Joni Swenson, who has been the orchestra director at Samohi for 17 years, announced she is retiring this fall. Beloved by students, parents, and teachers alike, Swenson helped bring the Santa Monica High School symphony orchestra to concerts across the world.
“Words cannot express my respect for Joni Swenson as an outstanding music educator, director, conductor, friend and inspiration to thousands of students who were lucky enough to call her their teacher,” said Tom Whaley, the Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator, in a letter to the Samohi community. “I didn’t know it would be possible, but somehow she surpassed my wildest dreams of what the Samohi orchestra program could be when she was hired in 2002.”
Swenson was an industrious director and added three orchestras and a second orchestra director to the Samohi music program during her career. She was so dedicated to her position that she commuted to Santa Monica from Mountain View by airplane on a weekly basis for almost two decades.
“Samohi is known as a very strong music school and I remember seeing the Samohi orchestra play at a state conference when I was in college thinking ‘wow what a fantastic public high school orchestra they are’,” said Swenson. “17 years ago I was offered the job. I was very fortunate and I decided to make the big move, and it has just been so gratifying and enriching for me to be there.”
During Swenson’s tenure the symphony orchestra has performed at concerts in Argentina, Uruguay, China, Prague, and Vienna, and became the first public high school ensemble to perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is the home of the LA Philharmonic. The orchestra was slated to perform at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Berlin Philharmonie this spring break as part of the 250th anniversary celebration of Beethoven, but the trip was cancelled due to COVID.
This was a huge disappointment for everyone. However, under Swenson’s tenacious tutelage the 90 piece orchestra was able to create a virtual performance where each player recorded their piece separately and the students edited it together.
Because of the uncertainty of the school’s learning plan for the upcoming year and the health-risks of traveling frequently by plane, Swenson made the tough decision to leave her beloved position at Samohi.
“The distance learning was not the same. It was not quite as gratifying as being able to actually see and hear the students in person, but leaving was probably the hardest decision I had to make,” said Swenson. “I will miss all of the students tremendously and I’ll miss just hearing them play.”
Swenson described her orchestras as incredibly close-knit communities that form lifelong friendships. Just last week a group of 28 students that graduated several years ago all came together to catch up on Zoom.
“I think that Samohi is very unique in that it does offer a rich arts experience for high school students and there are countless studies that show that students who play music do better on standardized tests,” said Swenson. “I think orchestra has many skills that transfer across the curriculum and also I think it creates a real sense of teamwork and cohesion among the students.”
Swenson has won many awards during her career including radio station KDFC Classical 102.1’s Music Educator of the Year, the CMEA Le Blanc Outstanding Orchestra Music Educator Award, the American String Teachers Association Elizabeth A. H. Green School Educator Award, and the CMEA Richard L. Levin Orchestra Award.
“For the students, she didn’t just teach the notes, fingerings and rhythms,” said Whalen. “She taught them how to play with a full range of dynamics, expressive passion, the history and stories behind the music and more importantly, she instilled a work ethic in her students that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”