School in general can be challenging for students, and that’s even more true at a professional school. As a way to destress after classes, labs, and clinics, Cesar Zapata, a first-year dental student at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry, spends his free time playing and singing in a local mariachi band.
“Studying for dental school takes up so much time, and playing mariachi music has been a great way for me to unwind,” Zapata said. “Mariachi music is my favorite style of music to play. I enjoy all the different styles, different tempos, and the way the guitar is played with different slaps and fans of the strings; I never get bored with it.”
Zapata is a member and former president of Mariachi Luna Llena. The mariachi band is comprised of students from Rice University, where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and cell biology in 2020.
Upon enrolling in dental school, Zapata continued with Mariachi Luna Llena, playing at events and participating in practices, provided they didn’t conflict with his schedule at the professional school. Fortunately, the band’s catalog only includes a handful of new songs each year.
“Continuing with the band into dental school wasn’t a big burden since I already had 20-25 songs memorized,” Zapata said. “I was learning a lot of music when I was at Rice, but most of the mariachi music we play is recycled year to year, especially the more famous songs often played at our performances.”
Mariachi Luna Llena holds two-hour rehearsals twice a week and typically books appearances for Friday evenings and weekends. The band routinely performs at birthdays, quinceañeras, weddings, and other special events, but had limited public appearances due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In May, Zapata and his bandmates performed the national anthem and at halftime at the Houston Rocket’s Cinco de Mayo game against the Philadelphia 76ers. During the halftime performance, the band performed a mashup of three popular mariachi songs, “El Son de la Negra,” “El Rey,” and “Cielito Lindo.”
“I’m a big sports fan, so being able to play at the Rockets the last few years, as well as at Houston Astros games has been an amazing experience,” Zapata said.
At soundcheck the day before, Zapata played still dressed in his scrubs, and while his bandmates enjoyed the basketball game from a suite between and after their performances, he left early to study for an oral biology exam the next morning.
The performance marked Zapata’s first time playing the guitarrón in front of people.
The guitarrón is a deep-bodied, six-string, acoustic bass guitar and an instrument, according to Zapata, often referred to as the “heartbeat” of any mariachi band.
“I had never played the guitarrón before,” Zapata said. “When I was a Rice student, we had someone who played, but he graduated with me, and the guy who was learning it had to quit the group for pandemic reasons. I ended up bringing the guitarrón home, so learning it became my pandemic activity. I had always liked the guitarrón and wanted to learn to play it, so fortunately it worked out.”
Zapata says being a guitar player has also helped with his hand skills in clinic.
“Being a guitar player has helped me with the dexterity needed for my hand skills in clinic and was something that came up during my dental interview here. With guitar, and now the guitarrón, you need a lot of agility and precise movements with your fingers,” Zapata said.
Zapata, who sang in choir in middle school and high school, and has been playing a guitar for 12 years, never saw himself being in a mariachi band, but it has since become his passion.
“Being in a mariachi band has been my favorite thing to do and has led to some of the coolest experiences of my life.” Zapata said. “From Astros and Rockets games to music festivals and performances on the local news, getting to play at events like these are things I’m always going to remember. I’ve also loved being able to create beautiful moments for people, like the first dance at a wedding, that’s something that couple is always going to remember.”
His mariachi band creates beautiful moments; at UTHealth School of Dentistry, Zapata is learning to create and restore beautiful smiles. Both are things he hopes to be able to do for years to come.