It’s often said that music has the power to unite people, transcending any cultural or geographical barriers that hold us apart. Justin Koga is making that notion a reality.
A junior at Irvine High School, Koga, 15, has already racked up a lengthy list of musical accomplishments, including winning last year’s Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition for cello.
That win, Koga said, became the source of inspiration he needed to share his passion for music with others.
“In terms of my musical career, winning the Concerto Competition was a pivotal moment for me,” he said. “(That’s when) I met Alejandro Gutiérrez, who was the symphony’s orchestra director. He’s from Costa Rica and told me about the work he was doing there, and I was truly inspired by his story.”
In summer 2013, Koga learned of a friend’s plan to teach at a music school in Costa Rica. He saw it as the perfect opportunity to tag along and volunteer as well.
Upon arriving at one of the Sistema Nacional de Educacion Musical schools in Cóbano, Costa Rica, Koga was struck by both the passion of the students and the lack of resources to accommodate them.
“Even though there were so many students in the school, there were so few instruments,” Koga said. “I saw a box of broken-down instruments and some that were missing strings and bridges, and that was the moment of realization for me.”
Koga asked the school’s musical director for a wish list of instruments and began crafting a plan for a benefit concert to raise money. After obtaining a venue, contacting musicians to participate and soliciting donors, Koga was able to raise more than $1,500 in Orange County. Ironing out the kinks, Koga set his goal higher and organized a larger-scale event in New York City, where he raised more than $18,000.
Koga’s private instructor, Pacific Symphony cellist Laszlo Mezo, was involved in both benefit concerts, by assisting and performing.
“I’m amazed how much effort a 15-year-old can put into helping other fellow students,” Mezo said. “His community involvement proves he cares and is concerned about other people. With that, he can be successful in anything he does.”
Another guest performer, Michelle Kim, a violinist with the Washington National Opera, said she too was astonished by what Koga was able to accomplish.
“I (couldn’t) be more impressed with Justin for demonstrating generosity and thoughtfulness at such a young age,” said Kim, “It was one of the most beautiful events … again, I couldn’t have been more proud of Justin for organizing such a concert and giving a heartwarming speech.”
SiNEM has music schools in 44 locations in Costa Rica. With the money he raised, Koga purchased eight violins, three violas, three cellos and a slew of much-needed supplies. He and his friend Calvin Lee brought them back to the schools in Cóbano and San Ramón this summer to hand them out to the students.
Koga said the moment was emotional, as many of the students were presented with new instruments for the first time.
As a privileged Orange County teenager, Koga said, giving back to less-fortunate students that share his passion deeply moved him.
“Sometimes you really need to go far to look at what you really have back at home,” Koga said. “Music has played such a huge role in my life. It’s given me a lot; allowed me to travel, meet new people. And these kids, they wanted to play music and they couldn’t just because they didn’t have the instruments to play it.”
Koga plans to continue his efforts and play music well into the future because he’s now seen the power of giving back.
“Through my love of music, I affected the lives of others,” Koga said. “Their passion inspired me.”