know the language when I moved here, but when I went into the band room, I was able to connect with everybody and have a family.”

Hearing that story on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” guest Cyrus supported Casillas by pointing to his first tattoo: “Music changes everything.” 

“You’re a walking example of that,” Cyrus said.

The mariachi band has competed at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference at Casino Del Sol. For two consecutive years, Casillas said, his band has won the people’s choice award. A former student, singer Hannah Gomez, rose above 2,000 peers to win a vocalist award. She surprised Casillas on “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”

“My parents wanted me to start mariachi,” she recalled to Clarkson. “I kept saying, ‘No.’ I didn’t see a point in learning music. My dad said, ‘Well, just go and you can learn guitar so you can teach me.’ 

“The first day I was really shy. I didn’t speak to anyone. I didn’t know anyone there. You really brought me out of my shell from music. You have taught me so many things. I’ve learned five instruments and counting. You’ve given more than 300%. You are a ball of energy with every student. I feel you come into the classroom with a mindset of, ‘I can, and I will, push these kids.’”

Dedicated to students 

The pandemic affected Casillas and his students, but he worked hard to maintain normalcy. Many of the children were unable to practice because, in the multigenerational homes, they were disturbing others. 

“I’ve heard, ‘I can’t play. My grandma is here’ or ‘They don’t allow me to play because the house is too small. I’m bothering everybody’ or ‘They don’t want me to use the electricity,’” he recalled. 

“You don’t understand what’s going on with the kids until COVID. You begin to understand a lot of things that are happening in these kids’ homes. I have kids who play in the beginning of the day. They do the classes during the day and participate in jazz and marching bands. Some end up playing three hours a day. They become pretty good. 

“The consistency some of those kids lack in the house we give in our program,”

Like Gomez, many former students keep in touch, and some work as assistants in his classes. Casillas admitted there are days he’s tired. But he keeps one thing in mind. 

“Sometimes, I have to remember this was my dream to become a teacher,” he said. “I’m living my dream now. Let’s get up and keep walking.” 


Honoring educators

While the CMA Awards annually celebrate excellence in the country music format, the CMA Foundation’s Music Teachers of Excellence program celebrates excellence in public school music education across kindergarten to 12th grade classrooms. 

Recipients are selected based on their dedication to bringing a high-quality music program to their students and the impact they’ve had on their school community through music. Since 2016, the CMA Foundation has invested more than $700,000 toward Music Teachers of Excellence to ensure music educators have the support and funding needed to create a thriving program within their school and community.

Applications for the 2022 class of Music Teachers of Excellence can be found at CMAfoundation.org and will be available in January.

Delta Air Lines and Vera Bradley are partners of the CMA Foundation’s Music Teachers of Excellence program. In support of this initiative, Delta Air Lines provided flight vouchers for teachers traveling to Nashville to attend the show, while Vera Bradley donated backpacks to each recipient as a goody bag for the event and to support their day-to-day actions as educators.