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Making social connections through music

Hip-hop artist Samuel Peña didn't think music school was for him — until he got to ASU

ASU School of Music 2016 graduate Samuel Peña

Samuel Peña, who's receiving his master's in music education, says the support of faculty in ASU's School of Music helped him believe in himself.

May 11, 2016

Editor’s note:  This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

Beat producer, Brazilian percussionist and music educator Samuel Peña was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and raised in the U.S. When he was younger, he says, his father always wanted to play music with him, but Peña wasn’t interested in rock and roll — he was interested in hip-hop. Although he loved music, he didn’t think music school was “for him.”

“I never thought that I would be a music educator,” Peña said. “I never thought of myself as a musician, even though I played music and made music and recorded music every day.”

He got a bachelor's degree in communication, focusing on stereotypes, on social justice and on celebrating similarities and differences.

Still, there was nothing he was more passionate about in life than music. He took a class at ASU to learn how to house dance.

Sparked by that class, he found a way to go back to school and, for the first time in his life, study music. This May, he graduates with a master's in music education through the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts' School of Music.

Music, he says, is about social connections. The part of the conversation he wants to add to is this: “It’s OK if you started late. It’s OK if you’re interested in something a little bit different. How can you, then, add your voice to what we’re creating?”

“The arts and music is my favorite way of expressing respect for myself and expressing respect for others,” Peña said. “And so my life is different now because all the things that I believed in and have been working on are now coming together with music.”

He answered a few questions about his time in college.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: In spring 2014 I was hired as adjunct faculty for the ASU Urban Ensemble course. Once in the classroom, I knew that there was nowhere else I would rather be. I immediately began to make connections in the music education department and expressed that I was determined to become a better music teacher. I was accepted the following fall.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I learned that even though I was never in a school music program, that my music-making experiences and passion for playing music with others was extremely valuable. It really helped me to have the support of the music education department, the jazz department, and the support of the director of the School of Music. That support helped me believe in myself.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Get to know as many people as you can. Be kind, curious and share what you are passionate about. Also, remember that school is a safe place to make mistakes. The real art is in allowing yourself to grow from those mistakes. Finally, I would say­­ don’t forget to allow yourself to be creative, to collaborate across the arts and to feel the music.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus was in FAC 28; the dance studio where I co-taught the Urban Ensemble. Each class I was inspired by the creativity of each student enrolled in the class. It was an honor to work with so many courageous students over the last two years.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I hope to be able to keep facilitating the Urban Ensemble and to help build a music program that supports and develops the wonderful music made in the community. I also plan on developing my music production company, AZ Beat Lab, in K-12 music programs to help empower youth. I would like to continue being a bridge between ASU and the local community.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would get to stop searching for grants and funding and I would keep doing exactly what I am doing, developing my musicianship and developing my ability to facilitate creative music-making for people in and outside of schools. I believe anyone interested in learning deserves the joy of making and sharing music with others. 

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