Music for All: You’ve taught at a variety of levels of education and been involved in varied facets.
Susan L. Smith: After completing my degree in Music Education from James Madison University, I taught in the Virginia public schools. After completing my Master’s degree in Education at Troy State University, I taught Private Horn, Teaching Music for the Classroom Teacher and Introduction to Music as an Adjunct Professor of Music at TSU. I served as the Executive Director of the Southeastern United States Concert Band Clinic and Honor Bands and was a Coordinating Author for Warner Bros. Publications’ Expressions Music Curriculum. I was also an author for Band Expressions, a secondary component of the curriculum written for school instrumental music programs.
When did you begin teaching at Saint James School?
In 2007, after we moved back to the area [from Florida] when Robert [husband, composer Robert W. Smith] was offered a position to return to Troy State University, where he had previously started the music industry program.
About Saint James School and its music program.
Saint James School is an independent, nonsectarian college prep school with about 1,000 students in grades K-12. We have a broad spectrum, very diverse student population, supported by the fact that Montgomery is the home of two military colleges among other factors. There are about 340 students in grades 9-12, and we have about 10- 15% in each grade level involved in the music program. SJS also has very active, full drama and art programs, very strong electives. 100% of our graduates go on to college.
I teach grades 6-12 music, band and guitar. We have a jazz band that meets after school the second semester. The music program has grown since 2007. My philosophy is that I want everyone to be in band. If you want to be involved, we’ll find a place for you. We’re constantly reinventing ourselves.
What were your goals when you first arrived at SJS, and what steps did you take to reach those goals?
I wanted to bring consistency into the program. We wanted to meet high standards to move the program from the success we’d had on a local level to a national level.
My first year at SJS, I decided to continue to go to local marching band contests and to step out of state – out of our area – one time. We went to a contest at Tate High School in Florida, in great part because we respected the adjudicators who I knew to also be Bands of America judges.
My second year, we performed at the Bands of America Super Regional in Atlanta. I wanted to set the kids up for success – we set realistic goals, to get our feet wet, to see what it’s like to perform in that setting, to march on artificial turf in a stadium with a roof. We finished second in our class by .10 of a point, so I thought, “Ok, we’re going in the right direction.”
Third year, we traveled to Indianapolis and the Bands of America Grand National Championships. Our schedule was set up to perform Thursday night, then watch and sightsee Friday, with no other rehearsals planned. When we found out Friday night we’d made Semi-Finals, which was unexpected, we had to change plans. The next year we went to two BOA Regionals, and in 2011 we’ll go back to Grand Nationals.
With concert band, I followed a similar path – no state contest the first two years. Once we moved forward, we received Superiors and now Superior with Distinction the past two years. We play two grade levels higher than what is expected at State, in order to expose students to the highest standards.
What value do you believe competition can offer to your students?
I believe one lesson is that hard work pays off – the idea of seeing that, in life, there is always somebody better than you at something, then to use that as a model to get to something better. The bar always moves, expectations always change. I tell my students that I can buy them all the trophies in the world, but you cannot buy the experience of setting and meeting goals. Reaching a level of achievement is a benchmark. Trophies have nothing to do with it.
Why do you choose to compete in Bands of America Championships?
The adjudication and assessment tools Bands of America provides is one of the main reasons.
I believe Bands of America is the only choice for a national standard of scale. Nowhere else do you get that level of assessment tool. Participation in BOA gives students real-world experience on a national level. Directors may be afraid to get a score on a national level, but it’s about the education: what we’re doing, ways we’re improving and how to go about achieving goals. It’s about mastery.
What do your band parents gain from BOA Championships?
BOA gives parents a sense of reality about our program and what other programs are doing. You can be successful in your area, but BOA provides a broader view of what students can achieve. After our first year performing at the Bands of America Super Regional in Atlanta, I passed out copies of scoresheets and listened to the adjudicators recorded comments with the parents. After taking a risk [first major BOA event], I involved the parents in listening to the judges’ comments that didn’t just discuss “what’s wrong” but how to fix it. It was an eye- opening experience for the parents in several ways. I think it only took the parents seeing one ATV pulling a cart of percussion equipment to the field to decide, “we need that.”
You’ve also been involved at the Music for All Summer Symposium?
When I was in college, my band director [Pat Rooney] was involved with the Bands of America Summer Workshop in Whitewater, Wisconsin and encouraged us to apply to be SWAGs [the SWAG Team is a volunteer group of resident counselors and teaching assistants], which I did in 1989 and 1990. Those experiences had a tremendous impact on me as a young teacher and shaped me as an educator.
I’ve been back to teach at the Symposium, including most recently Middle School Teacher Track classes in June 2011. Robert [her husband] also teaches at the Symposium. In fact, I got to know Robert at the Summer Symposium, and later reconnected with him when I was teaching in Virginia and he was spending some time at James Madison University.
Why should band directors attend the Music for All Summer Symposium?
In any school, any background, directors have holes in their education, even at the Master’s degree level. There is so much in the Summer Symposium sessions that fills in those gaps.
The contact with other directors and the mentoring that goes on during – and continues after – is invaluable.
Your children have participated in Music for All events as students. What do you feel, as both a parent and music teacher, they have gained from those experiences?
Both my daughters attend Saint James School. Savannah is a senior, oboist and drum major; Madison is a sophomore. They have both been to the Summer Symposium for three years, in the full week concert band and color guard divisions (respectively), and in the leadership weekend. The things they bring back, particularly the leadership activities, have been important in band, but also in their everyday life and have molded and prepared them for life in general. Savannah wants to be a music educator and has already gained leadership skills as a high school student that some teachers don’t get until after college.
Both Savannah and Madison also participated in the honor ensembles at the Music for All National Festival. The opportunity to play at that level with other students with similar aspirations is incomparable. The students have the same motivation to be there, and they get to be around such great conductors and play at a level that most don’t have the opportunity to at home.
I’m a huge advocate for Bands of America. I know it can be a scary jump for people sometimes to get involved, but it shouldn’t be. The people at BOA truly believe their mission. That was the case in 1989, and the organization’s focus and goals have not changed today.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you in your first three years of teaching?
Be a good colleague, and listen first. So many teachers when they start barrel gung-ho into things without listening first. Look for successful teachers, and find out why they are successful. You can scour websites and find their programs, their trip itineraries. Find out what they do that makes them successful.
Also, something my mother said to me – teach for the long haul. What might seem important at the moment might not be what’s most important in the long run.