Robert W. Smith: Composer, Arranger, Teacher

Mike Lawson • ChoralCommentary • February 19, 2015

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Robert W. Smith

Robert W. Smith

Robert W. Smith has a career in the world of school music programs that most can only dream of having. He began working as a band director before finishing college, while still studying at Troy University in Troy, Alabama (then known as Troy State University). Eventually, he was discovered by the publishing arm of Columbia Pictures, where he embarked on a storied career as a composer with over 700 published works, with the majority of his work being published by Warner Bros. Publications. These days, he is the president/CEO of RWS Music Company, a new catalog of works for concert band and orchestra distributed by the C. L. Barnhouse Company. Thousands of professional, university, and school ensembles throughout the world have programmed Smith’s compositions and arrangements for band and orchestra, and his music has played on network television and in multiple motion pictures. His composition, “Into The Storm,” was featured on the 2009 CBS Emmy Awards telecast for HBO’s mini-series documenting the life of Winston Churchill. YouTube is full of videos of bands around the world performing his pieces, and it’s not unusual to find a video with more than 200,000 views.

Conducting  in Fermo, Italy.

Conducting in Fermo, Italy.

Today, he is also a professor of music and coordinator of the music industry program in Troy University’s John M. Long School of Music, where his teaching focuses on media composition, audio and live event production, publishing, and entrepreneurship.

When did you know that you wanted to be a musician?

I knew that really early. Very early. My grandmother and my mother both played piano. My grandmother was the organist in the church for 40-plus years, self-taught. She taught her daughter, my mother. I’d sit there and listen to them play. I’m literally three years old and just wanting to play the piano. My mom then got me to a teacher and she said, “I’ll take him when he’s five.” So on my fifth birthday, I was standing at the door, knocking on the door, “Here we go.” I knew very early that this was a language and a form of expression that really appealed to me.

How long did you take lessons?

I took piano from age five all the way through my high school years. I owe a lot to one particular beautiful lady by the name of Joan Marchman… great teacher. She didn’t just teach me to play. She actually made me understand what it was that I was doing. She had me composing.

I look at it now as a college professor and realized at age six or seven, I probably could have passed the first semester’s theory final exam—realizing what she had given me. That was just an amazing thing. So I went into it hearing with understanding. [Edwin E.] Gordon, the great educational pedagogue, would call that “audiate.” To audiate, to hear with understanding. That was wonderful.

I studied piano all the way through my high school years. However, all of a sudden, in my school, the band experience came up. So in fifth grade, I picked up a trumpet and joined the band, joined the beginning band. To put it in popular culture terms, it’s that moment in The Wizard of Oz, when everything went from black and white to color, pun intended. I went from black and white in the keys to colors.

It was just like “Oh, my goodness, listen to this.” I think as teachers we forget the impact we have on our students’ lives. I had this incredible band director by the name of Clifford M. Winter. His nickname was “Ski,” they called him “Ski Winter” and he’s retired now, just an amazing gentleman.

I’m in middle school, and I still remember. I go, “Hey, can we play this?” He said, “Why don’t you write it?” This was on a Friday, so I went home and I wrote all weekend. Had really never done it before. I’d sit there and I’d arrange things for myself and I improv’d on the piano and whatnot, so I brought it back in. He corrected one transposition issue that I had with alto saxes. Luckily, I got the French horns right, so he fixed that for me and we played it.

So you did your first composition that your fellow bandmates in school played in seventh grade?

Correct. I owe him the world, I literally owe him the world. Because everything that I played, everything that I wrote, they read everything. It got to the point where I was arranging the shows for the marching band. I was writing a charge for the spring concert and all that.

From seventh grade on, that was part of your everyday music experience in school?

Part of my world, yeah. By the time I got to college, here I am doing the same thing in college. I already had a little bit of a business going on where I was custom-writing for bands in the area and the region. I actually had a job arranging and composing, I didn’t necessarily have to go out and perform. It was a different kind of gigging.

So your day gig in school was to do arrangements in writing for other schools?

Correct, absolutely.

Post-rehearsal with Italian conductor Gianluca Sartori - Fermo.

Post-rehearsal with Italian conductor Gianluca Sartori – Fermo.

How did that happen? How did you market yourself? Did you call the other band directors? Did they seek you out?

No, they came to me simply because — It was strange when you had a high school program out and the program was very active playing at all the local band shows and all that kind of stuff. It was just unusual to have a student who had written it. So they would call me and here we’d go. That worked out wonderfully.

When you’re a music education major, and at my age then, going through college in the late ’70s, there were very few options. I knew I wanted to write. I knew I wanted to be a composer. But there are few options. So music education was the most viable option.

I also love to conduct. I love to teach. I love to work with students. I love to give them experiences and help facilitate epiphanies for them. I find that equally artistic and self-gratifying, very rewarding. I went the music education route and enjoyed that. That was a really great thing. I graduated from college…while I was in college, by the way, when I was an undergrad, I also was the band director at a local private school.

You went to Troy University, where you’re teaching now.

At that time, it was Troy State University. Then I graduated, left for 20-something years, and I’m back now teaching.

While you were at Troy in the program, you were also the band director at a local private school.

Correct. At a local private school, yeah. I was a little ahead of myself in school. My father being military, we lived in Europe. I lived four years in France, outside of France. A place called Nancy, it’s about 80 kilometers outside of Paris. Bar-le-Duc, there was a military base and I lived there, my sister was actually born there. I entered school, kindergarten, early so I was a year ahead.

You went through your schooling a year ahead of yourself, but started college while still in high school?

Yes. It was rather strange… now, I look back… I’m 56 now. I look back and now, it feels weird to me that I was a junior in college at 16. That feels weird. I went to college early and actually, Troy had a program, which I sincerely appreciate. They had a program that would allow early admission. So I actually moved to Troy — how my mom let me do this, I’ll never know. May she rest in peace.

But I’m 16 years old and I go and I needed two credits in high school to graduate. So I went across the street to Charles Henderson High School in Troy, Alabama. Took my two classes there, and I did play in their band but then spent the rest of the time at the university. That allowed me to progress at least up the academic ladder a little quicker.

You’ve gone from piano lessons, to fifth grade band, to composing in seventh grade, to arranging for other band programs in high school and then finishing high school while also a student at Troy.

Correct. I graduated from Charles Henderson High School, even though I’m from Daleville, Alabama, which is right outside the gate of Fort Rucker.

Were you ever out at any of the clubs performing with local bands?

Yes, the answer is yes. I was in a little—what we would now call a garage band. Actually, my trumpet teacher at the university was Jim Wadowick, and his son Kurt was a really fine bass player. I had a drummer, a guy that played in the band with me by the name of Jim Finley, and we started a little garage band. So we’d play local restaurants, those kinds of things, and that was a really great experience for me. Because I’ve actually developed two sides. The traditional band, orchestral, serious composition, but I’d had a whole popular music and media culture in my background as well. I think that’s a strength.

There was a time when some people would say “You just can’t find your niche.” But I think it’s a strength.

I think it’s a definite strength to have had to work and perform outside of the structured band environment and to have to learn popular music or even improvise a lot…


One of the saddest things to me is when I meet someone who’s a monster sight-reader, but they can’t jam.

Yeah, exactly. The definition of literacy is the ability to read and to write in a given language. I think we all agree, music is a language. It’s amazing to me how we accept being able to read music, but not being able to create our own books. Not be able to write our thoughts down. So to be able to jam, to be able to improvise, is critical. To be able to edit and finalize those into songs, into compositions, is truly the path to the ultimate goal of music literacy.

Conducting in Taiwan September 2013

Conducting in Taiwan September 2013

Where do you go from Troy?

I graduated in 1979. I knew that the first job was going to be as a band director, and I was going to love it. So I kind of stretched it out just a little bit. One of my college roommates was a gentleman by the name of Mike LaPlante, really fine trumpet player. Came from Tampa Bay, Florida, Pinellas County, specifically. He let me know, “Hey, there’s a position open down there.”

So I went down to Pinellas County, interviewed, and became the band director at Pinellas Park High School. That literally started my career in terms of post-college.

How long did you stay at Pinellas?

I was there for several years. I was there for three years, and then I moved to Clearwater High School. Then, out of Clearwater High School, I went right into the industry. Left Clearwater in January of ’85. I left mid-year; I had one of those offers you could not turn down. I went to work for Columbia Pictures. So I was working for Columbia Pictures Publications.

Very few, if any of your peers, have made the jump into the professional world of composition and arranging and working for somebody like Columbia. How did that happen? Were you scouted? Did you send in materials? Were you pursuing it? How do you go from Clearwater High School marching bands to working for Columbia?

Great question. Again, every defining moment of my life is a result of a teacher. Now, when I was an undergrad, I studied with a composer by the name of Paul Yoder. Many band directors, a certain age, will certainly know who Paul Yoder was. A really amazing gentleman.

He had prepared me for a life in the music industry, particularly to write as a professional. He also had urged me… he said, “You know, Robert, you can go, you can write for the ivory tower, you can write for professionals. But I’d tell you what I would do if I were you, I’d start my career writing for music education. Then you grow and let your music grow with your skills and let it grow up that sequential ladder. That’s what I would do if I were you.”

I followed that advice, and I will never be able to repay him. All I can do is pay it forward by thanking him and passing on the things he passed on to me. Very important.

So I am in Pinellas County, Florida now, working as a band director. Because of my marching band chops and marching band skills, I was asked to join a new organization that started there in ’80, it became really huge. I was asked to join the staff of a drum and bugle corps. There was a group there that had just started called The Suncoast Sound.

They’re a drum and bugle corps.

Yes. A gentleman by the name of Robert Cotter started all this. He was the band director at Largo High School, and a very successful band director. He had started this particular group. I had just taken the job at Pinellas Park. He asked me if I would like to join the staff, I said “Absolutely. Sure, I would love to.” His son, Robert Cotter, Jr., who was a very successful writer himself, arranger…very successful, was the writer for the group.

So I worked on the staff just teaching brass players for literally two years. At that point, the opportunity came up in this organization to be the writer, musical director, and artistic coordinator, and I got that job. So by 1983, just two years later, Suncoast Sound Drum and Bugles Corps were actually in the World Championship and we were in the finals. This is 1983.

We were in Miami, Florida, a group that came out of nowhere who had never made the finals before. We finished the semifinals and we were in fifth place, which was a big deal. The brass section of musical scores were extremely high. It was an unbelievably talented group. So at the end of that Friday night’s performance in the semifinals, we had done very well. They had merch tables. We would call them “souvie booths,” but they were the merchandise tables to sell things for the group.

So down at the merch table this gentleman left his card. It was a gentleman by the name of Jack Bullock, and Jack Bullock was with Columbia Pictures. He was sitting there in the audience and he heard that group, and heard that sound, and realized that it sounded different.

He said “I’d like to meet you at the merch table here tomorrow night. I’ll be down here right after your performance.” So I walked down, there he was. Two weeks later, I was on a plane. I was sitting in the president of Columbia Pictures Publications office, Frank Hackinson. He owns a publishing company now called FJH. It’s his company, very successful.

I’m sitting there with Frank Hackinson and Jack Bullock. “Here, yeah, let’s do this.” So I started out writing for them and serving as a consultant, because they were looking for something new.

Why was Jack Bullock at this event?

He’s a teacher; he’s an incredible teacher. Not just a teacher, he’s an incredible teacher, a master teacher who had been hired by Frank Hackinson to come in and develop his educational publications catalog. He was over all of Columbia Pictures in terms of print publications for marching bands, concert bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, and choral groups across the board. So he was putting together a staff of writers to be able to do that.

Was he there literally looking for talent, or he just happened to be there because he enjoyed drum and bugle competitions?

He happened to enjoy it and he’s actually in the pre-DCI Hall of Fame, Drum Corps Hall of Fame. He had a background in it because he’s from New York. He enjoyed it. But he also had a need. He called a friend by the name of Gus Barbaro; he was a very fine percussionist, university professor. He said, “Hey, Gus, I’m looking for writers here. You know anybody new?” Gus said “You need to check out this Suncoast Sound and this guy, Robert.”

He was there to enjoy it, but he was also there… so if you say I was scouted, yes, I was scouted.

Your story is very interesting. So it’s not that you were sending out your work or pursuing a career as a writer for a publishing company. They found you because of your exemplary, hard work in the drum and bugle corps and your high school marching band career. You became known through that?

Yeah, that’s a good point. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was working so hard, though; I didn’t know I was ready. So I didn’t think I was ready yet. I was working with great people and working with great students and trying to create something of excellence.

What was your first big piece for Columbia?

I started out writing pop arrangements. One of the things that was important was me being a hybrid, [someone who] understood pop culture, understood education, and also understood the world of professional music. So I got to be that kind of go-to guy to be able to do some really interesting things.

Jack Bullock called and said, “We got this brand-new television show coming out, it’s called The A-Team, and the theme is pretty catchy. Do you think you could turn around and write this and convert this in a way that would be marketable to school band programs around the country?” “Sure.” That was a simple thing, it’s almost a march. The tune is not necessarily simple. I’m just saying it was a simple task. It’s easy for somebody to hear and say, “Yes, bands can play this.” It hit very big.

Taiwan rehearsals September 2013

Taiwan rehearsals September 2013

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

Exactly. I still remember them saying, “Okay, we’ve got a Billy Joel thing called ‘Uptown Girl.'” I had to be able to translate that. To be able to take pop music and translate it in a way that actually works and grooves within a school-structured environment…it’s a skill, you know?

Pop music wasn’t exactly written for sousaphones and trumpet sections and what have you. When you hear them doing a pop song with a marching band at a football game, somebody had to write that arrangement from a song that was written by two guitar players and a bass player and a drummer.

Exactly. And do it in a way that gets people to move. Actually take physical action. Another key moment…I still remember…Frank Hackinson called me into the office. I walk in and he said, “Robert, I’d like to introduce you to Dave Brubeck.” We’re sitting there, and Mr. Brubeck… just an amazing gentleman. Really nice guy. So I got to know him and hear all his stories. I still remember him telling me that they were just touring. He had his quintet — they were touring in Europe and didn’t even realize that “Take Five” and Paul Desmond’s writing was a hit, and they got back and all of a sudden, people were going nuts. They didn’t realize they had turned into stars.

The interesting thing, though, about Mr. Brubeck, is that was all natural talent. It just came out of him like somebody else just talking…using the language. Him notating things just didn’t happen. Thank goodness he had a brother and a son who took care of that.

But they gave me an interesting project, and that was to now start transcribing his music in a very authentic, real way for things like bands. So I did the very first big, huge…I did a medley called “Dave Brubeck: A Portrait in Time.” “Time” being a double entendre. Got to work with him on that; he was very excited. I saw him multiple times over the years after that and he was always very kind and very gracious and thankful, that his music had gone into a different group, different world.

That probably never crossed his mind when he was doing it originally, that it would end up in that world, or used that way.

No, never. He said, “I like this.” The last time I saw him, we were at the National Association for Music Education conference, at that time, it was called MENC, in Washington, D.C. So here we go…while at Warner, I’m working with Warner, and we sponsored the big concert. We brought in Dave Brubeck and his quintet. The first half, it was in the National Cathedral. What a beautiful setting that is. So half the concert was his; the second half of the concert was his hits and standards in the quintet. But the first half, though, was his mass that he had written.

It was interesting; in ’85, when he was saying “I’m so in awe of this world.” Then to actually realize that he started writing masses for orchestra and choral groups and whatnot. If you had never heard that mass, it’s amazing. Imagine his quintet and a full orchestra and 200 voices.

It was, aesthetically, a very valuable experience.

So you go from doing arrangements of popular music and some arrangements for a legend like Brubeck eventually into your own compositions being used by programs. So what was the first big composition? What was the first composition that you wrote for that failed? What was the first one that took off?

Great question. In ’86, I believe I did the first piece where I’m trying to develop my own voice as a composer. The music game is a language. We start learning the language by copying other people. We look at their devices just like we mimic Mom and Dad when we were trying to learn to say something as a child, and then pretty soon, we associate that with words, syllables with meanings. Then, from there, we learn to formulate our own thoughts.

Writing in music is no different, absolutely no different. So trying to find your own voice is a big deal. Jack Bullock, who I mentioned, he hired another gentleman by the name of Jack Lam. Jack Lam was from New York. I owe him the world because he ended up being my concert, band, and orchestra editor for almost 20 years. I owe him so much. I don’t like Jack and Jack – they called them “the Jacks,” – I love them. These are great men.

Jack said, “Okay, Robert, it’s time.” So I wrote just a simple little overture for Fitzgerald Middle School in Pinellas County, Florida, called “Fitzgerald Overture.”

It did two things. Did it fail? No. It did not fail. It actually was profitable. But from the publisher standards, they’re trying to make a profit. Was it programmed? Yes. I go back and look at it now from these 56-year-old eyes and ears. Did it show an emerging voice? Yes. I look back on it now, were some things infantile? Yes.

It did its thing. It was profitable, it got programmed. But what it did do…I still remember at that time, the JW Pepper Company…the buyer, a gentleman by the name of Roger Colbert. I got to know Roger really well. I still remember Roger actually hearing inside “Fitzgerald Overture,” and saying, “Yes, there’s something here.” He was kind enough to share that. To let me know that even though this may not be a hit, you need to keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll always be thankful for that. By 1988, I feel like I had figured it out.

TOP: Signing autographs for fans after a performance in Taiwan RIGHT: Smith's classic composition

TOP: Signing autographs for fans after a performance in Taiwan RIGHT: Smith’s classic composition

The first big hit — I’m working for this company. I also had an opportunity to go to the University of Miami and get my master’s degree. So in 1988, I started working on my master’s degree at the University of Miami in Alfred Reed’s program. Alfred Reed coordinated and directed the program. A principal teacher there, also a gentleman by the name of Jim Progris. Alfred Reed has passed on now. Jim Progris is retired and doing his thing. Both great men.

But while I was there with this new information experience, I wrote a piece called “Encanto.” To this day, it is still played around the world, and it’s played many times every year. The royalties have not budged. Royalties translate into sales, which translate into performances, and they have hardly budged in 25 years.

I finally had figured that out in terms of finding my own voice in new ways to do things. But even then, the fodder for that does not come where band directors would expect.

While at Columbia Pictures, I still remember Frank Hackinson bringing me into the office saying, “Hey, Robert, I want to introduce you to Emilio and Gloria Estefan.” The Miami Sound Machine was the name of the pop group. They had some big hits, “Conga” might have been their biggest hit.

We had just taken on publishing of their company, Foreign Imported Music, Inc., and we’re handling the publishing. I got to work with the Estefans on a number of things. I still remember showing up in the studio after they got the “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” recorded. A couple of us came in from the company and we sat there with Emilio and just listened to that master after it had been mastered and gave him input and get our strategic plans on how we’re going to get this going.

Gloria called me one day and said “Robert, the trumpet player in our group, he’s a teacher and he really wants to do what you do. I just want to connect the two of you.”

The interesting thing is, I gave him the arrangement of “Conga” their very tune, the tune that he had written. So we connected and I actually gave him his first writing assignment. His writing career, in that regard, was launched from there. Musicians in this world would know him as Victor Lopez. Honored…a great jazz composer/arranger. A great band composer/arranger. Just great across the board.

He and I became absolute best of friends. So much so, he was the best man at my wedding. So we really connected, and we’re lifelong friends. We still call each other in the middle of the night now.

Let’s talk about some of the movie soundtrack arrangements for bands.

Well, through Warner Brothers, there were a lot of really interesting opportunities. Over the years, I got to do a lot of arranging and orchestration of John Williams’ music. I was actually working with Warner Brothers at the time when we signed the first original three-picture deal with J.K. Rowling and the music. So I got involved early on where Mr. Williams would write, there’d be some orchestrators there. To work on them, I’d have to sign four levels of confidentiality agreements. Those things would show up at my door and then I would turn around and orchestrate from there. That was not only a great honor, but also a great learning experience. He reviews every single note to make sure it’s exactly what it needs to be. It was a really great honor to be able to do that.

I did multiple things for “Harry Potter.” I did the “Star Wars” epic for band and for orchestra. So if you hear that live, like a concert band or orchestra playing music from all six of the movies that’s now about to be outdated because there’s going to be a seventh movie coming out. But that “Star Wars” epic was my work, and I enjoyed that very much — really getting inside Williams’ head and looking at handwritten manuscripts and whatnot. You have to re-orchestrate all the stuff for every conceivable ensemble.

Are you still doing popular arrangements for marching band programs?

No, I’m not. Not at this point. I take it back, that’s not accurate. I do have a modicum of people, friends that say, “Hey, would you come in and write a show for our college band?” Well, when you’re writing a show for a major university band, you’re talking about the world’s largest audience. My oldest daughter is one of the drum majors of the band at the University of Alabama. When you walk into Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there are 101,821 seats and they’re all full. In the music industry, that’s huge numbers for a live performance.

I find it fascinating… how do you write something that would get that many people to be absolutely engaged? I find the art of expression and writing for that expression to music, I think, is fascinating. So yeah, I do do that kind of thing.

Smith poses with cherished music industry students at Troy University Graduation.

Smith poses with cherished music industry students at Troy University Graduation.

But that’s not your current vocation. It’s a side thing?

No, it’s a side thing. What I’m doing, though, right now in pop music is, I’m actually teaching it. You mentioned, I teach at Troy University. At one time, I was the director of bands there. Then I left for five years and then came back. I have a wonderful relationship with that university. I was a student there, and I was a director of bands there and then now, I’m back again, it’s my third trip to Troy. I coordinate the curriculum…the music industry program.

So I’m teaching students to write and record and publish popular music and music for media. That’s a fascinating thing. So I’m working with some really great pop songwriters today. I absolutely want to see a path for students from the earliest age forward into your program for marching band traditional music programs.

There have been those who are skeptical or maybe even afraid of how technology has come into the education world for music. They think it takes away from traditional music programs. Do you find that music technology has enhanced or hurt traditional music programs?

Without any hesitation, technology has enhanced, without any hesitation. However, that enhancement…the way we would measure that, the degree of that enhancement, is based upon those who apply it. It’s based upon the way that it is applied.

I believe that technology is a means, not an ends. It’s a means. Good music is good music. So it boils down to the application of that technology in the classroom, not taking away from the ultimate goal of music as an expressive art, and then the educator’s goal of making those musicians in that class…not band musicians, not orchestra musicians, not choir musicians. Our first goal is to make them independent music makers. Make them musicians first, who have the skill set to be able to get together in an ensemble and play.

Musicianship skills and ensemble skills, they have some common ground. But they’re two separate things, in my opinion. The tools that technology gives us are incredible in terms of the objectives that we should be meeting in our classroom right now. We just have to learn to use the tools.

There will always be purists who think that you have to hand-write something on staff paper versus composing in Finale or Sibelius, what have you. So when you do your compositions, do you use Finale, Sibelius? Do you write by hand? How do you notate your compositions?

Great question. I actually have both Finale and Sibelius on my machines, but part of that is because I worked as an editor in the publishing business anyways, so I have to be able to read anybody’s files. However, I personally use Finale. I’ve been with them since the very beginning. It started out as a novelty because I was still faster by hand. In fact, you can still see my callous here on my finger. That’s a hard-earned callous of a lot of days of hand-copying parts with pencil. I still wrote by hand until the convergence of two things: Finale 3.5 — back in days of yore, we didn’t name it by the year. It was the version number. Finale 3.5 and the Quadra 840AV, that Apple Macintosh computer. That was really, kind of first major effort towards the AV that we now enjoy. The processor was fast enough to where it was then finally faster for me on the machine than it was by hand.

At that point, that’s when I crossed over. So now, I rarely write anything down. My [methodology] now is that, even if I’ve got an idea I want to capture, systems on the phone or you’ve got notation systems and I can’t sit there and sing to myself and my phone just to capture an idea, I’ll go to a notepad or word processing on the phone and have my own little notation system. So I’ll remember exactly what I’ve done.

Are you a QWERTY input composer or do you compose using the MIDI keyboard?

I use a keyboard because I was a pianist. For me, I use Finale. I’ve got a MIDI controller sitting there with me. Then I actually find it fastest and most accurate going from inception to finished product, I use speedy note entry on the Finale. Because I don’t have to worry about note links and resolutions. I don’t like the idea of having to play to a click all the time. I don’t mind playing to a click, that’s an important skill. But most music is not exactly to a click. The moment I start doing that, and then all of a sudden, I take away the art from that. So I keep the art in the head and I’ve learned to translate. My father is military background, they’re called “ditty bops.” These people who could hear in one language and speak in another.

Robert W. Smith with family at the American Bandmasters Association Banquet.

Robert W. Smith with family at the American Bandmasters Association Banquet.

I’ll think here, I’ll play musical on the keyboard with the right hand and I’m using a numeric keypad in the left hand and enter it that way. I don’t have to think about it.

That technology has changed everything, and I think one of the best developments of the last 20 years is notation software. I try to imagine a Robert W. Smith in seventh grade with his first composing opportunity, getting to do that in Finale.

You know, that’s a great thought — I go, “Wow.” But I also will tell you — again, for me, I am a user, believer and advocate for technology. I think, sometimes, it gets misapplied. So the application stuff we were talking about. I still remember teaching orchestration arranging classes in colleges. Here we are and we’re using Finale. All of a sudden, it becomes a Finale course.

Right. It shouldn’t be.

Not the art of arranging and composing orchestration. So there were days, particularly in the ’90s. That time, I was teaching at James Madison University. In my orchestration arranging class, I did not allow them to use the computer. They had to do it by hand. It wasn’t because I was trying to be old-school, I wasn’t trying to be persnickety. I wanted them to focus on the art. I wanted them to be able to hear this in their head.

Right now, one of the laments of having computer-based notation, is that they use that playback thinking that that is what it’s going to sound like, and they lose a whole understanding of the physics of sound and acoustic properties. They just don’t get that.

If you’re an audio engineer, you know what the three to one rule is. Okay. In orchestration, we’ve got the same three to one rule. It’s going to take about three voices to equal one string. It’ll take about three strings to equal one woodwind. About three woodwinds to equal brass and about three brass to equal one percussionist. In terms of presence in an acoustic space. So they lose that perspective on a machine.

But the upside of it is when they do compose for an ensemble or orchestra or band, they’re able to quickly print out scores and enjoy the beauty of hearing what they’ve done with a real band and real orchestra in a way never before possible. It must give your students a great sense of achievement the first time you’ve taught them to compose and put it together in notation so that it’s actually a readable, usable piece. Then they hand it to your band and it’s played. What is that like to see that?

To watch that, I tell them, it’s like you’re giving birth to a child of sorts. Here’s this thing that’s coming to life right in front of you. The sense of satisfaction for them and for me as a teacher is immeasurable, absolutely immeasurable. However, once you hear it, how does that compare with what you’ve heard in your head? What do we need to do? What edits do we need to make here? What voicing changes do we need to make here? What color changes do we need to make in order to get the right sense of transparency?

Right. Because sometimes, the playback won’t be how the humans interpreted what they’re reading versus what the computer thinks you put in.

Exactly. Jack Bullock, who hired me into Columbia Pictures, I still remember; we’re in the studio recording. As a young writer, he would say, “Okay, Robert, just remember what you had in your head. These guys are the best on the planet at what they do. If it doesn’t come out like you heard it, it’s your notation.”

You have a next generation of kids in college who might want to be involved in arranging popular music for bands and orchestra. Now you’re teaching the music industry program as well, and it is very critical, in my opinion, that a student understands the royalties, the structure, the marketing — how this is all sold.

Art’s got to be sustainable.

It’s got to be sustainable or it’s not going to feed you. Everybody’s dream as a musician is to be fed from his or her music, and not have to get a real job. Even though, obviously, composing and arranging for a marching band is a real job. It’s not really a real job, but it’s a real job. It’s not digging ditches…

Yeah, exactly.

Smith's mentors and teachers, Dr. and Mrs. John M. Long.

Smith’s mentors and teachers, Dr. and Mrs. John M. Long.

But, it’s work. How do you, in this day and age…obviously, back then, you were found by somebody. How does one stand out?

I tell my students that you’ve heard the old phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none.” In today’s world, I tell my students you’ve got to be a Jack-of-all-trades, but you’ve got to be a master of two, three, or four. One of those has to be business and/or marketing. One of those has to be. You need to be, should we call it, “fluent” in all the musical languages. I now, at this stage in life, take great pride in being able to walk in to just about any musical setting and I actually understand, I hear with understanding. I’m just as comfortable talking about a hip hop track as I am a brand-new contemporary orchestral work.

They’ve got to build that skill set. They have to have a vision. But they’re going to also have to concentrate — they’ve got to choose wisely. The end of the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, when he’s trying to choose the chalice, choose the Holy Grail. He’s got to choose wisely. Sometimes, the choice you make may not be the prettiest one. It might not be the one with the most jewels on it, but it’s got to be the one that’s right for you.

I had made my choice. I was so concentrating on creating excellence that I was there and didn’t even realize it when I got the job at Columbia Pictures. We’ve got to start with excellence. Have this skill set, this foundation that is very important. But we’ve got to start somewhere and it’s got to be excellent, and then you build from that.

Producer/engineer Al Schmitt once told me, when asked what made a hit song, “First, you have to have a great song. Then you have to have a great performance of a great song. Then a great recording. If you get any of those out of order, it doesn’t work.”


As long as it starts with a great song, you can have a less-than-stellar recording of a great performance and it’s still a hit. That’s valuable stuff, and that’s really what you were just saying. If you want to rise up above, you’ve got to start with the skill set. You’ve got to be exemplary. It’s got to stand out. The song comes first; the composition has to be great.

You take a great song, and the copyright has to be…the term is “exploited.” Some people think “exploit” is a bad word. It means you’re making sure it reaches a full potential.

Yours is an inspiring story, because there’s a whole world of opportunity out there for a band director or a concert band director exists far outside of being a band director.

I remind people on a regular basis that, when you walk into a band room or an orchestra room or a choir room, the only thing in there that came from the educational world is the human, the flesh and blood. Everything else came from the industry. The music, the stand, the instruments. Everything else came from the music industry.

Post-rehearsal with Italian conductor Gianluca Sartori - Fermo.

Post-rehearsal with Italian conductor Gianluca Sartori – Fermo.

That’s right. No industry, no band program.

Me, I’m on a mission. One of my life’s goals is try and connect the two. Connect music education and our industry, our world of music in hopefully a very meaningful way. People of a certain age, there’s that wall in-between.

People joke “Well, there’s real music and there’s school music.” No, it’s all real music. Let’s approach it that way.

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