When the Oracle sat down with Orchestra Director Susan Smith, it was a windy afternoon outside her office. She sat in her black chair smiling down at her dog Willie.
Smith has worked at Archer for 15 years. She built the orchestra program from the ground up. Her passion and love for music have earned the Archer Orchestra praise from the community and numerous awards.
Smith was born and raised in Germany, and music played a large role in her childhood.
“My mother as an adult took music lessons and inspired me to take them and I started a few months later,” she said.
She started taking cello lessons when she was nine years old. She then began to get involved in her school music program.
“I always really felt drawn to it,” Smith said.
She moved to the east coast of the United States when she was 16 years old. She joined her new school’s music program right away.
Smith said that the knew she wanted to pursue music as a career around her last year in high school.
“Because the music program in my high school really was so great in my life it was something I wanted to do and continue,” Smith said.
Smith studied music at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. She received her undergraduate degree in Music Education and graduate degree in Music/Cello Performance from the conservatory.
During college, Smith performed in the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra.
Coming to Archer
Smith found her way to Archer 15 years ago through her previous teaching experience.
“I knew there was an opening, and at the time I was the assistant orchestra director at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica,” Smith said.
Smith’s initial role at Archer was to teach music and singing classes to the Middle and Upper School. At that point, the orchestra did not exist.
Because Smith sensed the Archer girls’ talent and dedication for music, she was inspired to start an orchestra.
“I think music really unites [people] and it’s sort of a universal coming together,” Smith said.
In the beginning, the orchestra only had seven girls from sixth through 12th grade. The girls rehearsed in the Parlor at lunch once a week.
It wasn’t until the fifth year that the orchestra split into separate middle and upper school groups.
“That’s how it really got started and it has just been growing ever since then,” Smith said.
Arts Department Chair Tracy Poverstein has worked with Smith on orchestra performances and has witnessed firsthand the program’s growth.
“Ms. Smith worked tenaciously over the years to create first the orchestra. The orchestra performs a variety of music and styles, but also allows our students to explore classical composers and repertoire,” Poverstein wrote in an email interview.
Along with running the orchestra, Smith has been the eighth grade dean for six to seven years, she said. Smith has found a good balance between the two jobs over the years.
“I find both of them rewarding in very different ways and I think I’m really lucky I get to do both of those things,” Smith said.
Since she started teaching at Archer, the music program has “overall become more established and the overall musicianship is far beyond what it used to be,” she said.
Smith has found that girls who join the orchestra typically stay involved for their time at Archer.
“I think the vocal program as well has grown, and I think it is a fantastic program that Archer has,” Smith said.
Art and Vocals Teacher Kate Burns said her time at Archer in the Music Program has been a learning experience. According to Burns, Smith has become a mentor that she is able to work alongside.
“Ms. Smith is a true ensemble member. The music department runs like a well-oiled machine thanks to her tireless work, gentle demeanor and kind heart. Her work with the orchestral musicians inspires me to be a thorough and thoughtful conductor,” Burns wrote in an email.
Working with the Orchestra
“Depending on whether it is the Spring or Winter Concert, I think of the repertoire that would be appropriate for the specific concert,” Smith said. “I think about something new that my students will learn from this repertoire and if they will enjoy playing it,” Smith said.
When putting the repetoire together, Smith always asks herself, “Does it make sense as a program in its entirety for the audience to listen to, and is it going to be interesting to the audience?”
After she has chosen the repetoire, she practices with both orchestras until the concerts.
Future Goals for the Orchestra
Smith’s future goals for the orchestra include an increase in participation along with the incorporation of a full wind ensemble, led by Spanish teacher Alyssa Gogesch.
The orchestra has come a long way over the years. It has grown from a small program with only seven girls meeting at lunch in the Parlor to a structured program of 43 students.