“Full-time” and “crazy-intense” are the words José Luis Herrera used to describe his passion for music, compared to others in his family. The second year graduate student, majoring in music performance, came to Kent State from Mexico to play the cello.
Discovering his passion
Herrera was born in Torreón, Mexico.
“It’s not a very famous city, at all,” he explained. “Just all the milk comes from there. I guess that’s the big thing there.
After taking part in a youth orchestra there, he moved to central Mexico because there were more prominent music schools there.
Herrera’s father taught him to play the guitar and encouraged him to pursue music full-time. Before discovering the cello, a young
Herrera sang and played electric and bass guitar in a rock band. He said his favorite band is Radiohead.
The guitar parts in his school’s youth orchestra didn’t excite him.
“I went there for guitar,” he said, “... but they didn’t have electric guitar. It was like a very serious kind of thing, so they had the acoustic, classical kind of Spanish thing, and I didn’t like it. So I had the opportunity to try some other instruments, and I tried the cello. So since I didn’t like the other guitar and the cello was really nice, I just changed.”
Herrera said what he loves about the cello, and other string instruments, is the way in which the musician can own the sound.
“If you play the piano, you push the key and that’s it. Like, the sound keeps going. You can’t do anything about it. Or the drums just ‘bah!’ or something,” he said, miming striking a drum. “But with the string instruments, you stroke the bow and then you keep going, keep going. You are the owner of the sound at each moment. And, I don’t know, it feels more closely to the voice. So I guess it just has so many possibilities for everything. It’s just beautiful, I love it.”
Coming to America
Herrera met Keith Robinson, or Robby, an assistant professor of music at Kent State and fellow cellist, at a chamber music festival.
“[The festival] takes place in a small, very charming city in Mexico,” he said. “So they were there, and we played for them. We, I mean my ensemble. We played for them and they heard us and they talked about us, about this education program. And then I took a lesson with Robby, which was amazing, so I was totally in with coming here and being two years with them.
Herrera had performed in America before, around 2008, with an orchestra from Mexico City. The group played in Los Angeles and Chicago. Their show in Chicago made the musicians feel right at home.
“It was a huge event for the ... Mexican sector of Chicago, which is huge. So there was us, and there was a mariachi and all kinds of things. It was really awesome. I was just feeling like at home. Everything I knew was just there.”
Herrera also performed as a soloist at the Yakima Symphony Chamber Orchestra in Washington state.
Herrera came to Kent with Pedro Martinez and another friend, who had to leave soon after.
“We came in a group,” he said, “[so] it was like, ‘Do you remember this?’ ‘Oh, yeah. Do you know what we have to do?’ ‘Oh, yes. And we have to go to this office today.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘No.‘ — So it was good, I think. If I was alone, I would have suffered a lot, but it was OK.”
Herrera and Martinez have played music together for years and are now half of a quartet with two students from China.
“It’s fun. Just the rehearsals are — it’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this and this.’ ‘OK, hold on. I’m gonna speak in Spanish. I have to tell him something really quick,’” he said, shifting in his seat. “And then they speak in Chinese, and we have no idea what they’re saying. But it’s cool.”
Since being in Kent, Herrera has written his own arrangement for his quartet and taken classes, which include watching four-hour operas each week and learning about Jewish musicians in history.
“I like that kind of nerdy stuff,” he said.
The most exciting this he said he has discovered in Ohio in the last two years is the Cleveland Orchestra. He said he tries to go as often as he can.
He also described having dinner with his colleagues from China and waking to find his roommate from Saudi Arabia praying.
“It’s great to be able to get to know so many cultures that are everywhere. That just blows me away. It’s fantastic,” he said.
Playing in a large orchestra with a staff manager and many older performers wasn’t pleasing to Herrera.
“So much about the business,” he said, “it’s some old guys, just waiting to retire. I don’t know, [it’s like] they were going to play Beethoven as if they were going to sell stock.”
After that, he moved to Mexico City and joined a chamber orchestra, where he hopes to return.
“Everybody just loved what they did,” he said. “And the conductor actually hand-picked each of the players so they would be good together.”
While Herrera said he knows he could potentially make more money if he stayed here to pursue his music career, money isn’t what’s important.
“I think I can make more difference if I go to Mexico,” he said. “I mean, if I’m here and you know, in an orchestra, it’s just — the systems already going here. It’s going on, and it’s rolling. It’s done here. And, I don’t know, there’s not so many great teachers in Mexico. I mean, there are, but not like here where there are so many everywhere. So, I guess that’s where I’m going. I think in the long run, I’d feel better, like, with life.”