A Creative Process: Michael Smith, Director of Music
—By Kristina M. Jenkins
“I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do,” says Michael Smith, who joined the Shipley faculty as the Director of Music in 2011 with the purpose of rebuilding the music program. The innovative musician, director, and educator comes to Shipley well-prepared for the task, with degrees in music from Samford University in Birmingham, AL, two Masters of Music degrees from Yale University (in organ and conducting), and two years as assistant conductor of the Yale Glee Club. Most recently, Smith served a six-year tenure at Groton School in Massachusetts, where he directed and maintained a highly successful program. Smith is thrilled by the prospect of creating a thriving curriculum at Shipley. “Being able to guide something from the ground up has been intensely rewarding,” he says.
Through a twofold approach, addressing both organizational and musical improvements, Smith expects to see considerable results in the musical education of Shipley students within just a handful of years. Right now, Smith is planning for growth by identifying the needs of the program, prioritizing those needs, and hiring faculty to execute a long-term vision. “We’re looking at a way to use Shipley’s resources in the most efficient and smartest way possible in terms of stewardship,” he says.
With every Shipley student required to participate in music classes, Smith is looking carefully at how students will spend their time, incorporating the latest ideas with older methods that are tried and true. “Musically, we’re trying to raise the level of excellence, and that happens through the curriculum in the Lower and Middle Schools,” says Smith. According to Smith, as students reach the fifth grade, “Any student should be able to sight-read music—that’s a realistic goal—and every student will have had his or her hands on a violin or a trumpet.” Once the current group of third, fourth and fifth graders is in the Upper School, that’s when Smith hopes to see the results of his program.
For Smith, the goal is to connect with every student. “I want to teach the kids who never thought they could be musicians,” he says. “We find a way through the process, or through a variety of processes, to reach those students.”
Ultimately, that accent on creative process is what Smith wants to emphasize most in Shipley’s music program. “The Shipley Method aligns perfectly with my teaching philosophy,” he says. “It’s not just about performance, it’s about process.” A new format for Lower School recitals will demonstrate that focus, with Smith opting out of the traditional kids-on-risers format in favor of a less formal, more interactive presentation. “The idea is that it’s more educational, more tied to process,” he says.
Smith, who didn’t have formal musical lessons until he was a senior in high school, is passionate about bringing music to students; he knows exposure to the arts vastly improves the overall quality of education. “The studies speak for themselves in that students who have creative processes as part of their education, whether its visual art, theater or music, do better on test scores,” he says. “In terms of personal fulfillment, creating art and following a discipline through to yield really beautiful results is intensely rewarding for kids.”