Early childhood education at CMC, a faculty profile with Susan Peña

For more information on all of CMC’s early childhood education offerings and faculty, visit the Youth Group Classes and Ensembles page.

Susan Peña: CMC Chiquitos Instructor

By Katy Fox, guest writer

“Playing music together, that’s what people want to do.”

Susan Peña, CMC Chiquitos Instructor


When audiences watch La Familia Peña-Govea play music together, something Susan Peña, her husband and two daughters have done for over twenty years in the Bay Area, they often become overwhelmed with longing and excitement. “It’s something that we really would have taken for granted, except people kept saying ‘How did you get that? How can we get our kids to play with us like that?”

Susan’s passionate about making music an enriching part of her student’s lives—something that they’ll continue to do for fun, socially. At Community Music Center (CMC) Peña teaches the CMC Chiquitos class, a Spanish-English bilingual family music class for infants to three-year-olds. She also co-teaches a children’s violin class and a guitar class for older artists at CMC’s partner organization Mission Neighborhood Center (MNC), as well as at César Chávez Elementary School as part of of CMC’s partnership with SFUSD in the Mariachi music program.

As a (now retired) high-school Spanish teacher, Susan was introduced to a language acquisitions method called Total Physical Response Storytelling. Modeled on how infants pick up their native language, the method is based on immersion and play. Susan used folk songs and games of Latin America and Mexico to teach grammar and vocabulary. Now she uses the same method to expose small children to basic skills like hand-eye coordination and absorbing different rhythms. She feels this method creates a lasting relationship with music, in conjunction with acquiring a skill. “I know so many people who ‘took flute’ in school or ‘took trumpet’ only to put it down and never play it again.”

In the CMC Chiquitos class, which provides a “musical bonding experience” through group song and and musical play, Susan spends as much time making music as she can—not talking, not explaining. This immersive experience includes parents and caregivers. Imagine an hour of clapping, call and response, hand gestures and playing with instruments. “I think that the most important thing is modeling for the kids, that it’s something their parents love to do with them.”

Music and education have been conjoined in Susan’s work over the last thirty years. She has taught for Guitars in the Classroom, recorded a bilingual CD of children’s songs accompanied by a teacher’s manual, and shared music-making for all ages at multiple camp and festivals. She and her family are as well-known in the Bay Area for La Familia Peña-Govea’s performances as for their Latino cultural presentations, often at public libraries. Susan has been singing since she was a child and began collecting songs, mostly folk, when she was twelve. Such a rich career, and she didn’t even begin to teach professionally until after she ended a twenty year career as a lawyer.

Law was never a passion for Susan. But not wanting to follow in her parents footsteps—both were teachers—she held on to “a sense of rebellion” for many years. She had been volunteer teaching in her daughters’ classes at Buena Vista Alternative Elementary School (now Buena Vista/Horace Mann, K-8), a Spanish immersion school in the Mission, when she heard that a high school in Pacifica was looking for someone to teach Spanish. They were using a new method that combined song, stories and art. “It turned into [another] 20 year career that I really loved. And I found out it wasn’t just my parents who were teachers, but my dad’s entire family that I hadn’t really grown up with. I was like, ‘Ok, should’ve done this a long time ago!’

Having lived in the Mission, Bernal Heights and Potrero Hill for decades, Susan continues to be impressed with the support and outreach that CMC extends to the Mission community. She sites CMC’s partnership with the MNC, CMC’s Mariachi program with SFUSD, numerous musical collaboration opportunities, and the dedication of CMC’s administrative staff. Peña also appreciates the accessibility of CMC’s Young Musicians Program that provides youth an opportunity to play in ensembles and take lessons free of charge. “Now those kids are likely to have music in their lives forever…playing music together, that’s what people want to do.”

What is on offer in Susan’s CMC Chiquitos class—what is offered at CMC in general—is a way to enter into a life that cannot be imagined without music.

Thank you to Katy Fox the guest writer for this article. The article is part of an interview and article series about early childhood education faculty at CMC.