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Music Worthy of Mozart An Interview with Robert W. Smith

John Thomson and Catherine Lenzini | October November 2023

Instrumentalist Classic: December 1997

Editor’s Note: Composer Robert W. Smith passed away in September. As a tribute, we have reprinted this interview from December 1997, which contains his fascinating insights on music, composing, and education.

   Robert W. Smith has composed and arranged more than 300 works for winds and percussion, including Africa: Ceremony, Song and Ritual, and his symphony The Divine Comedy. His works have been performed at Japan’s welcoming ceremonies for President Ronald Reagan, opening day at Dodger Stadium, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the Olympic Games. Director of bands at Troy State University in Alabama and a frequent clinician throughout the world, Smith offers his perspectives as both a creator and interpreter of musical scores.

Directors often talk about the importance of choosing literature, but what specifics should they look for to find works of high quality?
   When choosing music, look for works with other than the standard doublings so that students have an opportunity to hear some different textures and timbers. I look for music with different small group ensembles, such as piccolo, bass clarinet, and congas. In Africa: Ceremony, Song and Ritual, a piccolo solo plays the first melody with a bass clarinet and some percussion underneath, a sound most people would not expect to hear from a band or orchestra. I understand the need for doublings, but must the tenor sax always double the baritone?
   Fine literature has parts that interact rhythmically. In The Tempest, for example, instead of all the woodwinds playing the same rhythm, the flutes play two eighth notes followed by a quarter, then the clarinets play a quarter followed by two eighth notes. The end result is a groove between musical parts, making the sum total much more exciting than the individual parts.
When examining a new work, directors should evaluate individual parts for levels of interest and educational content. Although a band composition may be rated grade 5, only some of the parts are actually at that level, most are easier. Conductors should choose repertoire to fit the maturity and the instrumentation of their ensemble rather than just choosing a grade level. Look for great music that features the strong players in the ensemble and is kind to those who are still developing. A grade 4 band can actually play some grade 6 pieces depending on individual strengths and weaknesses. There is a whole world of literature that many directors just completely avoid because somebody at some point said that it was a particular grade level.
   I look for different styles of music to introduce students to a wide range of musical and historical periods. The music industry is going through a multi-cultural wave right now. In fact, sales of Africa have gone through the roof because students learn about different sounds and colors. Music is by far the most universal language, and directors should feed students a wide variety of literature.
I try to hook as many students as possible with educational works that are intense and energetic. My assessment is that young students have a lot of energy and are generally drawn to the intense forms of music written for jazz ensembles, marching bands, and hard rock bands. However, composers and directors of concert bands and orchestras don’t feed on this energy often enough. They should write and program works that hook students and channel their energy into the right direction. Then directors can serve students Frank Erickson’s Air for Band.

What are some of the common programming mistakes directors make?
   Too often directors try to take a teaching piece and have it fulfill the maximum daily teaching requirements, but I encourage directors to select music in the context of the entire concert, not piece by piece. If some requirement isn’t fulfilled by one piece, the next one will cover it. One of the raps on educators is that all of the music sounds the same. What sells in the marketplace is often redundant in form. I’ve written as many ABA overtures as anyone; but to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t care if I ever wrote another one.

Can you give some details of your programming tactics?
   My view of programming in context is that after an overture in ABA form the next piece might be a lush chorale that calls for good tone, phrasing, and balance. When it comes to programming, I am a traditionalist, and I want literally everybody to leave the concert having enjoyed and truly connected with at least one piece. One concert might open with a fanfare and be followed by a march I am a great believer in the march because of its historical importance to the origins of bands. Without a standard repertoire, playing in band is not a legitimate art form, so I always program a march. From there I might schedule something more serious in nature.
   Being a composer I like the concept of new, contemporary music, but students should be able to play all the standards in the band repertoire at some point during their high school and college careers, so I try to balance contemporary literature with staples of the repertoire. Next, I might cleanse the palate with a chorale or a second march before programming something lighter, such as a medley or a solo feature. I try to close with a wonderful finale. This is a very traditional program, but my point is that it is a mistake to look at every piece on the basis of its educational function.
   Music educators have license to select their curriculum, to choose their textbook, while English teachers are often told what materials to cover. I’m not sure that all directors understand the responsibility of selecting material carefully. When I was a young teacher, a music supervisor told me to be on the lookout for the next Mozart and to select music that would inspire him to develop so the world would benefit from his incredible artistic talent. This pearl of wisdom has stuck with me for all these years. Just imagine the responsibility if Mozart sat in your classroom.

Directors often contend that music publishers print mediocre music because indiscriminate educators buy it. What is your view?
   This is a two-way street. It will be the composer who can expand upon the educational guidelines now considered to be cast in stone, and educators should demand high-quality music. The publishing businesses only print what people buy, so consequently, speaking as an educator, the buck stops there. Conductors determine the make of the marketplace by what they program. As a young composer working for Columbia Pictures Publications, I went to the Texas Music Educators Association convention, where many major music retailers literally bring their entire store, filling massive tables with music. I found all of my titles and then took off my name tag and observed people perusing the music. It was amazing how quickly a score was put back if it wasn’t in the standard keys of Eb, Bb, and F, or was in compound meter. Since then, I write in 34 and use accidentals because 68 and odd key signatures scare directors.

Do you think that composers take the easy way out by writing that way?
   If I write a piece and nobody buys it, the musical message is not heard. Established composers are obligated to push directors because people buy their publications for the name attached. I’m still in the proving stages and have to give into the realities of the marketing and commercial side of composing. My job as a composer, particularly in writing educational music, is to give an ensemble and its conductor a wonderful musical experience. If I do my job, they will say, “What a great band we’ve got.” If I don’t do my job they will say, “That’s really bad music.”

What skills do you find most students lack?
   Many students don’t have basic ensemble skills. For example, they think of dynamics as decibel levels as opposed to matching intensity. If a line is passed from the flutes to the clarinets in a musical conversation the parts have to match intensity levels. To illustrate, I’ll have a student say, “Hi, how are you doing Mr. Smith,” then I’ll turn around and scream, “I’m doing just fine.” Most students will actually jump back because they don’t how to respond when the intensity varies in a conversation.
   Students should develop a sense of rubato and realize that every musical phrase does not have to be metronomic. Some music calls for a strict beat, but most should be thought of in terms of timing. When speaking about the art and craft of being a comedian, Tony Randall demonstrated how he could control the size of the laugh by the timing of the delivery. He took a particular joke and changed the inherent meaning by altering the timing. The meaning of music also changes based on the delivery.
   The concept of tone and matching color from instrumentalist to instrumentalist is often neglected. Musicians have to learn to change their sound the same way a person changes his vocabulary and tone depending upon the conversation. The best trumpet sound for playing the Hummel concerto is not the best sound for riding above a jazz ensemble, but a trumpet player should be able to achieve both sounds.
   A beat is a duration of time, not a point in time, and many students don’t realize that. They think of a beat as a point. Is an inch the point on a ruler where it says one, two, or three or is an inch the space between the points? It is the space between the points. The concept of rhythmic placement should be based on the musical style. In a soft and subtle chorale playing on the front edge of the beat makes the music seem rushed, but in an exciting work, it is appropriate to play on the front edge of the beat.
   More ensembles should focus on the concept of balance, which is three-dimensional. Each individual has to match tone color with the other members playing the same part, then each small section has to blend with like instruments, and finally choirs have to balance. In other words, the third clarinets have to balance with one another, then they have to fit with the first and seconds, and finally clarinet choir has to balance with the brass choir.

How do you develop balance in rehearsal?
   I spend some time teaching traditional Western harmonies. Most people assume that the three notes in a major triad should be equal in dynamic intensity, and that’s not necessarily the case. To establish tonality, the tonic is most important. The third establishes color and should receive a little more dynamic weight than the fifth. If the fifth is weighted more heavily than the third the chord begins to sound hollow. In rehearsal I’ll take three clarinets or three trumpets so tone color is not an issues and explore this concept. Also, look at where a specific chord occurs within a bar. If it is on the downbeat and you want to establish the key, the tonic has to be prominent. Once that’s been established, you can concentrate on the third and fifth on beats two, three, and four. I spend time making sure students understand weight. If you have a dominant seventh chord, the most important tones are the third and seventh because they resolve and provide color. From there, I take passages from chorales and have students identify their harmonic role.

How do you approach learning a new score?
   I look at scores from the outside-in, really trying to get inside the composer’s head to determine what is being said musically. In many instances what is notated on the page is not actually what the composers intended. I say that because Robert Smith the conductor and Robert Smith the composer don’t always agree, particularly after I’ve divorced myself as a composer from a piece. For example, I wrote Africa a few years ago, and now, when working on it as a conductor, I make adjustments to the music. It’s important to look at works from the outside-in, identifying all the musical elements on a page and evaluating their importance. In a march, some notes are accented and others are not, and there should be an inherent or implied crescendo up to the accented notes. That’s not notated on the page, but I believe if the composer was conducting, he would add crescendos at those points. I fear that less-experienced conductors do not fully grasp this point. As a composer, I give directors license to make my pieces work for their band.
   What is written on the page is not cast in concrete, it’s an environment. Young conductors either diligently try to recreate or resurrect what is on the page and forget to be a musician, or they ignore the original intent and distort the original idea. It’s important to emphasize that the conductor and composer are partners. A composer notates the original intent and provides program notes, and a conductor studies a score to absorb the material and discover the intent, making adjustments when necessary. Directors are composers’ salesmen because they present music to the world. I want conductors to adjust dynamic levels based upon instrumentation, and I want them to adjust instrumentation to make an important line dominant.

There has been much debate about the value of a music degree. What do you advise music majors who don’t want to become conductors or performers?
   I tell students to look at the items in a typical band or orchestra room: printed music, music stands, computer programs, recording equipment, and instruments. These items are all products of the music industry, which offers students an incredibly wide choice of careers based in music. Students who do not have the opportunity to study in a music industry program should continue with their music education or music performance degrees, but supplement their specialty with electives in general studies, such as economics, marketing, business, or accounting. No form of musical study is invalid if students are aware of the paths available to them and prepare for a variety of careers. Too many times higher education is viewed as a means to a job, when really it is a means for life.

Photos courtesy of Willis Glassgow, UNC Pembroke