Andrew Morales locked arms with two McAllen High School bandmates in a silent auditorium Saturday, waiting for contest results just moments after the air had been filled with the festive sounds of trumpets and gritos at the 2019 Texas Association of Mariachi Educators state finals competition.

The 18-year-old said his only hope at that moment was to finish his senior year in a memorable way.

“While holding their arms and closing my eyes, I was just thinking about how much work we put into the music and how badly I wanted it,” Morales, a trumpet player, said. “Then, as soon as I knew it, we were jumping and hugging. We ran to the stage together to get our trophy.”

The ensemble, Mariachi de Oro, held true to its name as the group won the 6A state champions at the competition held in Grand Prairie, Texas, bringing gold medals back to the Rio Grande Valley. Over 50 bands were at the state event and around 20 competed in the 6A division.

The Nikki Rowe High School mariachi ensemble also advanced to state this year and placed seventh in the 6A division.

This is Mariachi de Oro’s fifth state championship in six years, and Morales said that it was the extra time practicing and support from his team that got them there.

“Our directors really pushed it this year for us to stay consistent with our schedule and make sure we stuck to the timeline of when we wanted to get things done,” Morales said. “It was more individually; we all became leaders and helped each other out more, instead of just the directors directing. We held sectionals at our own time to find things we needed to fix on our own.”

Morales, donning his purple traje de charro suit, said that on stage, he saw blocks of colors in the crowd, each representing an ensemble in their own suits. Sitting on the first row, among a sea of people in the large auditorium were McHi alumni, and through the dense audience, he was able to spot his parents.

“Having my family and school’s support, and the families of other players makes you really feel like what we are doing is important, and that it matters to other people,” Morales, who comes from a family of musicians, said. “As soon as it was announced that we got first place, all the stress of all of us just went away. We knew that we worked really hard for it and sacrificed so much for it.”

Morales is currently working on his audition music for his application to the music program at the University of North Texas, where he was recently accepted.

Mariachi member Analee Rodriguez held Morales’ hand while waiting for the results, and although there was pressure to end her senior year on a good note, she had an inkling that there’d be cause for celebration.

“At most competitions and performances I get super nervous,” Rodriguez, one of the five violinists in the band, said. “But this time, I only had a good feeling coming into the competition. I am usually worried about making mistakes, but I was pumping myself up and pumping everyone else up, and it worked. I know they always say you should do it, but I really felt it this time.”

Rodriguez has been a part of the ensemble since her freshman year and said that she is grateful for the constructive criticism that the mariachi director, Alex Treviño, has provided.

In rehearsals, she remembers when he corrected her enunciation and taught her to open her mouth wider when she sang. He also trained her to play the violin “aggressively and correctly” while using the entire bow and how to stand for the most optimal strength to play.

“He taught me every single little thing I needed to know about mariachi, but the one big thing (he taught) was how to interpret a song,” Rodriguez, who has been playing violin since sixth grade, said. “How to feel with the song and how to move your hands with the words and to feel it — that is important because it helps the audience understand it.”

Rodriguez plans to pursue a degree in criminal justice at the University of San Antonio and become a customs agent.

Treviño is a McHi alumni who also played for the University of Texas-Pan American, which is now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Last year, the team placed fourth in state, breaking their golden streak. Treviño said that the perceived setback only fueled his students to work harder.

“We had a few more kids this year with experience, so they were hungry for it again,” Treviño said. “We worked hard, practiced as much as we (could) on stage presence and performance. We really catered to what song selection we had, and what we had in front of us (to) maximize the kids and the talent they have on stage.”

He said that the most arduous part of this season was being short on players.

This year, the band was composed of only 13 members, the smallest ensemble McHi has ever had. Most ensembles have around 18 musicians.

“Going into it, we were a little apprehensive and nervous because we knew we were a small group,” Treviño said. “We know it makes a difference, but it came out in our way, fortunately. We tell the kids that it is not a lot of us; it’s 13. We tell them that everything counts. Every single one of you. Every part that you play, every part that you sing, it all counts.”

Monitor staff writer J. Edward Moreno contributed to this report.