Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada followed his father into a rehearsal hall filled with members of a professional orchestra in Tampico, Mexico.
The musicians crowded around his father, yelling “Maestro!” in their excitement to meet the piano soloist for their next performance.
His dad merely smiled and quietly led the child to a piano.
At 10 years old, Hernandez-Estrada was the acclaimed pianist the musicians awaited — much to their surprise.
“The conductor knew who the soloist was, but the musicians thought they were waiting for my father,” Hernandez-Estrada said, smiling, during a recent interview at Oklahoma City University.
That memorable moment from 1994 rose to the surface recently as Hernandez-Estrada anticipated his first season as executive director of El Sistema Oklahoma. The program, in its inaugural year, provides free orchestral music training to a group of students in third through sixth grades from six Oklahoma City public schools: Sequoyah, Linwood, Gatewood, Kaiser, Putnam Heights and Cleveland.
Hernandez-Estrada, 29, is now an internationally acclaimed pianist and classical conductor. He said sharing the gift of music with the Oklahoma youths reminds him of his childhood when he discovered music for the first time.
He said he is falling in love with music all over again as he sees the children's excitement and eagerness to learn.
“It's that feeling of new beginnings,” he said.
Music meant joy
The energy that emanates from Hernandez-Estrada is palpable when he discusses his passion for music.
He said his enthusiasm for melody and song began when he was 6, and he informed his parents that he wanted to be an artist. Hernandez-Estrada, a Mexican-American, said he began taking piano lessons shortly afterward, quickly embracing the discipline and focus necessary to excel.
“One would think practicing hours a day, every day, would be a chore, but I didn't think so. To me, music meant joy,” he said recently.
“In a way, I get to go back to that first time when I was introduced to music. It's the same feeling that our students in Oklahoma City will be feeling as they are immersed in that world of music — the feeling of being embraced by beauty, being embraced by harmony, being embraced by the fraternal.”
By 10, he was performing with a Mexican orchestra. At 12, the young pianist toured Europe, performing in prestigious music halls all across the continent.
He said he did not consider himself gifted or a prodigy. Rather, he felt that he was someone who had the opportunity to do something he loved.
Instrument of change
Hernandez-Estrada said even as a child he was aware that not everyone is given such opportunities to pursue their dreams. It's one of the reasons he was intrigued when he learned about the original El Sistema program begun in 1975 by social economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela.
“It was very ambitious to think that music could serve as an instrument of social change,” Hernandez-Estrada said. “He told them that the orchestra would change the world and it did.”
Hernandez-Estrada said he was born in McAllen, Texas, “a first-generation American,” and much of his childhood was spent across the border in Reynosa, Mexico, where his Mexican-born parents had ties to extended family. As a youth, he said, he often traveled with his father, Jose Luis Hernandez Sr., as the older man campaigned for a Mexican Congress seat. (He eventually was elected to the Mexican legislature in 2000.) Hernandez-Estrada, who has dual citizenship, said he saw how lack of opportunity and hope often dried up the dreams of individuals and the communities in which they lived.
He said his understanding of social conditions throughout the world also developed through his extensive travels as a musician over the years.
El Sistema-inspired programs such as the one he is leading in the Oklahoma City area seek to bring social transformation through the gift of music.
“These programs serve children who are in need, who may live in situations where there is material poverty but also other kinds of poverty,” he said. “Some may have a feeling of not being recognized as someone who has potential.”
Orchestra as metaphor
Hernandez-Estrada said he loves being a pianist but that he is called to be a conductor. He said he was watching the Vienna Philharmonic perform Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in Vienna when he realized his life was about to be transformed by music yet again.
“It was so moving and it made such an impression on me. I saw for the first time the orchestra as a metaphor for community. I saw musicians working alongside each other to make a common vision come true,” he said.
The musician said that also was the day he first learned about Abreu's El Sistema — several paragraphs about it were featured in the Vienna Philharmonic's show bill for the evening.
Hernandez-Estrada said he was fulfilling his dream of being a classical conductor when he started an El Sistema-inspired youth orchestra program in Mexico. He traveled to Venezuela to see El Sistema youth orchestras firsthand when he was admitted to the New England Conservatory's prestigious Sistema Fellows program in 2012. He met El Sistema founder Abreu during his travels in Venezuela, fulfilling a long-held dream, he said.
With his youth orchestra in Mexico and then in Venezuela, Hernandez-Estrada saw the lives of children, their parents and their communities transformed in what he called an “upward spiral.”
Most of all, the students began to understand how they could do wonderful things by working together.
“They begin to build a sense of hope because they work together toward something. If you can learn to listen to your brother in the orchestra, you can learn to listen to your brother in real life. It's a philosophical concept but a practical concept as well,” Hernandez-Estrada said.
He predicted that El Sistema Oklahoma youths will experience much the same thing. He said he and representatives of the program's stakeholders — benefactors Phil and Cathy Busey, St. Luke's United Methodist Church, Oklahoma City University and the Foundation for Oklahoma Public Schools — are counting on it.
“This program is going to inspire a new generation of achievers,” he said.