Blazing a Trail Back Home
Sue Samuels returns to Furman after three decades to direct the band in which she once played
by Kelley Bruss
At the start of the school year, Sue Samuels ’87 told her conducting students they needed to be prepared for some dense theory along with the delightful physicality of conducting. No worries, one of them told her, we know you’ll make it fun.
“They have very high expectations of what I’m going to be able to do with them,” Samuels says. “I’m humbled by that. … I want to be this great person that they think I might be.”
It turns out she’s having the same effect on her new students.
“From the very start, she just had a lot of faith in the students,” says Raven Althouse ’20, a double major in music and earth and environmental sciences. “She makes you want to please her, which is wonderful.”
Samuels has conducted and taught at high schools and colleges throughout the Southeast. She came back to Furman in summer 2019 to replace Leslie Hicken, who retired as director of bands.
“She was my student in the ’80s and now she’s my boss,” says Jay Bocook, director of athletic bands. “And I think that’s the most awesome thing ever.”
Samuels, a self-described Army brat, lived in five states before she was five. But when her dad settled into a long-term position at Fort Jackson, Columbia, became home. She had her mind made about music even then.
“I knew from the time I was in ninth grade that I wanted to be a band director,” she says.
She admits the idea of being a rarity was appealing.
“Not many women did that or even still do that,” she says. “It was appealing to me to sort of be a trailblazer.”
But it was more than that. Music has always been a positive experience for her. As a teen, making music with other people her a community and a sense of accomplishment like nothing else had. She wanted to offer that to others.
Living in South Carolina gave her an early introduction to Furman, at band events and through the Governor’s School for the Arts, which was a summer program at the time.
“For me, it was no question: This was where I wanted to go,” Samuels says.
She played clarinet all four years in concert band. But marching band was her personal game of musical chairs: clarinet one year, then color guard, then cymbals and finally mellophone.
Samuels left Furman and spent decades doing exactly what she’d planned: teaching and directing, most recently at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She earned a master’s degree from Georgia State University, studied at Eastman School of Music and completed her Ph.D. at Auburn University.
She only came back to Furman a handful of times after graduating, so walking back in this past summer was surreal. The music building “smells just like it smelled in 1987,” she says, laughing. She can point to the practice room where she pulled an all-nighter.
Stepping into the shoes Hicken filled for so long is daunting.
“It could be uncomfortable,” Samuels says. “But it’s not at all. Students have been so warm and excited.”
She’s been having lunch with Hicken regularly and frequently asks, “OK, what do I do about this?”
The students have noticed that humility.
“Everyone felt safe and comfortable around her, and she made it that way,” says Kam JaCoby ’21, a percussion music education major. “Everyone here just knows that she has our best interests in mind.”
Teaching the whole person
Samuels has never married and used to call herself married to work. But she also loved her childhood as the fourth of five children and longed for a family of her own. In 2010, she adopted her son Andrew from Ethiopia. He was 6 months old.
Motherhood has absolutely shaped her as both a teacher and band director, she says. The change was so noticeable that students in Alabama referred to “Dr. Samuels pre-Andrew and post-Andrew.”
While there are similarities between teaching high school students and teaching college students, Samuels says relationships are different in the university setting. Students have more independence, but also often feel a stronger urge to connect to something bigger than themselves, since many are away from family for the first time.
“I used to really reject the mother-figure part of that,” she says.
But she’s come to understand that students may want to sit across from her and talk about a lot of things besides music.
“They’re a whole person,” she says. “I embrace it all.”
It didn’t take long for students to discover that.
“Sometimes I just go hang out and have life chats with her,” says Emma Kerr ’22, a double major in music and communications.
When Samuels was an undergrad, Furman’s band program ranged from 150 to 180 people. It’s around 100 now. She’d love to see that number back up.
She has plans to help reconnect alumni with both the program and the current students. She’s looking for more focused ways to reach into high schools. And she’s working on ideas for trips and performances that will both increase the exposure of Furman’s bands and broaden her students’ experience.
While many of the band members are music majors – the ones who will continue the work into the future – many others are from disciplines across the university. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love teaching the biology major who just wants to still have music in his life,” Samuels says.
Althouse says Samuels insists on the highest standards without creating a cut-throat atmosphere.
“She still brings the joy of it,” Althouse says.
She and the other students are expecting Samuels to grow that joy in them.
“It makes me want to wake up and give them my best,” Samuels says.