Alexander Peña is the director of Explore Music! as well as one of the founding musicians who helped create the Lakes Area Music Festival in 2009. Since then, “Mr. Alex” has developed his own El Sistema-inspired after-school and summer musical education program in Rochester, NY. We got to talk to him about his work in Brainerd and about his hopes for the future of LAMF and its educational offerings.
You are one of the founding members of LAMF. What have some of the most exciting or unexpected developments been for you over the past eight seasons?
One completely unexpected development, on a personal-note, is how often I refer to Brainerd, MN as my summer ‘home’ throughout the year. Over the course of the past eight seasons, I’ve come to love the Lakes Area and our wonderful community of local music-lovers, while also being able to share this beautiful artistic-haven with members of my family, including my mom and better-half, fellow Teaching Artist, Jeff Andrews.
Working with such talented musicians over the course of the past eight years has been a delight, but seeing the LAMF artist roster continue to broaden their horizons and reach new levels in their respective careers around the world has been a thrill! I am excited to be part of such a musically-devoted artist roster and foresee even more amazing things to come for LAMF and its musicians! It is also particularly special for me to continue to work with some of my closest and longest-lasting friends, especially those alumni from the Eastman School, year-after-year.
What drew you to study music education?
My love of classical music and the performing arts began in 7th grade — I remember thinking of performing musicians as magicians, and I became fascinated by the art form.
As I began to study the instrument more seriously in high school, I quickly realized that I really enjoyed additional musical roles including conducting my orchestra when my director was absent, leading sectionals, and even teaching private lessons to those who struggled.
I always had admired those musicians with varied and robust careers, seemingly able to ‘do it all’ while maintaining a gentle ease about their work, so when it came time to think about a career, I wanted to equip myself with as many skills as possible. Honestly, it was a struggle at times to balance my studies as a performing violist and as a developing music educator – there were even some along the way who strongly suggested to drop/focus on one of my passions. At this point in my career, I am so happy I stuck with pursuing both my passions and am fortunate to work in the Western NY classical music scene as an educator, arts advocate, violist, and conductor.
Your work with youth education has received regional and even national recognition. Talk a bit about your year-round projects and goals.
This past year I was selected to participate in the National Guild of Community Arts Education Leadership Institute, an 8-month program that was transformative for me and my continued passion to work in the arts. In Rochester, I am a Senior Instructor of Viola/Violin and Conducting at the Eastman Community Music School, in addition to serving as Director of the ROCmusic Collaborative – an after-school music education program that offers tuition-free instrumental and ensemble instruction to underserved urban communities.
ROCmusic is a unique non-profit partnership of the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester), Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Hochstein School of Music & Dance, City of Rochester Department of Recreation and Youth Services, the Rochester City School District, Gateways Music Festival, and the Eastman Community Music School.
Additionally, I serve on the Community Advisory Board for WXXI (NPR member station, Rochester, NY) and this summer I’ve been invited to serve as a Panelist on music grants at the New York State Council on the Arts. It’s thrilling to see my work beginning to diversify to include arts advocacy and community education, in addition to performing and teaching classical music.
What are the benefits to kids of a program like Explore Music?
Explore Music! was designed with a mission to redefine the delivery of concert repertoire to young people and their families by providing artistically meaningful, yet relevant experiences to the pieces presented in advance of a family/educational performance. Scott (Lykins, Executive and Associate Artisitc Director) wanted a creative way to connect with young people and their families in the Brainerd community that would be unique to LAMF and the wonderful resources that this festival has to offer, while having a goal of diversifying our concert audience throughout the season.
The kids in our program experience the concert repertoire from the annual family concert, in addition to selections through the entire LAMF season, through a week-long day-camp of varied activities in the creative arts, including voice, ensemble playing, improvisation, conducting, movement, drama, and visual arts. What happens when they come back to the concert is near-magical, because many of the kids begin to serve as ambassadors of the concert to their family members. They teach their parents and siblings about what to expect, what the music may be about, or some of the historical context of the programming. This active engagement seeks to inspire children to love classical music while serving as an entry-point to LAMF and encourage young families to return to more of our concerts.
What are your goals for the future of LAMF’s children’s education?
I would love to see Explore Music! to expand our offerings to middle-school aged children – Jeff (Andrews, teaching artist) and Christiana (Shorter, teaching artist) have a strong background in musical theater and comedy productions, while Kurt (Fedde, teaching artist) and I are well-versed in instrumental, ensemble, and composition instruction – a perfect combination for tweens and their creative development.
Scott and I have also dreamed of deepening our youth education efforts to include a statewide chamber music component for talented high school students. Who knows… down the line, I could be bringing my violin/viola students from Eastman to study in Brainerd for LAMF’s summer chamber music camp for strings!