Gary Hernandez “Music is for everyone.”
Gary Hernandez is a “true Conch”, born and raised in Key West, FL. He began studying piano while in Horace O’Bryan Middle School and continued his music education through high school, playing various instruments. While in high school, Gary played the trombone with Joe Dallas and the Paradise Big Band. They are now good friends and colleagues in music education.
Hernandez attended college at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, receiving a Master’s Degree in music education. He taught music in the Orlando area for over five years before the job opened at the Key West High School where he is currently in his 15th year.
Gary credits the strength of the Key West arts community for the growth of the Key West High School music program which has nearly tripled in size since he graduated in 1997. Back then, Miami Dade was a powerhouse music education program but support in Miami has changed over the same years and their music programs have been restricted.
Music has been a part of Gary’s life for a very long time. He feels music is considered by some as a celebrated talent with some elitist overtones. Gary however, feels music is for everyone and every instrument can be taught and learned. To Gary music is a skill and craft as well as an inspiring social art form. Music provides every student a unique way to connect with other human beings. Music is an inherently social activity expressing human emotions through sound.
Hernandez definitely does the “cattle calls” – anyone that wants to learn music can apply. The band medium provides an excellent opportunity for a wide range of human beings to come into contact with the arts through music.
Putting together a large group of people making connections through music and sound, as well as through history, in a completely unique way is what Gary loves the most. Some of the melodies used can be over a thousand years old. The Key West High School band is well over 100 years old, probably one of the oldest programs in Florida and possibly the nation. They have photos of the 1917 Key West High School band, and they’re pretty sure there were bands before that.
There are between 35-40 public performances annually for 110 students in the high school music program. This includes six major ensembles consisting of two concert bands, a jazz band, brass ensemble, woodwind ensemble, and a percussion band including a very special steel pan ensemble. As music director, Hernandez has to deal with logistics and planning along with finding the time to teach music. He has a computer with three screens and could use several more hands.
Their first international trip, in over ten years, was planned for Italy during spring break in March 2020. They were to tour Florence, Venice and Rome. They had raised the funds, made the arrangements, planned their performances and were supposed to fly out on March 12. COVID cancelled everything. It was huge disappointment and almost all of those students have graduated and sadly did not get to enjoy an international tour.
Fast forward nearly four years later, the band was invited to perform at the London New Year’s Day Parade. This amazing organization only accepts about twenty bands annually. The Key West band was vetted by professional organizations, including music performance assessments from around the State of Florida. The band organization, parents, friends, and students raised over $400k for the trip.
The New Year’s Day Parade seemed very surreal marching down iconic London streets, passing 10 Downing Street, while television crews were filming all along the route. It was a unique experience seeing the sights you’ve have only seen in the movies. It seemed like everyone had a cell phone out recording as the band passed. It was a little longer parade than the band was use to and yet, the band members all said they thought it went by very quickly.
The band performed two songs, “One Way or Another” and “Eleanor Rigby” which were recycled from an earlier show called “Hits from Across the Pond”. There were close to 800,000 viewers along the way and the viewers were singing along with the band. The audience was unusually quiet during band performances yet applauded loudly after a song was completed. A number of large horses in the parade ahead of the band made marching a little more complicated.
They spent a few days touring and enjoying London. After their triumphant return, Gary’s focus swings back to the concert and jazz bands. In early February, they have a county-wide band performance in Marathon. Hernandez has a busy agenda – his three screens are full.
Gary Hernandez feels it’s important for the community to do big things like this every once in a while. Besides the in-person audience, they estimated over 380 million viewers on television and internet media were able to view them. Our uniquely strong music and arts community deserves some wide recognition that may hopefully encourage other communities to increase their value of music education.
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