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Chris Hernandez: A Musical State of Mind

June 6, 2018




Chris Hernandez conducts school orchestra in performance of his work, “Ciadudela”

Story and Photographs ©2018 Robin Rayne/ZUMA Press

Chris Hernandez can’t stop the music.

“I always have these tunes playing in my head,” says the 17-year-old musical prodigy, a junior at Kennesaw Mountain High School who made his debut as both composer and conductor at the school’s recent Spring orchestra concert.

Music has been a part of his life since before he was born.

“I hear these tunes that are similar in rhythm, melody, and chromatic structure. They just come to me and I write them down.  That’s how I come up with these compositions,” explained Hernandez, whose original piece “Ciudadela” recently premiered in the school auditorium to a standing ovation from the capacity audience.

The title is Spanish for citadel, he explained. “It represents a state of mind where everything is as expected,” he said. The score was heavily influenced by Latin music his father played for him as a child and was Hernandez’ third musical composition — with a promise of many more to come.

Hernandez lives with younger brothers Richie and Jacob, and parents Ricardo and Sandra in West Cobb County. Chris is a magnet student in the high school’s well-respected instrumental music program.

RN4_7019School Orchestra Director Joel Schroter encourages students before final concert of their school year.


Gentle, soft-spoken and humble, Chris speaks with passion as his graceful hands constantly finger notes on an invisible instrument. It could be a passage from his violin score with the school orchestra, or something on acoustic guitar, viola, piano, clarinet, electric bass, alto saxophone, drums, recorder – even mandolin – that he also plays.  

“I’m willing to try anything out,” he said. He also sings with ‘perfect pitch’ — the rare ability to perfectly produce any given note – without a musical instrument as a reference.

2016 was Joel Schroter’s first year as the school’s orchestra director when he met Hernandez,  an incoming freshman at the time.  From the first weeks of orchestra class, Schroter knew Hernandez had a musical mind that overflowed with a love and passion for music. 

“I could also sense some frustration coming from him — too many musical ideas and not enough musical outlets. When it came to performing on violin, I could tell that he was only frustrated by technical limitations matching the music he was hearing in his head,” Schroter recalled.   

“Over the past three years, Chris matured in his ability and technique, and as he develops, he has also been able to explore new musical ideas,” Schroter said.

“Since Chris is a multi-instrumentalist as well as a digital music arranger and producer, I encouraged him to look into composition as a possible path.   He can sit at a piano or a guitar and score music for various instruments without having to be an expert performer on those instruments,”  Schroter added. The “Ciudadela” composition was one of the results.

RN4_6930If there’s a piano nearby, Chris will find it and begin to play. “The music is in my head,” he explains. 

“I wanted Chris and my students to experience the entire process without much interference from me,” said Schroter, who remained behind the scenes and allowed the creativity and collaboration to be “organic.”

From composition to concert performance, Hernandez was in charge of the composition, class rehearsals, score revisions and concert preparation.  Schroter met with his young composer few times to help guide his focus and give him some rehearsal advice, “But once he stepped on the podium, he was in charge of the process,” he said.  “This guy doesn’t hold back!  And if he is self-conscious, it is very hard to detect.   It reminds me of a child on a playground — having a blast, no hesitations, and just being caught up in the moment, enjoying life. When Chris is conducting on the podium, he just goes for it and it looks like he is having the time of his life,” Schroter said.

“I’ve been an orchestra director for 14 years. Sitting in the back of the class and watching Chris work with the chamber orchestra, seeing him light up when he hears his composition being performed by others, it gave me a sense of joy that I cannot put into words,” Schroter added.

The slender musician often paces when concentrating on a composition idea. He has numerous musical phrases collected on his smartphone and a stash of music manuscripts, ideas and musical themes that may one day find a home as part of a larger piece.  

His internal music calms him, even during his academic studies. “Whenever there’s a test, the themes help me stay focused and gets me into a certain zone,” he said.

Ricardo Hernandez smiled with his son’s admission. He sang to his son every night for months – before his birth.

“When my wife was pregnant, I would come home very late from work. I didn’t get home until after midnight,” the senior Hernandez recalled. He emigrated with his brother to the U.S. from Mexico City in 1994, and owns an auto mechanic shop in Macon, Georgia.  


Chris plays his guitar as family sings Latin favorites at home.

“From the beginning, I laid my head on Sandy’s belly every night and sang to him. They were songs my dad and my mom used to sing. I come from a family where music was just a way of life,” he said.  

“I knew our son liked music because I could feel him kick when Ricky sang to him,” Sandra joked.

The musical immersion continued as Chris grew to toddler age. Ricardo and Sandy enrolled their son in music classes at a local Gymboree center. “As a two-year-old he loved to play the maracas and wooden rhythm sticks along with the music. I played my guitar for him at night, sometimes I played recordings of classical piano music like Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Chopin to help him go to sleep,” Ricardo said.

“Chris was a very quiet child.  It was like I didn’t have a child,” Sandy Hernandez remembered.  “He was reading at the third-grade level when he was three years old. Chris spent all his time in his room surrounded by his books, sometimes not even wanting to eat dinner.  I was worried he may be shy and might get bullied so we tried baseball and soccer for him. That didn’t work, except for swimming — he loves to swim at the YMCA,” she said.

Sandra next found a piano teacher for her son. “He loved it and took lessons for six years,” she said. His piano instruction became the basis for all his other instruments and composing skills. “Every teacher he’s had said Chris has a special gift,” she said.

Chris Hernandez has fond memories of playing duets with his father. “My dad would play guitar and I would play piano,” he said. “The thing I admire about my dad the most is that he can blend in with any situation. He is a jack of all trades.”

When Hernandez turned eight, he wanted to play guitar like his father. “He showed me basic chords, and at first I didn’t really like it because of how hard it seemed. But I learned a lot from watching YouTube tutorials. It is very similar to piano, and once I figured that out I could play okay after a few months,” he said.  

As Hernandez entered his middle school’s music program, Sandra Hernandez purchased a saxophone and violin for him.  “Mom found them on Craig’s list. She knew I would make a connection to them somehow, “Chris recalled.

He studied both instruments and was soon exploring tunes far beyond the required repertoire. “I would listen to recordings and analyze the chord structure of songs. I picked out the notes. It wasn’t that difficult,” he said.

By high school, Sandy her husband knew their son needed more. “We went into our savings to buy a better violin. I knew music was so important to Chris and it would become his life, so we did everything would could to support him,” she said.

His fellow students universally describe him as energetic, immensely talented and passionate. “Chris has these rhythms and these notes that he just plays, they come out of him like magic,” one fellow student said.


 Ricardo Hernandez  listens as his son Chris practices passages his guitar in his bedroom.

As Hernandez approaches his senior year in high school, his command of the guitar, violin and his singing voice is well evident. He leads the family as they happily sing Latin favorites together at home.

Once his high school days are behind him in 2019, Hernandez has his eyes on Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he plans to study musical performance and composition.


Chris with supportive parents Sandra and Ricardo Hernandez.

He is undaunted by the school’s nearly $60,000 per year tuition and fees. “With the power of a scholarship and hard work, anything is possible. I know I can do it,” he said.  

He is torn between performance and composition. “Therein lies the rub,” he admitted. “The composing part of it is bringing something to life. It may have been influenced by others, but it’s coming from you, you’re the primary creator of it. With performance, you’re playing what someone else has created. Music is always subjective, and you’re putting your interpretation to it,” he said.  Though Hernandez loves to compose, his heart leans more toward performance.

“If I had to choose one, I would be playing with the Boston Philharmonic,” Hernandez said.  His family plans to have front row seats when that day comes, and perhaps Joel Schroter as well.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 27, 2018 9:58 pm

    Torn between composition and performance is the kind of problem most typical students never encounter. I wish we had more wonderful young people like Chris.

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