Alexander PeñaNovember 15, 2015
Raised by Mexican immigrant parents, Alex Peña‘s musical studies began in the California and Texas public school systems and continued through private lessons in high school with Eastman alumna and principal violist of the San Antonio Symphony, Allyson Dawkins. He earned a BM in Viola Performance and Music Education in 2010 from Eastman. Peña also received his MM degree in Viola Performance and Literature and an ALP Certificate.
You are currently the Director of ROCmusic. How did you become involved with this group and what was it about this initiative that convinced you to take the job?
I was a member of the viola and conducting faculty at both The Harley School and the Eastman Community Music School and also finishing up my graduate work when the position for ROCmusic was brought to my attention. By that time, I was fortunate enough to have gained experience performing with ensembles like ‘¡Voila!’, the RPO, and the Lakes Area Music Festival. These past opportunities in combination with my pending graduation from ESM left me feeling like I needed to choose one of two paths – educating or performing.
I had heard of El-Sistema programs, Venezuela’s famous Orquestra Jueniel de Simon Bolivar, Gustavo Dudamel, and ideas of building up stronger at-risk communities through music, but never did I ever imagine that I would be the one to tackle poverty head on. After many suggestions by colleagues, mentors, teachers, and friends, I began to look into it. I passionately researched other cities and programs while also delving into Rochester’s rich history but also tragic inner-city reality. Finally, it dawned on me that serving as Director of ROCmusic was an opportunity for me to combine my training in music education, arts leadership, and performance to positively effect change in the lives of many individuals through the power of music.
What are some non-musical skills that you have had to develop in your teaching, performance, and management positions? Are there any particular skills you wish you had learned in school or ones you think are better learned on the job?
So many! It’s hard to understand when we are young, but experience and wisdom are amazingly powerful in the professional world. Any successful professional will continue to develop communication skills and learn how to better navigate working relationships between individuals and organizations. On the job, I’ve learned how to listen and adjust the way I speak based on the audience that I am trying to reach. I’ve also had to develop and cultivate patience with regard to my facial and body expression when working with multiple people from different institutions or walks of life.
My advice: find as much project-based work that you enjoy as you can while in college. Whether that is a chamber group, a non-profit internship, or basic event-planning, the more you collaborate and take on different responsibilities/roles, the better you will develop into a master communicator who possesses adaptability and resilience. Navigating personal relationships is key for career longevity and personal day-to-day happiness!
How does your career at the moment compare to what you thought it might be or wanted it to be when you were in your undergrad at Eastman?
I’ve had to pinch myself wondering if I would wake up from a dream several times at this point in my nascent career. During my undergrad at Eastman, I nearly exhausted myself trying to maintain a double major, sometimes even against the advice of mentors close to me to drop one. Eastman promotes the idea of a well-rounded musician and I, too, adored the idea of becoming a complete musician capable of many things.
I fell in love with the musical career and lifestyle mainly because of the possibility of continued growth, evolution, and diversification via an artistic journey. I believed deeply that there was a musical intersection somewhere in my career path between educating and teaching, audience and community, and student and mentor.
Then and now, I continue to perform chamber music with various ensembles and summer festivals, and I still feel like there is so much more left in the future! Serving on the faculty at the Eastman Community Music School in addition to ROCmusic, allows me the freedom and flexibility to pursue my many passions, ultimately aligning well with my desired professional dreams from during my undergrad at ESM.
Are there any memorable stories or moments in your time with ROCmusic and your performing ensembles that you would like to share?
In 2014-2015, I was so fortunate to be able to become a part of the Sound ExChange Project and work with several ALP graduates, including my good friend and colleague, Emily Wozniak. As a violist, I was challenged and excited by new music and fresh ways of presenting art to both veteran and rookie audiences. Over the course of the year, I had amazing personal moments of vulnerability, sharing, collaboration, teaching, and teamwork all wrapped into the same experience.
I was wearing all of my professional and artistic ‘hats’ at once: conductor, director, educator, violist, friend, colleague, and advocate for the arts. I learned a lot about myself as a musician and as a communicator, all which contributed to success on the stage, as well. Sound ExChange presented its debut performance in New York City in May 2015 at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music. It was a thrilling experience and a wonderful performance, and looking back, a truly memorable keystone completing a wonderfully musical year filled with talented colleagues and students.
Any interesting projects in the near future?
Oh, yeah! ROCmusic is moving into its 4th academic year of operation and we are really shaking things up. Plans to expand our mission to a second site in the Northwest Quadrant of downtown Rochester, located at the Edgerton R-Center, launched in October 2015. We will begin creating a musical community with 20-35 brand new students/families while maintaining our multi-level existing program at the Gantt R-Center.
Additionally, we are looking at hosting our second Ensemble in Residence at ROCmusic. Last year, we were so grateful to collaborate with local group Sound ExChange Project to create 8 visits that included innovative and meaningful musical experiences for our students. Also, we are working toward combining forces with world-renowned percussionist, Bill Cahn of NEXUS, to help establish a percussion ensemble as part of ROCmusic’s offerings in 2015. The goal is to offer a different musical practice, while developing stronger rhythmic and ensemble skills in our existing students, for youth interested in the arts but who may not be able to commit fully to the strings program requirements at ROCmusic.