Martin Camacho is the new dean of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts, and his mission of opportunity reaches beyond the four weeks of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Martin Camacho discovered he had a musical gift early in life.
Raised in Mexico City, he got his hands on an electric organ around the age of 5 or 6.
“There was an electric organ fad in the 1970s,” Camacho said. “My grandfather bought one for my uncles, but nobody wanted to play it.”
Nobody that is, except for young Camacho.
After Camacho had toyed around with the instrument for a few months, his parents realized he should be in lessons. Once Camacho started getting regular instruction, his technique and passion rapidly flourished.
By the time he was 8 years old, his parents and teacher agreed Camacho would benefit from more serious study.
“Latin American countries follow a European model for musical conservatories,” Camacho explained. “If someone wants to study seriously in the U.S., they find a private instructor and supplement it into their education. But in a conservatory model, you combine all your education into one system so you can practice your craft more seriously.”
While the conservatory model offers a great opportunity to young, aspiring artists, because it is government funded, the conservatories can only accept a small number of students each year. Because of this, the application process is incredibly competitive. Along with auditioning, there is an entrance examination the students must pass.
Camacho easily made the cut when it came to talent, but on his written exam, he fell three points short.
“I had to score an 80 to be admitted,” Camacho recalls. “But I scored a 77 – I didn't make the cut.”
Camacho's mother wasn't about to give up, though.
“My mother took me to the conservatory and talked with the associate dean,” Camacho said. “We went into his office and my mother advocated for me. She talked about my interest in the program and assured him no one would work harder than me. She wasn't going to leave that man's office until she had made her point.”
Camacho recalls watching the associate dean's face while his mother pleaded his case.
The man was a polished administrator, sitting behind a large desk that seemed even larger to an 8-year-old.
When Camacho's mother had finished, the associate dean paused and looked at Camacho.
“OK,” he said, “but you're on probation for one year.”
Over the following year, Camacho had to keep his grades up to remain at Escuela Superior de Música, and he did just that. In addition to good grades, he spent hours a day practicing.
“I had played organ beforehand, but when I got into the conservatory, I began to practice primarily on piano,” Camacho said.
For the following nine years, Camacho's life revolved around the conservatory, practicing scales, etudes, sonatas, concertos and more.
At 17 years old, Camacho had excelled and was at the top of his class. He then moved to Cuba to study piano at Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana.
“I remember my first night in Cuba,” Camacho said. “I checked in and was sent to my small lodgings. There was no running water, and all I was given was a net to keep the bugs off my bed.”
Camacho and other students would walk to a corner market to get water, and they kept fans running while practicing and sleeping.
After all, that's pretty much all they did.
“There wasn't a lot to do other than practice,” Camacho recalls. “And while the amenities were somewhat lacking, the level of instruction and talent were not.”
In fact, there was a revival of arts and culture happening in Cuba in the 1980s; it was the perfect place for a young artist. Camacho started listening to some of the upperclassmen practice and was astonished by the level of difficulty in the pieces they played.
“I thought to myself, ‘I am going to do that, and I'll do it even better,'” Camacho said.
The driven musician spent years perfecting the techniques, phrasing and expression demanded at that level of performance. By the time he left Cuba, he was performing at the top of his class there, too.
Everywhere he went, he raised the bar.
And not only was Camacho driven to succeed in music, but he picked up some other tricks during his time in Cuba.
“I had a motorcycle, a house, a Steinway piano and other amenities by the time I graduated – things I had only dreamed of earlier,” Camacho said.
He began to realize he was not only a great musician; he had some business savvy as well.
Pairing Business with Artistry
In 1995, Camacho moved to the U.S. to pursue a master's degree in music from the Cleveland Institute of Music. He also earned a doctorate from the University of Miami and a master's in business administration (MBA) from Barry University.
Since graduate school, Camacho has remained a diligent practitioner of his art.
“The typical timeline for someone who goes on to work in higher education is to get a teaching job that allows them to continue their professional work while developing in academia,” Camacho said. “Most transition through assistant professor to associate professor and so forth.”
Camacho, however, was placed in a leadership role during his very first job. But that meant he had to continue to prove himself as a teacher and practitioner at the same time.
“I was doing all three things at once,” Camacho said. “I had administrative work, I had to grow as an educator and continue to be a renowned practitioner of my art. So, that balance quickly just became a way of living.”
More than 20 years later, Camacho is now the dean of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts at Texas Tech University and is balancing his love of leadership with his love of music as he always has.
This semester alone, Camacho has at least three guest performances scheduled inside and outside of the U.S. However, the performance he might be most excited for is his debut performance at Texas Tech.
“This concert will be a musical offering from me to the Texas Tech and Lubbock communities,” Camacho said.
Communities he feels especially honored to serve.
Texas Tech met the requirements to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution in 2017. Since that time, the numbers of Hispanic and Latin American students at the university have only grown.
“Coming into this college at such a pivotal time for the university is an exciting challenge,” Camacho said. “Education is the tool that is going to propel our country forward. We will be a ‘minority majority' country in the next few decades. So, we need to see those numbers reflected in university enrollment.”
That's where Camacho's passion and Texas Tech's resources collided.
“Being the dean of this college is a dream come true,” Camacho said. “This is an institution with great history, and the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts has strong programs. At the same time, there are many things left to do.
“This college is at a stage where it's time to look to the future, and the possibilities of what the arts can look like.”
As Camacho creates opportunities for new students, he reflects on the beginning of his own journey.
“You remember that associate dean from my first music conservatory?” Camacho asked. “Well, I tracked him down after receiving my doctoral degree.”
Camacho discovered the administrator had since retired and was living in Cancun, Mexico. After reaching out to several contacts, Camacho was able to track down the man's phone number.
“I said, ‘You probably don't remember the 8-year-old boy who was in your office in 1978, but your decision that day changed my life,'” he recalled.
Camacho still can't tell the story without getting emotional.
“At first, the retired dean didn't really know what to say, perhaps he thought I was a disgruntled student calling to complain,” Camacho said. “But I reassured him, ‘No, I'm calling to say thank you.
“‘You probably didn't know the impact your decision would make, but today I am the only student from that cohort who has a doctorate. You made the right call.'”
That experience has been the driver for all decisions Camacho has made and will continue to make at Texas Tech.
“That associate dean made a decision in my favor that day; he took a chance on me,” Camacho said. “So now, when I am sitting at my desk, much like the large desk he sat behind that day, I remember that moment. If I can open a door for someone, I do.”
What students end up doing with that open door is up to them, but Camacho believes in doing his part and students doing theirs.
“I worked really hard with the chance I was given, and I proved myself,” Camacho said. “There are many talented students out there who have the passion and the drive. They just need someone to take a chance on them.”
Paying It Forward
Camacho did exactly that this summer.
Casillas is from Tijuana, Mexico, and her parents had major doubts about their daughter moving to the American South. Due to perceptions of recent racial strife, they worried about her wellbeing.
Discouraged, Casillas turned to Instagram one night, scrolling through the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts' profile. That's when she noticed an announcement that caught her by surprise.
A video had just been posted of Camacho playing piano and introducing himself as the new dean of the college. His warmth and invitation to study at Texas Tech were captivating, but that's not what stood out to Casillas.
She sprinted to her living room and showed her parents the college had just appointed a dean, who was Mexican.
Seeing Camacho, someone with a similar background to Casillas, sold her parents on the move to Lubbock.
Camacho recently penned Casillas' parents a letter.
Part of it reads:
“After hearing your story, I decided to write a few lines to express my gratitude for having trusted Texas Tech. That trust is now transformed into a commitment for us to provide her with a first-class education and an environment in which she can develop as an individual and as a professional.”
Camacho hopes Melissa is one of many students who find a welcoming, open door in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Performing Arts.
“It's our mission to make sure opportunity exists for everyone,” he notes, “especially those who have not had it in the past.”
About the Concert
Camacho will give his debut performance at Texas Tech in the School of Music's Hemmle Hall at 7:30 p.m., Monday (Oct. 3). The concert is entitled “An Evening of Latin American Piano Music” and will include works by Ponce, Ruiz Armengol, Piazolla and Marquez.
The evening also will include appearances by Grammy-nominated pianist, Adonis Gonzalez, and assistant professor of practice in commercial music and jazz studies, Fabio Augustinis. The event is free and open to the public.