Fast Start: Building a community of musical kids
By KERRY FELTNER
Rochester Business Journal
November 21, 2014
At 26, Alexander Pena, a first-generation Mexican American, seeks to make classical music as accessible for others as it was for him.
A native of Mission Viejo, Calif., Pena spent half his childhood in California and the other half in San Antonio, Texas. He took up viola in fifth grade and began private lessons in his freshman year—later than most musicians. He had no desire to go into music.
Pena’s parents moved to the U.S. to raise a family. They were the first members of the Pena family to move to America. Growing up in a bilingual household forced Pena to bridge two distinct cultures.
“I think it’s a little bit chameleon-like just growing up in two different split cultures,” he says. “I think in a lot of ways I (always had) to be perceptive. Translating for your parents and also translating your parents for other people—that was something that I always had to do and when I was young it maybe caused a little bit of embarrassment, but now it’s actually such a flexible tool that I have.”
In choosing the viola, Pena strayed from the crowd.
“So many kids were running towards the violin and the cello and I just thought I wanted to have something that wasn’t as popular,” he says.
He became friends with the Sorgi family, whose son, violinist Colin Sorgi, has appeared as guest concertmaster with the National Philharmonic in Washington, D.C. Having exposure to such a passionate musical family helped to ignite Pena’s own passion and confidence in music.
“It was really teachers who pulled from me this passion that I have, because they saw it,” he says. “I didn’t really know it yet, and I didn’t have the most parent support, only because they didn’t have these experiences growing up in Mexico.”
Pena was able to see Sorgi perform on stage. His friend and mentor helped model a reality that he had never fully seen for himself.
“Now I knew one of the musicians onstage, and there was just such an appeal to me,” he said. “I looked at it with such wonder and awe, how beautiful it was, how natural it looked. I loved the community of classical musicians; they were all so emotionally passionate and they were enamored by it.”
Pena put in the work to become a classical musician even while internally questioning if he could make a place for himself in the field. He started lessons with Allyson Dawkins, principal violist of the San Antonio Symphony.
At 17 he paid his own way for private music lessons and college auditions, traveling to Indiana, Rochester and New York City to see where he would fit in. A financial collapse the year he started looking at schools made his decision even harder.
“Deciding to go into music in that kind of landscape was awful—it was terrifying—but I just caught the bug,” he says. “I think there was something that clicked with me at the very end of my high school career, (and) that was I don’t think I can let this go quite yet. I don’t think I’m done discovering what it means to me yet.”
The Eastman School of Music became a major focus after Pena’s teacher and Dawkins, an alumna, recommended it. He also liked that he could study both performance and music education, an option not available everywhere.
“My teacher spoke so highly of Eastman and how the type of person that comes out of Eastman is actually a wonderful worker and colleague and friend,” he says. “I heard it from numerous people as I was getting older and older that an Eastman musician is a capable musician, somebody who is collaborative. There’s this big stress on creating the well-rounded musician, the entrepreneur—not just the player, not just the technician.”
As a strong student, Pena earned full scholarship opportunities to more than 10 schools. His father, however, did not want him to pass up the opportunity that Eastman afforded him musically—even though it would cost him more money.
“I was always somebody who was worried about other people, so I think I naturally felt so guilty about considering this idea,” Pena says. “He did sit me down and he did say, ‘I don’t know anything about classical music, but from what I understand Eastman is that important of a school. Just in the experience of being able to go to it, you’re going to have something unique for the rest of your life.’”
Pena enrolled in 2006 as a double major in viola performance and music education and went on to earn a master’s of music performance and literature. He also earned an arts leadership certificate, completing his education in the summer of 2013.
Pena did his student teaching in Brighton while playing as a substitute for Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He was a teaching assistant while enrolled in his master’s program and also taught 2-year-olds at the Eastman Community Music School.
In his junior year, Pena changed instructors. He says it was a pivotal moment.
He was feeling overwhelmed. Dealing with family issues and the stress of not feeling good enough in the competitive arena, he considered dropping out of school. Eastman professor George Taylor “rescued” him, he says.
“(He) said, ‘No, you’re not leaving,’” Pena says. “‘I will make you into the artist that you want to be. You just have to trust me.’ I didn’t know what to say because I hadn’t had somebody reach out to me like that.
“The Latin root educare means ‘to bring out from somebody.’ I think that’s what George Taylor did with me.”
In 2009, Pena and four friends started the Lakes Area Music Festival in Brainerd, Minn., to create an outlet for music in the northern rural community. This year, the festival brought together 80 musicians from the U.S. and abroad. Its budget has grown from $4,000 in its first year to $150,000 in 2014.
Pena is the festival’s children and community education coordinator. During a weeklong day camp that he started, called Explore Music, children learn about the festival’s music through creative arts like improvisation, dance and folk instrumental study.
Pena did a second internship when Eastman played host to the 40th annual National Viola Congress in 2012. Pena was an assistant administrator, putting him in touch with world-renowned violists. He also ran Community Viola Day, a day of special events for K-12 viola students, teachers and parents.
The same year, he was awarded the Robert L. Oppelt Viola Prize, which is given to an outstanding viola student at Eastman. He has performed with groups such as ¡Voila!—a viola trio that won second place in the National String Chamber Music Competition—and the RPO.
Only now is Pena able to recognize his progress, he says: “I needed to snap out of it a little bit and give myself credit and thank people.”
While studying in the master’s program, Pena applied for a teaching position at the Harley School. The part-time job became full time in two years. At the time he also was leading three orchestras in addition to his studies.
A year later he added even more to his schedule when a position at the Eastman Community Music School opened up. He became a viola and violin professor, teaching students of all ages—a combined total of 200 students.
He currently plays in Sound ExChange, an experimental group that seeks to transform the live concert experience by strengthening the vibes between performers and audiences. He also became director of New Horizons String Orchestra and Full Orchestra in September. The two ensembles give adults a musical outlet in a non-competitive and fun environment.
Since fall 2013, Pena has been director of RocMusic. Now a little more than a year old, the program brings music education to 60 school-age kids at the David F. Gantt Community Center. With the backing of heavy-hitters and a $100,000 grant from the Max and Marian Farash Foundation, the program is set to expand over several years to community centers around the city; the goal is to ultimately teach music to at least 50 students at each site, creating a web of orchestras that rehearse and perform together.
The non-profit follows a mission inspired by the Venezuelan El-Sistema movement, which centers on intensive early ensemble participation, group learning and peer teaching—while having fun.
The program reflects the type of community engagement George Eastman had in mind when he founded the RPO and established the Eastman School. Collaborating institutions include the school, its community music school, the RPO, the University of Rochester, the city of Rochester and its Department of Recreation and Youth Services, Rochester City School District and Hochstein School of Music and Dance.
The director role was written with Pena in mind. He had all of the relevant experience: music education, orchestral playing, and general and early childhood education. The prospect made him both nervous and excited, he says.
“It was a terrifying job,” Pena says. “I had the six or seven largest institutional stronghold powers that were all coming together creating this one job. It just felt right, even though I was terrified.
“It was a very pivotal moment, but I didn’t want to settle or be pigeonholed in just being a classroom teacher quite so young yet,” he says. “I saw this opportunity for me to be a performer, player, speaker, teacher, organizer, and so I went with it. It’s been such a life-changing experience.”
Music should be a community’s connecting fabric, he says.
“I see myself as somebody who is into community educational projects,” Pena says. “I’m interested in uniting and making classical music accessible to everyone.
“I think my passion for music has not dwindled, even a little bit. It has only intensified.”