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A Place We Had Never Been

James Oliver | October November 2023

Editor’s Note: Composer Robert W. Smith passed away on September 21. 2023, at the age of 64. We have dedicated a portion of this issue to an interview from 1997 and also heartfelt reflections by long-time friends who knew him well. This essay seemed a good place to start. Robert W. Smith was a teacher

   In December 1993, I hopped into Jon Eckman’s parents’ suburban with Matt King and Todd Manson. We were headed toward Orlando and my first drum corps audition camp at Cypress Creek High School. I had seen drum corps broadcast on PBS and had watched one live show in Clearwater before embarking on this adventure but didn’t really know what I was getting into. From the first time I set foot in the horn arc, I knew this is where I was meant to be.
   Robert stepped into the center of the arc and said “Good evening, how is everyone?” I remember feeling somewhat overwhelmed as a 17-year-old, not knowing anyone else in the room and holding a strange 2-valve horn. I could tell almost immediately that this was going to be a special place and at the center of it, a very special man. By the end of the weekend I was all in – this was what I had to do. The things that I saw him elicit from this group of young musicians that weekend were amazing, and I went home with a renewed purpose and determination.
   My first year in DCI (1994) was a magical one. Through the creative genius of Robert and others like Karl Lowe, Michael Raiford, David Duffy, Paula Williams, John Campese, and Al Murray, Magic of Orlando made it to the Saturday night show. He guided 128 kids to a place we had never been before; he took us to an 11th place finish at Foxboro Stadium in the suburbs of Boston.
   We had lots of reasons not to be very good. Magic’s horns were mismatched in everyway imaginable – some were chrome and some were silver plated. We even had two-piston rotor contras (I spent my first camp on one). We did not have a semi-trailer as a food truck or our own buses, but what we did have was Robert and nobody else could lay claim to that.
   He did not settle for the excuses and refused to let us either. The summer for me was a blur as this was my first DCI tour, but Robert was there at every turn. There were so many musical moments over that summer. I had no idea that these experiences would continue to shape my future. Robert was a master of analogies and taught life lessons through music. He never missed an opportunity to make an example of or insert a life lesson, whether good or bad. You were going to learn from him one way or another.
   As a friend of mine reminisced recently: “you were either going to do it the hard way or the easy way, but you were going to do it,” and if you listened to Robert, it would be smoother and easier in the long run. Robert cared about every one of us and knew how to pull out our best. He demanded excellence but didn’t leave you to figure it out for yourself. He showed you the way and took the time to see that you were successful in your endeavors.
   He had a way of making simple music speak about life in a way that I had never before experienced. He captured our imaginations and our souls with his melodies, and his music made my heart soar to untold heights. Robert used textures and sounds in his writing that were unlike many others. He made his music speak to everyone. He knew how to make you understand his intent and what he wanted from his music.
   Whether you were young and inexperienced or a seasoned veteran on your instrument, he would ensure you made the emotional connection that then connected with the audience. I will never forget how he taught me to think with my heart and to use music as a guide for my emotions, and for that, I will always remember the Magic.

James Oliver
Huntingdon College
Montgomery, Alabama