One of the few ways to reach across cultural and language barriers is through musical and visual experiences. "BLAST!" is an inventive collaboration of brass and percussion sections with an additional visual ensemble.
Gregorio Hernandez, a 29-year-old Syracuse native, was happy to share his experiences while on tour with "BLAST!" Hernandez graduated from Syracuse University in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in music and music industry. But before he even graduated, Hernandez, propelled by his passion for music, auditioned for "BLAST!." He joined the 2005 tour, which started only a month after his graduation.
This American tour, which stops at Shea's Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, will be his sixth with the group, including two tours in Japan, and with each passing tour he receives new responsibilities and creates stronger bonds with fellow performers. This time around, Hernandez took on the role of being a trombone swing as well as playing percussion and didgeridoo, a wind instrument developed in Australia. Being a "swing" means that he learns his role in the show and shares it with another cast member. Musicians in "BLAST!" are also required to learn two different roles of others in their section, in case of injury or sickness, so someone is always fully prepared to jump in at any time.
"BLAST!" isn't just another musical group. The performers are expected to push themselves and put their heart into every performance. Between the long work days -- usually 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, not including practicing during breaks, dinner and before going to bed -- the members also ride in a bus for lengthy periods of time, sometimes having to perform soon after arriving at their destination. Seems stressful, right? While it can be, Hernandez says it's all worth it.
"Where it all comes back to it all being worth it is when you have that long day and you get to the theater and you're trying to work the kinks out of your own body, getting your mind ready to play; but then the lights go down and we take the stage," he said. "Especially when we have a good audience, the audience gives you that energy that you needed to keep going."
The performers also practice so much so they don't have to focus on playing the right thing, just focus on relaxing because their bodies know what to do.
"Sometimes we get to a city and have just enough time for a sound check at a show, not luxury of having the rehearsal time," Hernandez said. "And I still have to be constantly working because I have to have three shows in my head, ready to go. But, when you get to a point that you've spent hours and hours and hours of training your muscle memory, you just let your body go and do what it knows.
"And when we go out to the lobby after a show to do a meet-and-greet sort of thing, hearing people's reactions is amazing. When someone comes up to you and says 'I've been coming to this theater for 20, 30 or even 40 years and this is the best show I've ever seen in my life!,' you can't take that feeling back, it's a really powerful statement."
Hernandez started preparing long before he auditioned for "BLAST!".
"I've been playing music my whole life," he said. "My parents were huge music fans and they had a turntable in the living room and a little kid piano next to it. My sister and I were constantly collecting records.
"My father was a huge Stevie Wonder fan and when I was about 3 years old, there was one day he was playing 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' and I played the melody on that piano from hearing the chorus. I just felt the music. My mom, being the very aware person that she was, said, 'Maybe we should put Greg in music lessons.' "
Hernandez started piano lessons at age 4 despite wanting to play the drums. When he reached middle school, he finally got a chance to take drum lessons for school band. But after realizing he would have to sit out a few songs and let other students play the drums, too, he opted to learn trombone so he could play every song. The summer before high school, Hernandez learned how to play the saxophone, too.
So after years of playing music and six tours with "BLAST!," does it ever get boring?
"Absolutely not," Hernandez said. "I think for me, I've always added a new skill every time I've come to 'BLAST!' This is the first time I'm a swing, so it's a bit more responsibility but it's worth it because 'BLAST!' for me is a combination of things I love to do."
One of the best things about 'BLAST!' is crossing cultural barriers, Hernandez says.
"Being that we aren't a traditional musical, we don't have dialogue or necessarily a plot. Those aren't the things guiding the show, it's all about how you interact with the other cast members and even connect with the audience -- music is definitely an international language. You can speak to everyone with it."
As for Hernandez, "BLAST!" has given him the opportunity to make lifelong friends.
"A lot of friends I've made in 'BLAST!' are my core friends, they're my rock, the closest friends I've ever had," he said. "I consider so many of these people brothers and sisters. There's so many amazing people that come through this company and I'm so blessed to know each and every one of them."
Hernandez said he is happy to be back in Buffalo again.
"It's been a few years since I've been in the states with 'BLAST!,' so the last time I was in Buffalo was in 2005," he said. "So I'm excited to be here, it's a little like a hometown show. I even have a few people coming and it's really exciting."
A special student rush ticket offer for $25 will be available at the Shea's box office within two hours of show time. Students must have valid student identification.
Hannah Gordon is a junior at Immaculata Academy.