Isabella “Isa” Peña ’23-’24 was never a woman who shied away from the arts. As a double major at Harvard College and Berklee College of Music, she came to campus with a resume full of artistic experience. Although she was heavily involved in musical theater during her childhood, she credits a high school organization as the earliest influence on her artistic output.
“I was a member of this organization called Rock for Relief, which basically put on two big concerts every year where all the students in my high school would perform to raise money for another cause,” Peña said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.
“And I think that was very formative for me, not just because of the actual aspect of making music, but because I played with a different band every semester. And so I kind of learned that music is obviously all about teamwork.”
This collaborative attitude was reflected in many aspects of Peña’s later involvement at Harvard. During her freshman year, she joined The Harvard Opportunes, an a cappella group for female students on campus. Peña originally resisted the idea of joining an a cappella group, feeling that the genre’s musical onomatopoeias would be difficult for her or would not suit her style as a singer.
However, when she arrived in Cambridge she realized there was nothing to worry about. “I joined completely on a whim and it has become my community on campus for so long. It was so great, especially as a freshman and sophomore, to have so many people, so many upperclassmen to look up to and ask all my stupid little questions.”
She carried that energy into Yard Bops, the band she formed with her current roommate her freshman year. She and her friend spent the weeks leading up to Yard Fest building their own bands. “A week and a half before the pandemic, we realized that we would both be competing against each other in the Battle of the Bands. And then we had an “Aha!” moment of questioning: Why don’t we just become a mega band?”
The resulting band was named Yard Bops after Yard Ops, the church service in the basement of Weld, Peña’s freshman dorm. The band stayed together during the pandemic and has since played at the Crimson Jam, the Harvard-Yale Game and various off-campus performances.
Yet Peña’s musical journey did not end at the confines of Cambridge. In the fall of her freshman year, she secured a spot on the 2020 season of “American Idol.” She took two plane trips in a single weekend, wowing the show’s celebrity judges – Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. Although she did not make it to the finals, her audition and some of her performances were televised. One of those performances, her duet with Olivia Ximins, now has over 250,000 views on YouTube.
She also found success on her personal YouTube channel, where her performance in the musical “Heathers” earned 145,000 views and her other song covers earned thousands of views each.
Peña herself finds this online success both encouraging and intimidating. On the one hand, these virtual shows of support have given her the confidence to pursue a career in the arts, which is a notoriously fickle industry. On the other hand, the YouTube algorithm often tests their self-confidence.
“I have YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and sometimes I post videos and they get like 30 views. And I thought, ‘Oh God, this is terrifying,'” she said. “But other times I’ll post it and it’ll be shockingly well-received, and I’m always like, ‘Oh God, could this actually happen?'”
At the moment, however, Peña is not only concerned with music. At Harvard, she is a joint specialist in government and East Asian studies with a minor in theater, dance and music. She was also recently admitted to Harvard Law School, where she expects to begin studying in 2026.
In the meantime, Peña plans to move to New York City and immerse herself in the art scene there. She cites Elphaba from “Wicked” as her dream role, but doesn’t want to limit herself to just musical theater.
“I learned how to record with a microphone in my room in some classes at Berkeley. And maybe it would be pretty crazy to meet a producer in New York next year and work on some of this stuff,” she said.
Far from separating the two, Peña intends to incorporate these gap year experiences into her legal career. She has considered focusing on entertainment law, citing AI and the SAG-AFTRA strikes as likely challenges for her in the future.
At the end of the day, she said, “I just want to protect artists and make sure the things they make are their own.”
With this mission and years of musical experience behind her, she will face her future.