Santa Monica is celebrating their school district’s successful music program with a series of concerts and an honoring of a former student.

The annual Stairway to the Stars series of concerts hit is 70th year anniversary and takes place this week, congregating SMMUSD’s most talented musicians together to perform with prestigious guest conductors. Musicians will play nights of Choir, Orchestra and Band music. Nearly 1,000 elementary, middle, and high school students will participate.

The series will show off the skills of a talented community whose musicians have gone on to do big, bold things in their lives. The SMMUSD music program is where it all begins, says Tom Whaley, jazz teacher and Visual and Performing Arts coordinator at Santa Monica High School.

“We have a strong foundation,” Whaley said. “We’re the ideal model of what you’d want to have in a music program.”

Students’ music education journey begins at SMMUSD in third grade with a basic music class from a certified teacher. In 4th grade, they’re given an instrument. Heading into middle school and beyond, Whaley says students are carried by the program and a supportive arts community.

The cultivation of talent shows. Whaley, who organizes the Stairway to the Stars performances,  sees the development of the students and hears high praise from others.

“The kids are great, but the audience — and conductors — are always blown away by how great the kids are,” Whaley said.

Whaley relayed that guest conductor Dr. John Burdett called the students the best in the state, if not the country.

“These kids are playing the same kind of literature as his students, playing university music at the same level or better.”

In addition to the concert series, SMMUSD will be honoring one of its own, Class of ’94 Samohi

graduate Ben Wendel.

Wendel, a jazz musician who has played with Prince and Snoop Dogg among others, will receive the 2019 Stairway Honor Award.

The 33-year old says he can still remember when he was a student playing in Stairway concerts.

“It’s surreal,” he begins. “I remember other alumni receiving that award …To get this award, that call, it’s one of those moments where you appreciate the passage of time. I look back and I wonder if 12-year old me would know he’d go on to become a touring musician. It’s pretty cool, feels full circle.”

Wendel grew up through the district, attending Grant, Lincoln and Samohi. While he gives some credit to himself for his achievements — such as performing the same week at New York’s legendary Village Vanguard club — he credits SMMUSD’s music program for setting him up for success.

“It’s an incredible arts and music program for public schools, best in country, I’d argue,” he said. “I felt lucky to go there and receive such a vibrant education at such a young age. If I were in a different area, it may have not turned this way for me.”

Wendel won’t be present due to jazz keeping him in New York, but he will appear via video to accept his award and espouse thanks to staff and provide words of wisdom for students.

As for Whaley and the music program, they look forward to what’s next while celebrating the now.

Whaley says the district is excited about an upcoming mariachi program, something he thinks will inspire diversity and cultural education amongst students. But as for now, 70 years of Stairway Concerts, Whaley is happy celebrating the concerts and the district that he’s proud of.

“It’s one of the great traditions of our district, beloved by the community. And in a world like the one we live in, it’s nice to have everyone agree on something once in a while.”

All concerts begin at 7 p.m. in the Santa Monica High School’s Barnum Hall auditorium.

Choir Concert – Monday, March 18

Orchestra Concert – Friday, March 22

Band Concert – Wednesday, March 27

Tickets are on sale to the community and available online until noon on the day of each concert at — All seats are reserved.

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