The Life of Jorge Peña Hen, Part III: A New Calling

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

The Life of Jorge Peña Hen, Part III: A New Calling

Lautaro Rojas Flores, Faculty (Retired), Escuela Experimental de Música Jorge Peña Hen, Universidad de La Serena


Hen conducts the Pedro Humberto Allende Children’s Symphony Orchestra. Photo: María Fedora Peña.

Editor’s Note: Over the past two months, we have published a series of articles on the life and work of an early luminary in the Latin American music for social change movement, Jorge Peña Hen. That series continues this month with a look at the years following Hen’s newfound focus on youth music education. If you haven’t yet, read Part I here and Part II here.

Maestro Jorge Peña Hen knew he wanted to provide accessible ensemble music education to the youth of his city — La Serena, Chile. But none of us had any experience with this kind of project. As we began envisioning ways to realize the maestro’s vision, we faced a real challenge: we had no students, no teachers, no instruments, and no resources.

We began by drumming up interest. Maestro’s first step was to request an interview with the Provincial Director of Education, Mr. Nicolás Psijas, to ask if he would authorize musicians to teach instrument lessons in five of the city’s public schools and allow interested students to enroll. Many Sistema-inspired programs will recognize this process.

Of course, there were no resources to pay the teachers, but the persuasive maestro got the musicians in the city orchestra to agree to do the work for free.

The lack of instruments was our most challenging problem. An ad ran in print and on the radio calling for people with musical instruments in disuse to donate them to the J.S. Bach Society. The Arica Regiment was also asked to donate “darlos de baja”—a euphemistic way of saying unusable instruments. Suddenly, we had enough instruments to get started. They were in various states of disrepair, of course, and we knew that our real work was only just beginning.

A carpenter, Ramón Pastén, grew interested in luthiery, thanks to the perseverance of Maestro Peña. Together they consulted books on how to repair string instruments, and together they began learning the art form. Maestro Pasten was acquiring skills and knowledge so that he could run the luthiery workshop the following year, once the school opened. In fact, a violin made by Maestro Peña during this time is still preserved at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of the Memory and the Human Rights).

The wind instrument repairs were done by the musicians of the Arica Regiment Band. When major repairs were needed, a blacksmith was in charge of removing dents and soldering the instruments.

Despite our success accumulating and repairing instruments, our collection was still limited. Teachers had only one or two instruments in addition to their own to lend to pupils for at-home practice. Of course, the number of pupils far exceeded that number, so the students took turns. Each had the opportunity to take home an instrument for one day, or one half-day, a week. Even in these precarious beginning moments, our enthusiasm never wavered. Everyone learned a specialty and gave their best in contributing to the collective whole.

The teaching program consisted of one-on-one weekly lessons. On Saturdays, Maestro Peña would bring everyone together in an orchestra class to rehearse works that he would arrange according to the students’ levels of ability. Students had two shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Since they ate lunch at the school, they remained there from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Despite the rigors of this work, students enjoyed spending the day together—allowing coexistence and fellowship to thrive.

We operated like this for one year. At the end of 1964, the results of our process were presented at the Teatro del Liceo de Niñas, known today as Teatro Municipal de La Serena. This event featured chamber ensemble performances and the presentation of the First Children’s Orchestra of Chile and Latin America, featuring children between the ages 9 and 14.

The concert was an extraordinary success—not just as a musical performance, but also because the educational authorities were in attendance. This was critical for us, and led to one of the most important moments at that point in our young movement: the creation of the Experimental School of Music of La Serena in March 1965. That year, the school began to operate with fifth-grade students, aiming to increase its numbers each year in a natural, sustainable way, always starting from the fifth grade.

It was an original and promising beginning: the first music school where the students alternated their general subjects with music subjects. Of course, the latter were the students’ favorites.

In this shared space of collective music-making, there was a mutual desire to progress, to practice more, and to play better. From the School Director to the newest employee, everyone was aware that they were part of something important—something with a bright future.

Our series on Jorge Peña Hen concludes next month with an examination of Maestro Peña Hen’s years spent growing the music school into a fully formed movement: music for social change.