Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 19, 2013

Well-known composer brings young musicians together

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — The man with the baton made a simple request.

“Give me glorious sound on that last note. Make it feel like takeoff,” he said.

The wand dipped, swept from left to right. After that, if you closed your eyes, you could just about see a twin-engine Lockheed Electra barrel down a western runway and into the sky.

If they were open you saw composer and conductor Robert W. Smith leading a hundred high-school musicians through “Earhart, Sounds of Courage,” a piece he wrote about the legendary aviation pioneer.

“You can feel the momentum,” he told them when they had played the passage to his satisfaction.

More important, the audience will feel it, he clarified later during a break. “Music is an amazing universal language, and has to be delivered with passion, honesty and appropriate emotion for us to communicate,” he said.

It is a pretty safe bet Smith and the musicians found that emotional groove by the end of their all-day rehearsal Friday, even though most of them were strangers to one another 24 hours earlier.

In the band community, Smith is a pretty big deal, having composed some of the standard pieces performed by high-school ensembles on football fields and auditorium stages across the United States.

He has written and published more than 600 pieces and worked extensively in the film industry. Attentive movie fans can hear his work in, among others, the recent caper comedy “The Tower Heist,” which involves a sequence during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. A band in the sequence is playing a Smith piece.

The musicians are a pretty big deal too — selected by audition for the Kentucky Music Educators Association District 8 all-district band. They represent the best players from high schools across a wide swath of eastern Kentucky, said John Johnson, band director at Boyd County High School and band chairman for KMEA’s District 8.

The band, along with its middle-school equivalent, will play a concert at 2:30 p.m. today at the Paramount Arts Center. Inclusion in the band is a coveted honor for young musicians.

In two days of intense rehearsals, they meet equally talented players and learn more challenging pieces than they are accustomed to. “For most of them it is a much larger band, a higher-quality ensemble and a higher level of music than back home,” Johnson said.

Those things alone make it a weekend to remember, according to Brock Leonhart, a Greenup County High School senior percussionist.

“It’s amazing when you get students, young musicians to come together in two days and be able to play a concert,” Leonhart said.

Perhaps the reason it can be done has something to do with the musicians almost never putting down their instruments. Leonhart made his observations during a break while playing an impromptu conga duet with John Tyree, a Montgomery County High School senior he had met at the first rehearsal the night before.

“We’re getting to spend time with people who hold a common interest,” Tyree said. “It’s the only time we get to play really challenging music. I hope we can pull it off.”

The concert is open to the public; admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children 12 and under.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or

(606) 326-2652.