Isabella “Isa” Peña ’23-’24 was never one to shirk the arts. As a Harvard College-Berklee College of Music dual degree student, she arrived on campus with a resume packed with artistic experience. Though she was heavily involved in musical theater growing up, she credits a high school organization as the earliest influence on her artistry.
“I was a member of this organization called Rock for Relief, which would basically host two big concerts every year with all students from my high school performing to raise money for a different cause,” Peña said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.
“And I think that was very formative to me, not just because of the actual aspect of making music, but because every semester I would be playing with a different band. And so it kind of taught me, you know, obviously music is all about teamwork.”
This collaborative attitude dovetailed into much of Peña’s later involvement at Harvard. In her freshman year, she joined The Harvard Opportunes, a coed a cappella group on campus. Peña originally resisted the idea of joining any a cappella group, as she believed the genre’s musical onomatopoeias would be difficult for her or wouldn’t suit her style as a singer.
However, once she arrived in Cambridge, she realized there was no need to worry. “I joined totally on a whim, and it became my community on campus for so long. It was so great, especially as a freshman and a sophomore to have so many people, so many upperclassmen to look up to and ask all my silly little questions to.”
She carried that energy into Yard Bops, the band she founded with her current roommate during their freshman year. Her and her friend spent the weeks leading into Yard Fest building their own bands. “A week and a half before the pandemic we realized that the two of us were gonna compete for the Battle of the Bands against each other. And then we had an ‘Aha!’ moment of like, why don’t we just become one mega band?”.
The resulting band was named Yard Bops after Yard Ops, the service in the basement of Weld, Peña’s freshman year dorm. The band stayed together through the pandemic, and since then has played at the Crimson Jam, the Harvard-Yale Game, and various off-campus gigs.
Even so, Peña’s musical journey did not stop at the borders of Cambridge. In the fall of her freshman year, she secured a spot on the 2020 season of “American Idol.” In the span of a single weekend, she took two plane rides and wowed the show’s celebrity judges — Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan. Though she didn’t 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 has also found success on her personal YouTube channel, where her performance in the musical “Heathers” racked up 145,000 views and her other song covers accrued thousands of views each.
Peña herself considers 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 her self-assurance.
“I have YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and sometimes I post videos, and they’ll get, like, 30 views. And I’m like, ‘Oh, God, this is terrifying,’” she said. “But then other times, I’ll post it and it’ll do shockingly well, and I’m always like, ‘Oh, gosh, could this actually happen?’”
Currently, however, music is not the only thing on Peña’s mind. At Harvard, she’s a joint Government and East Asian Studies concentrator with a secondary field in Theater, Dance, and Music. She was also recently admitted to Harvard Law School, where she is set to begin classes in 2026.
In the meantime, Peña anticipates moving to New York City and becoming immersed in the local arts scene. She names Elphaba from “Wicked” as her dream role, but she doesn’t plan on limiting herself to musical theater.
“I’ve learned in some classes at Berkeley just how to record in my room using a mic. And so, you know, maybe in New York next year, getting to meet a producer and work on some of this stuff would be pretty nuts,” 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, and she cites AI and the SAG-AFTRA strikes as probable challenges for her in the future.
At the end of the day, she said, “What I want to do is just protect artists and make sure that the things that they make are their own.”
With that mission and years of musical experience behind her, she will face her future.