In his years before coming back to college, commercial music was a big part of Mike Hernandez’s life. In fact, music as a whole has been a part of his life since he was a child. The environment that music creates is a place where Mike knows he belongs. His passion for music and its essence fully translates into the work he does. No matter how much experience he has had in the industry, he is still dedicated and willing to learn as much as he can. He is back at the University of Texas at El Paso, majoring in Commercial Music, to fine-tune his craft and have a degree under his belt. Mike is a well-rounded individual of many talents. He knows how to play multiple instruments, practices his vocals in a Men’s Glee Club, is part of a mariachi group on campus, and plays with the El Paso Community College mariachi band when he can. He attends UTEP with the intention of graduating and possibly becoming a music teacher or continuing with performance. Though he is back in school, Mike keeps is toe dipped into the music industry as he plays guitar for a non-traditional punk rock mariachi band, Mariachi El Bronx.
Since childhood, Mike had always known that he wanted to be a musician. He remembers influences such as over hearing his uncle’s death metal music playing and being curious about what the sounds were and how they were made. That same curiosity bled itself into any instruments his school teachers gave him to play. Throughout his life, Mike has set goals for himself, including preparing for the next step in his music endeavors when he got older, “Learning [guitar] at a young age helped me to propel my goals,” he says, “in high school, my band was very popular around the city, we were always in the newspaper. And that was a goal, and then my next goal was to tour with an out of town band, and so I did that… Music was always something that I knew I was going to do, I needed to gear up to prepare me for the next thing, and the next thing.” Mike took on the interest of Punk Rock music early on. The aesthetic and feel of the music was something that resonated with him. The attitude that Punk Rock wore proudly made Mike curious about other genres. The door he had opened to a genre that he loved most introduced him not only to different music, but also many great opportunities down the road.
In 2002, fresh out of high school, he came to UTEP with the interest of being a music major. At this time he felt, though, that he hadn’t understood that he couldn’t explore the industry and study music as an academic at the same time, “I took time off to really explore those opportunities in the music industry.” And, he did exactly that. Mike worked as a free-lance musician, but a great opportunity found its way into his life. Mike become part of a band called The Royalty which consisted of himself and some of his high school friends. They worked hard and did become a successful group, “We were fortunate enough to sign a record deal and experience that reality of ‘just a small band from El Paso’ making it to the next level...” Mike says. They toured for quite a while and had a great time doing it. Mike created networks and avenues that could later assist him in the future. He was eventually approached by a California band, Mariachi El Bronx (also known as The Bronx) to join their group. Mike joined, and his first show with the band took him all the way to Australia. Being a part of this band would eventually take him to other parts if the world, too.
Perhaps being in this band brought Mike’s music career full circle. When Mike was in grade school he learned guitar through mariachi classes. Living and growing up in El Paso meant being exposed to its prominent Mexican culture, mariachi music being a central facet of it, “In El Paso, Mariachi music is very, very, important. Like a lot of places in border towns… Mexican culture is so important that we have our own music.” Because guitar classes in school were not available, mariachi music was Mike’s avenue for learning to play. He became drawn to the music, “When I was a kid, I gravitated towards mariachi music,” he says, “it was just something that I became really good at. It was with me all throughout high school in my punk days, and in my guitar days.” It is important to note that yes, there is a stigma about mariachi music. People see it as more of a classical type of music which may lack some creativity that other genres have. This could very well be a cultural stigma where people hold this type of music close to their hearts and can be reluctant to accept a change in tune. However, what is also important to note is that mariachi music does not solely live through the lens of any cultural stigma, “There are people and different types of groups in America and all over the world, that are doing things different.” Mike says. And this difference is the music is something that can, “Enable it [the genre] to evolve,” thus expanding the genre and creating more non-traditional mariachi music that people may be curious about. Touring with Mariachi El Bronx brought Mike closer to understanding why this music resonated so much with him, and why it resonated so much with others, “I think that mariachi speaks to people truly, much like punk rock speaks to individuals truly. They have a lot of similarities.” Coming from an interest in rock and punk rock, Mike finds mariachi and punk rock music to have more in common than most people might think. This similarity involves passion for the music, and the way that music is created, “The things that I found similar in both types of music that I like so much, is that it’s just a bunch of armature composers, writing amazing songs, and having a whole lot of attitude.” Mike says. Ultimately, Mariachi music connects people to a certain kind of culture that either they come from or are interested in. And with new takes on the music, there are many more chances to attract people to the genre.
The music industry treated Mike well, and touring with bands brought Mike the experience that most wouldn’t get until years after college. He was able to hang out with famous musicians and get to know them for who they were. What was and still is inspiring to Mike is the fact that many talented musicians are so down to earth and treat others as respectfully as any other human being would treat another. It seems that this notion of being genuine and humble has also engraved itself into Mike because he has the same honest aura as the people he has surrounded himself with. He observes the people around him and absorbs the environment he lives in, as to learn something from all aspects of life. Though this was the case on the road, he knew he wanted to complete the music degree he had sought out when he graduated high school, “while achieving some successes in that adventure [exploration of music industry], I soon realized that I eventually wanted to come back school.” Having that real-world knowledge and experience gave Mike an upper hand in fully understanding the direction he wanted his career to go. Ultimately, touring is what drew him back into wanting to go to school, and it got him to reevaluate his goals. Mike met many people along the way that inspired him to continue seeking the knowledge he craved. For example, his old band mates from The Royals all had degrees and were recently graduated when the group formed, but Mike had not yet accomplished that goal. He had had his time to explore his options, and contrary to what he had thought before, he came to the conclusion that he could keep being a working musician and get an education at the same time.
Mike is now back at UTEP studying Commercial Music. This degree seeks to educate students about possible jobs in the music industry, such as music copyist, composer, and music supervisor. Though school takes the majority of his time, he continues to practice his skill and also tour with Mariachi El Bronx during his free time, “It’s a great exercise to come to school to get prepared to do what I’m already doing.” Mike says. School and touring have been two things that seem to continue feeding off of each other. Performing is a liberating and fun experience for Mike, and school helps fine tune his talent and apply it back to his performances, “I’m able to apply what I’m learning at UTEP, to what I’m going to be doing in a couple of months.” Studying Commercial Music at UTEP has exposed Mike to many different types of musicians. This keeps him knowledgeable about many facets of music and helps to familiarize him with other aspects of it that he had not been exposed to prior. Coming from the outside world into an academic environment, a key component to becoming a successful music academic is becoming familiarized with different methods to gathering information about music, and having a diverse foundation. That foundation can include interactions with other students with different interests, conversations with professors, and diving into personal interests. Coming from the outside, all of these aspects have been important for mike in getting familiar with the academic environment. “I think it’s valid to start from a place where you can get into a different world and learn from that world… to take that world and apply it to a different world you might be interested in and eventually living in.” Mike says. His goal is to learn as much as he can so that he can become a music teacher. But he also has plans to stay open minded about other opportunities that might come his way. If Mike find a job back in the industry, he is ready to commit to that life once again.
Mike understands the importance of being a well-rounded musician. Learning vocals and multiple instruments, as well as teaching and composing music, are essential skills that any musician should learn. These talents will help prepare him to become the music teacher he wants to be in the future. Though the world moves fast, it is also important for Mike to keep up to date with the music industry. Things such as new technology and current aspects of performance are some of the things he keeps informed about. What is interesting about Mike’s ideologies are that he keeps an open type of mentality throughout all areas of his life that involve music. He deconstructs music and seems to study its mechanics in their entirety. Whether in Europe touring, or in a class lecture, Mike’s goal is to continue learning about the way music functions and exactly how he can apply his newfound knowledge to his craft. Mike’s favorite part about being a musician is the exposure to diverse groups of people. From different age groups, backgrounds, styles, and influences, such diversity enriches Mike’s understanding of music. He is intrigued by the ways in which other people learn, “Learning how other people learn is the most exciting thing for me.” he says. He is interested in the way his peers learn, and especially the way his professors have learned to critically assess music while they tackled their own degrees.
Two of Mike’s guitar instructors, Shaun Mahoney and Hiram Rodriguez, he feels are completely invested in their students. They take the time to not only teach students, but also how to succeed, “They are very influential and they are very dedicated to showing their students what it’s going to take, not just be a master at this instrument, but what it’s going to take to survive in a modern situation.” Mike is even learning how to analyze situations he has been through in the real world, but may not have thought much about before, “I think my instructors do a really good job of combining the mechanics of the instrument and what it’s going to take to apply those mechanics in a real-life setting,” he says, “That’s what I’ve learned the most.” All of the music professors at UTEP do an exceptional job at providing the necessary information and tools that will help every student after graduation. There is a common theme throughout contemporary society in education where students are conditioned to learn only what is needed in order to pass an exam and then move on to the next course. While a degree still lies ahead with this sort of ethic, having mentors who are able to enrich your life and provide you with essential tools is the best possible combination a student could ask for. When someone can provide guidance for the real world to those who it will need it in the future is something quite special. This says a lot about the character of UTEP professors.
You can catch Mike playing at a bar at his next international gig, and occasionally teaching others about. Wherever he is whatever his is doing, he is sure to express his passion for music like no other. He continues his undergraduate studies, to learn and apply his knowledge to his on-stage performances, whether solo or with a band. Mike serves as an influencer in the music scene. He also serves as an example to those coming back to school after some time away, and to those who chose to explore their passions before making that choice. There is no one set path that students should feel compelled to take. It does not matter how long a student has been away from school, nor does it matter how old they are. Rather, they should explore their passion in the best way that will benefit their lives and enrich their understanding of the world. For some that is going straight to college after high school, and for others, that might be taking the world head on and delving into their passion. “Go out and follow your dreams,” Mike says recalling his grandfather’s words, “but you can always come home, and you can always come back to school.”