For the 71st year, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will present Stairway of the Stars, a musical extravaganza highlighting the outstanding music education programs, and showcasing the talents of students from every school in the district. Nearly 900 elementary, middle, and high school students will “star” in the “Stairway of the Stars” outdoor concert in the Santa Monica High School Greek Theatre on Saturday, March 19, 2022 at 4 p.m. Tickets are available at

This Stairway concert is extra special because the Stairway 2020 concert was canceled a week before the March show due to the early COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and also canceled during 2021 due the continuation of distance learning. Music students and their teachers have persevered and excelled through distance learning, playing instruments with special masks in bags, bell covers on horns and rehearsing outside.

Also, in 2022, the district will return to the tradition of bringing choir, band, jazz band and orchestra students together in one big beautiful concert so nearly 900 students can experience the music of their peers and share the gift of music with their peers and the communities of Santa Monica and Malibu. This year, the guest conductors will be their own talented teachers, although they will have high school conductors conducting middle school and middle school conducting elementary, so students can become acquainted with their future teachers and conductors.

The 2022 Stairway Honor Award will be presented to the one and only Joni Swenson, the beloved but recently retired Director of Orchestras at Samohi for 17 years (2002-2020).

Joni Swenson grew up in Sacramento and began her incredible career teaching orchestra at Castillero Middle School in San Jose, followed by a position as Director of Orchestras at Lincoln High School in San Jose prior to her position at Samohi. Swenson graduated from UCLA and has guest conducted honor orchestras throughout California and has presented sessions at California Music Educators Association (CMEA) and Southern California School Band and Orchestra (SCSBOA) conferences.

She has served as the Orchestra Representative in both CMEA Capitol and Bay Sections and served on the California Orchestra Directors Association (CODA) board for many years. In 2001, Swenson was selected by San Francisco radio station KDFC Classical 102.1 as Music Educator of the Year. In 2004, she received the CMEA Le Blanc Outstanding Orchestra Music Educator Award, and she was selected as a finalist for the Los Angeles Music Center’s BRAVO Award in 2008. In 2016, she received the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) Elizabeth A. H. Green School Educator Award and in 2020, she received the 2020 CMEA Richard L. Levin Orchestra Award.

During Swenson’s tenure the symphony and chamber orchestras have performed at concerts in New York, Argentina, Uruguay, China, Czech Republic and Austria, and became the first public high school ensemble to perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is the home of the LA Philharmonic.

Joni Swenson became Director of Orchestras at Santa Monica High School in 2002 and despite having a primary residence in Mountain View, near San Jose, she arranged to live also in Santa Monica to serve the Samohi Orchestra program. She was proud to be a part of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District and under her direction the orchestra program grew from four orchestras in 2002 to seven orchestras currently. In addition, under her direction, the Samohi Symphony orchestra became the first public high school ensemble to perform in Disney Hall! That performance became the talk of the music education world in Los Angeles and Joni went on to conduct the Samohi Symphony in Disney Hall on at least two other occasions. Joni retired from SMMUSD in 2020 and although she was honored and thanked “virtually” by her students and colleagues, they were not able to acknowledge her fantastic career in a concert setting, or in person, until now. The Santa Monica-Malibu District is so happy to welcome Joni back as the 2022 Stairway Honor Award Recipient.

Tickets are on sale to the community and available online until noon on the day of the concert at All tickets will be general admission. As a special thank you, any district employee will receive a free ticket when they show a valid district employee badge at the ticket table. Any remaining tickets for each concert will be on sale at the Samohi Greek Theatre ticket reception tables from 3 – 4 p.m. on the day of the concert. Parking will be available in the Civic Center parking structure on 4th Street at Civic Center Drive. Posted parking rates will apply.

They will be following Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidance for smaller events and cultural institutions. For more details on COVID-related guidelines, please visit

Submitted by Gail Pinsker