Hawaii Youth Symphony

Get to know HYS Orchestra Director Joe Stepec

Joe Stepec

Joseph Stepec is an integral part of our Hawaii Youth Symphony team! He leads our orchestra program with passion, and we’re so lucky to have him work with our youth. Read on as we delve into Stepec’s career as a musician, conductor, and music educator, and his recent sabbatical trip to Slovenia!

What Instrument Does Mr. Stepec Play?

Joe Stepec performing at Cleveland City Hall’s Slovenian Statehood Celebration. Photo:

The violin! Joe Stepec fell in love with the violin and with classical music at a young age, and he says that HYS’ mission deeply resonates with him because of his own special and formative years playing in a youth symphony. He shared that “growing up, I was extremely shy, which most people who know me would not believe. It wasn’t until I picked up a violin and had to start performing that I became more extraverted.” 

As he continued to pursue his passion, more opportunities opened up for him. Stepec studied violin performance with Gregory Fulkerson at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and played in festivals in Maine, Texas, Vermont, and North Carolina. He has also performed in Cleveland, Nashville, Cincinnati, and Slovenia! 

His passion for music led him to the Eastman School of Music, where he studied Orchestral Conducting with master teacher, Neil Varon. In his career as a conductor, he has achieved great success. Under his direction, the University of Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra has premiered works of new composers, represented underperformed masterworks, and has collaborated with ensembles as diverse as the United States Marine Band and the choir and orchestra of Weber State University. If you’re local to Hawaiʻi, you may have seen him conducting at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, the Hawaiʻi Theatre, the Waikiki Shell, or other venues. He has been featured as a conductor on numerous programs with the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra. In 2017, he was also a conducting Fellow at the Menuhin Gstaad Music Festival! Needless to say, he works magic with his baton, and we’re grateful to have him conducting our Youth Symphony I ensemble.

Why Did He Become Involved With Music Education?

The barrier to entry for becoming involved with classical music as a young person can be higher than other after school programs or hobbies for youth. Being so inspired by music himself, it was extremely important to Stepec to pass his passion and knowledge on to future generations of young musicians. Joe Stepec explained that learning classical music takes patience and drive. There’s nothing more important to thriving as a young musician than having inspiring mentors.

“People need to be inspired by someone who loves classical music and who can show them and teach them about what the music means to them… the power of that inspiration and love will translate,” Stepec said.

Mr. Stepec is as passionate about arts education as you can get! He serves as the Music Director of the University of Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra, the Director of the Hawaii Youth Symphony’s Symphony Program, the Artistic Director of the Pacific Music Institute, and as an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Hawaiʻi. Wow!

Joe Stepec can go on about the joys of music education for hours. And he has! But he boiled it down so succinctly when he said “from a teaching point of view, I just try to share my passion.”

Where Is Mr. Stepec From?

Stepec at Mount Triglav Summit in Slovenia

Joe Stepec is an Ohio native who moved to Oʻahu in 2016, but did you know he is of Slovenian heritage? He was the featured soloist for a celebration of Slovenian Independence in 2013 in Cleveland’s City Hall, and in 2022, he took a sabbatical from his teaching positions to travel to Slovenia and reconnect with his roots. 

My family came to the United States as immigrants in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s from Slovenia (then a country in the larger Yugoslavia). Forced to flee their homes from Communism, they sought the personal and economic freedoms that the United States provided. I wanted to spend my sabbatical reconnecting to my personal roots in Slovenia, a country I had only visited when I was very young and consequently only had very distant memories of. During my time, I retraced my family’s footsteps by visiting my grandparents’ birth towns; I climbed the very mountains that my family took refuge in the dark days after the Second World War, and I spent a great deal of time attending concerts and museums showcasing Slovenian culture. I also got to meet family members that I didn’t even know that I had!”

Connecting to Culture through Music

Aside from connecting with family, history, and culture, of course, music played a huge role in Stepec’s journey throughout his sabbatical. He stepped out of the western classical tradition to spend some time learning about folk music. Here’s what he had to say.

Musically, I began my sabbatical by traveling to Cleveland, Ohio, where I performed the Slovenian Cantata, Pozdravljena Zelmja, with the Slovenian Korotan Ensemble – the cantata was written by ex-patriot Slovenian, Metod Milac, a fellow immigrant who came to the United States with my grandparents. It was a special experience to “complete the circle” by traveling to Slovenia several months later to experience the same country that inspired this music and helped shape my identity through my grandparents. After returning to O’ahu for a few weeks to work and record Na Mele with YSI, I spent two weeks in South America where I climbed the Andes Mountains and followed a group of folk musicians. I’ve spent most of life immersed in “concert music,” classical repertoire that we perform in a concert hall for a silent, focused audience. I wanted to end my time following folk musicians so that I could experience a totally different way of music making. Of course, in South America, folk music is very much a functional and essential part of society, much like it was in Europe before economic modernization. These experiences have influenced the way I think about music in a unique way. Perhaps instead of being so focused on the rigorous demands of Western classical music – on the need of so called perfection, on the “craft” of performance itself – I’ve rediscovered music’s purpose in an indigenous setting for renewal and healing.

Stepec’s passion for music, his curiosity, and his dedication to a lifelong path of learning are a perfect reflection of our organization’s core values. We’re proud of our team of incredible arts educators and leaders. Read more about Joe Stepec and the rest of our staff at 

Post a Comment