Dr. Peter Archer standing alongside his fictional counterpart Joe Gardner, the main character for Disney’s “Soul.” | Dr. Peter Archer and Walt Disney Studios

QC Alum Dr. Peter Archer: The Inspiration behind Disney-Pixar’s “Soul”

6 mins read

Nominated for three Academy Awards, 10 Annie Awards, and winning two Golden Globe Awards in 2021, there’s no denying the success of Disney-Pixar’s 2020 film “Soul.” 

Queens College students might remember its story: a middle school music teacher’s soul separates from his body after a near-death experience, embarking on a jazz-infused journey to find what it means to live a fulfilling life and pursue one’s passions. 

What QC students might not know is that its main character Joe Gardner was inspired by someone close to home: alum Dr. Peter Archer.

Archer is a true leader in music and education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Music Performance and a master’s degree in Music Education from Queens College before obtaining his doctorate from Boston University. His story, like Joe’s story in “Soul,” shows how music and teaching can change lives, inspiring many along the way.      

In an interview with The Knight News, Archer recalled how surprising it was to hear of Disney’s team reaching out to him. 

Initially, he received an email in May 2018, which he mistook for spam and ignored. It wasn’t until a few days later, teaching in his school classroom, that Disney called to share the exciting news. 

“Are you sure you got the right guy,” Archer recalled saying in astonishment. It’s safe to say that they did in fact find the right person, and Disney started to work on it soon after.  

Disney’s team took measurements of his classroom, using it as inspiration. The opening scene reflects Dr. Archer’s actual classroom at Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School 74, where he dedicated his career until retiring in 2020. 

Archer’s passion for music stems from his family, particularly his father, who introduced him to timeless classics and symphonies by Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. He fondly recalled how, during his teenage years, he would join his brother in practicing the organ, cultivating their musical bond.  

While he cherished his career in music education, teaching wasn’t initially a consideration for him. During his early years at Aaron Copland School of Music here on campus, the role of a music education instructor wasn’t always admired by performance music students. 

“Those who can’t play, teach,” he recalled the attitude being in those days. Looking back, he now disagrees with this sentiment having found fulfillment and purpose in his role as an educator. 

His plans of sticking solely to music performance took a turn when one of his professors approached him and asked, “Archer, do you want to teach? You would be good at it.” 

This offer came with a unique opportunity: a free master’s program in education, fully funded by QC. Under this arrangement, he would spend two days a week at a junior high school, observing, contributing, and attending seminars in education. 

Initially, he turned down the offer. However, when discussing it with his mother, she asked a thought-provoking question: “Did you ever consider why he would think you’d be good at it?” Following this conversation in 1984, he decided to seize the opportunity.

As a music teacher, Archer is well aware of the challenges that musicians encounter. He raised the question, “Why is there a lack of African Americans in orchestras,” and highlighted Disney’s effort to portray representation for aspiring black musicians. 

Additionally, he discussed the misconception that being a middle school teacher could obstruct career opportunities. 

“I’m a performer first,” Archer said, emphasizing that teachers are not limited in their professional pursuits. 

Exploring his concept of success and fulfillment, Archer highlighted that true fulfillment is found in serving others rather than only focusing on oneself. 

“We’re fulfilled when we make less about ourselves and more about others; it makes us a better person, it made me a better person,” Archer said. 

While goals are important, he cautioned against allowing them to consume us as this can rob us of the essence of life. Additionally, he revealed his role as a missionary, engaging in music alongside his team. Through his dedication to education, he has discovered profound fulfillment and purpose. 

His wish and message regarding the impact of “Soul” echoes his previous sentiments. He views the movie as a journey of self-discovery, exploring the essence of one’s identity. 

For Dr. Peter Archer, life is about enjoying the simple pleasures and utilizing one’s talents to guide others toward their gifts and purpose. He advises against becoming trapped by expectations. Instead, he promotes embracing life as it unfolds, finding joy in the little moments and experiences it offers. 

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