Avi Gonzalez and Karina Vela have plenty to do with their day jobs as public school music educators.
In early 2020, they added even more to their duties in opening a business with a connection to what they know best. The Armonia Music Academy & Store in San Benito is their version of the School of Rock with an emphasis on violins, acoustic guitars and vocals.
The partners have turned what was a doctor’s office into a business whose walls are lined with violins and guitars. It’s a welcoming business where the smiles of its owners light up the cozy school.
“When you love what you do, it’s not a job,” Gonzalez said. “It’s you, your nature, doing what you love.”
Extending A Love Of Music
Armonia is an extension of their love of music. The school is open every weekday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The students Gonzalez and Vela tutor range in age from elementary-age children to adults. Their school is able to reach students from charter schools and smaller school districts that may not have fully developed musical programs.
The two instructors work to fill in the gaps. Gonzalez, a La Joya native, specializes in teaching piano and vocals, with a particular expertise in mariachi singing. She noted that mariachi programs are robust in upper Rio Grande Valley-area school districts, but not as predominant in Cameron County schools. Armonia is trying to shore up that deficiency from its San Benito location on Business 77.
Vela’s focus is on teaching strings, and the walls of guitars and violins at the school reflect that strength. During a recent evening tutorial, Vela patiently worked a young girl wearing an IDEA Public Schools shirt through a violin lesson as the child’s parents looked on. It was the end of a long workday, but that wasn’t evident with the attention to detail and enthusiasm Vela showed to her student.
“There’s so many things to do in providing more opportunities in music, with the strings, and giving our students a bigger horizon,” said Vela, who is a graduate of Los Fresnos High School.
The Power of Music
The instructors tout the power of a musical education in boosting the overall academic performance of students.
“When a student plays an instrument, there’s a lot of brain activity happening,” Gonzalez said. “They’re using their motor skills, and when they get in front of people and perform, they’re building confidence. What we’ve often seen is that a student who excels in music is usually a straight-A type of student.
“We’re really proud when students can take the best out of music and apply it to other parts of their lives,” she said.
Armonia isn’t just about teaching. It’s also a store that sells and rents a beautiful collection of violins and guitars that are prominently featured at the school. Vela said area students would have to travel to McAllen to find the kind of strings collection found at her school in San Benito.
The instructors and business partners have had to battle through the challenges of operating during the past year. Major disruptions came early on, including shutting down the school in mid-2020. Armonia adjusted to the times with some virtual lessons and recitals shown via online platforms.
In-person lessons are back with teachers and students wearing masks and getting through those challenges. In the end, it’s all worth it to see students learn and succeed.
“COVID slowed us down, but we began picking things up slowly,” Vela said. “It’s always wonderful to see the smiles through their eyes even if right now we can’t see all of their faces. We know they’re happy and learning.”