A few years ago the Smithers Secondary School junior jazz band had no bass players one practice because of an illness going around, so instead of canceling practice music teacher Mike Doogan-Smith grabbed a bass guitar with a bright pink strap and filled in for the missing students while simultaneously conducting the class through Low Rider.
“He’s so enthusiastic and he just brings that passion to everything he does,” said jazz and concert band member Hannah Pow. “He just loves what he does and he loves giving it to other people as well, and that was really quite impactful on us.”
Doogan-Smith will be retiring at the end of the current school year after 32 years of teaching.
The influential music teacher began his career in the Valley at Telkwa Elementary where he taught from 1986 to 2001. In 2001 he began teaching music at Smithers Secondary and became the school’s music director.
Under his leadership the music program has grown to a Grade 8 concert band, a Grade 9 concert band, a senior concert band, a junior jazz band and senior jazz band, a jazz combo, a concert choir, a vocal jazz/musical theatre choir and a guitar program.
These ensembles have received accolades on provincial, national and international levels.
Doogan-Smith was the recipient of the British Columbia Professional Music Educator’s Award for secondary schools in 2012.
In 2015, he won the Smithers Chamber of Commerce Major Contributor to Arts and Culture award as part of the Smithers Secondary theatre production team.
“He’s one of those teachers that has made a difference and changed lives for countless students,” said Smithers Secondary School principal Jaksun Grice. “He’s inspired countless people and is responsible for a good portion of the vibrant music culture in town. He’s raised a few generations of musicians through our school.”
When Pow first joined jazz band she struggled with the transition from music theory to guitar but said after a few months she was able flourish because Doogan-Smith took the time to tutor her after band practice.
“I would say that without Mr. Doogan-Smith and the program that’s he’s built up in this school district I would never have come to love playing music so much,” said Pow.
Hans Saefkow, Smithers Secondary theatre technician, said Doogan-Smith’s extraordinary patience and unique ability to instill confidence has helped numerous kids who would have others otherwise failed to complete high school.
“To get a teacher like [Doogan-Smith] is kind of like a one in a million thing because there’s lots of people who can try to teach, but to reach kids and give them confidence, and give them a good sense of themselves, that’s something that’s pretty rare,” said Saefkow.
Doogan-Smith decided just over a year ago it was time to walk away.
“[When] teaching performing arts you have to be extremely energetic and motivating for the students day in, day out,” said Doogan-Smith. “I’m starting to have those batteries not get charged up as fully as one might have them when one was younger.”
The music teacher said he plans to go traveling during his retirement. He wants to visit his children who are spread out across the country as well as go to Cuba to catch up with friends he made during the music program’s field trips there.
When students in Smithers Secondary music program went to Cuba last April, Doogan-Smith arranged for them to perform in jazz clubs and community centres.
“We didn’t just go over there and see Cuba, we participated in the culture,” said Pow. “We played music with locals; we played music with jazz musicians; we played music with children; we played music with gifted children. We got to really see the musical and dance community of Cuba and we got to connect to the culture of Cuba.”
With so much on his plate — the annual big band dance, the musical in the spring, the year end concert and more — Doogan-Smith hasn’t gotten the chance to think too deeply about his retirement.
“What I’m going to miss the most is the individual interaction with young people,” said Doogan-Smith. “Some people talk about the foundation of youth and I really firmly believe if you want to stay young, hang out with young people. I really firmly believe that there’s something infectious about the age group in high school that brighten your day. That lifts your spirits.”