Music runs through Jorge Peña’s veins. His grandfather was a musician, playing in the same Honduran town where he was raised.
“I do come from a kind of musical background. My mother’s father was a musician, but by the time I showed any interest in music, his mind was gone so I didn’t get to talk to him about it,” he says. “But, I think, the genes do carry.”
Peña started his journey at the Victoriano Lopez Music Conservatory in San Pedro Sula, playing the viola. He simultaneously received high school and bachelor’s degree in music at there.
It was also around this time that Peña took a faithful trip that would chart his future.
“Luckily for me, the school decided to do a tour of Georgia and Florida. I was one of the soloists, so we went to different places and performed at different venues and schools,” he recalls. “One of the places we went was Columbus State University in Georgia.”
Peña felt a connection to the campus — and though he knew zero English at the time, he decided to pursue a second degree — a bachelor of music performance — there while learning the language.
“I had to learn English and catch up,” he said.
But he wasn’t done accumulating diplomas yet. Peña went on to earn degrees in viola performance and chamber music with studies in conducting from John’s Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland.
“It was great because there was so much culture around the area and everything is close, so you go to a lot of concerts and see great performances,” he says. “I ended up playing in the opera in Washington, D.C., but came back down South when I got a position in the Jacksonville Symphony. That allowed me to move from the pit to the main stage, playing orchestra music.”
He settled in and raised his three daughters — Ines, Gaby, and Elisa — in Duval County. Like their father, the girls gravitated toward music.
“All of them received music education in their youth. Gaby is currently playing professionally with the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” Peña says with pride.
Once his children were older, Peña started to explore teaching and considering his own extensive education — it’s unsurprising that he would want to want to work with students.
Several years back, Peña was a part of a musical ensemble that would become the Coastal Symphony of Georgia. He was tapped as the general manager and helped guide the organization toward the highly professional entity it is today.
Five years ago, Peña was selected to replace Luis Haza at the helm of the Golden Isles Youth Orchestra. Since then, he’s helped mold young musicians coming through the area’s various musical programs.
The orchestra, which brings students together from across demographics, offers young musicians an equal footing on which to start their journey. Peña notes that a grant the program received to buy all of the participants instruments has helped immensely.
“A student coming from the island could afford a nice, new instrument, but another maybe coming from Brunswick couldn’t,” he says. “You can see the discrepancy. But with the grant, it doesn’t matter. We are all just focused on the music.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic silenced the melody for a time in the spring and summer months of 2020. But Peña and his team were committed to continue teaching. They held Zoom summer camps instead of in-person sessions, making sure students continued learning during the unprecedented time.
“We decided to do a virtual camp, which was a first for everybody. But I must say I was very happy with how it turned out. Our instructors are always top-notch and they offered our students the best,” he says. “It also gave everyone a chance to perform in front of their peers which doesn’t always happen at the camp so that was great. It was like any master class.”
Since reopening and moving forward, Peña has helped guide the students through the rigorous safety protocol that ensures they the music won’t stop due to an outbreak.
When he’s not shepherding youngsters through difficult pieces of music — or a trying period like the coronavirus pandemic — Peña also keeps busy as the organizer and co-founder of the annual St. August Music Festival.
“It’s the largest free chamber music festival in the U.S. and it’s a really a great thing. Usually, it is the last two weekends in June. There are many people who come down from Glynn County for it,” he says.
Whether it’s organizing a musical event, leading an orchestra or playing in one, there is one defining element that this passion has brought to his life — discipline.
“I tell my students that ‘you don’t choose music, music chooses you.’ When you start playing in an orchestra, it’s a way of life. I tell them I don’t expect 100 percent of you to become professional musicians, but rest assured that what you’re learning — that discipline of music can be put into practice in any field,” he says.
“In anything that you do, the discipline of learning to play music never goes away.”