Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lyle M. Smith -- A Tribute

We were the Warwick High School Farmers -- I know, not much of a school moniker. Pirates carry a sword and glare at you with their one good eye. Lions, Tigers, or Bears can eat you. But a Farmer chews a piece of grass and leans on his hoe. That was our school mascot. Our school symbol was a plow. The official school pie was cow. Just kidding about that last bit.

But the band was not the "Marching Farmers." We were the Grenadier Band -- guys and girls in tall black fur hats and red coats having no apparent relation to that kadiddlehopper with the straw in his hair. This was the vision of the band director, a man named Lyle M. Smith, who had a profound fondness for all things British, and at some point in his career decided to emulate the great British military band tradition.

He could have picked a worse tradition. British military bands are among the finest bands in the world. British orchestral and band music is some of the greatest music of all time, and their band repertoire is peerless. Plus, the uniforms were cool. Whenever our band marched onto the football field, the opposing school's band would make those "OH-EEE-OH! EE-OOOOHHHH-UMM!" sounds from the Wicked Witch of the West's marching goons in the "Wizard of Oz".  They were just jealous.

Basically, Mr. Smith was a caster of fine pearls, and we, the students, by and large were the swine being pelted with them. Most of us, self included, did not appreciate how good our repertoire was. In fact, if you had spent a month following our band around, you would probably have found very few clues that we cared at all about music, one way or the other. What did we care about? Avoiding the bullying upperclassmen was number one on my agenda. Some preferred nice cars. Or dating. In any event, I highly doubt that appreciating the bucolic charm of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "English Folk Song Suite" was high up on the list for too many of us.

Unlike a lot of successful conductors, Mr. Smith wasn't a wildly charismatic sort of guy.  He was neither a great inspiration like a Frederick Fennell, nor an absolute tyrant like a William Revelli.  But he was the kind of teacher who had loads of sincerity and what they call gravitas -- we were proud to play for him.  He did seem to be pretty much in his own little world, hardly noticing the students at all. Well, okay, he did yell a lot when we cut up or marched poorly; but given what he had to work with, I suppose it's a wonder he wasn't a poster child for apoplexy. He had a big megaphone with which he would chase us around on the football field, and if you went up to him and asked him a question, he would aim the megaphone at you and yell into it even though you were only two feet away.  He was a tireless worker, and had us playing for every parade in Virginia (it was years later in the military that I finally decided the only good parade is a dead parade).  I think he really dug being a band conductor.  That's important.  I've had quite a number of band conductors who didn't.

The one area I think he could have been more involved in was discipline. All kids need discipline. Mr. Smith allowed the upperclassmen to handle it -- with predicatable results. P. J. O'Rourke once remarked that giving money and power to politicians is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys. Something else you don't want to give teenage boys is power over other teenage boys. By the time I was fifteen, I had already met the most pernicious bullies I would ever meet. The band had initiation rituals which during time of war are generally referred to as "atrocities." Yet Mr. Smith did not seem even dimly aware of what was going on. That would be in character for him -- as long as things ran smoothly in rehearsal, he didn't seem to take much notice of what was going on under his nose. I prefer to think that, had he been aware, he would have been interested in putting a stop to it.

But Mr. Smith loved good music, and to me that was his legacy. Our band wasn't always great when I was in it (the initiations had chased away a lot of students), but we played -- or rather, played at -- some great stuff. Not that we necessarily appreciated it at the time.  I remember how much we hated trying to play "English Dances" by Malcolm Arnold -- but it really is a delightful piece, just very ambitious for a high school band, way over our heads. We played Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst, and hosts of those glorious British regimental marches. Each year we put on a British-style military "Tattoo", and really, it was quite a splendid production. I grew up in a household musically dominated by Hank Williams and Montana Slim. Much of what I know about great music was a result of Mr. Smith having piqued my interest.  When he found out that I liked listening to Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov, he took an interest and recommended a lot of composers that got me hooked on attempting a career in music.

I don't know much about his personal life. He was close to retirement age when I was in high school, and I think he retired the year after I graduated high school in 1972. I seem to recall that he was a Michigan State grad -- one of the better music schools in the country -- and had studied with Leonard Falcone. I wish I could remember for sure.  He conducted the Newport News Municipal Band for many years. Away from his day gig, he was a cordial man, very pleasant, and I remember he drove a Mercedes diesel years before it became cool. I heard that he passed away sometime in the mid-1990s. I never saw him again after I graduated.

Thank you, Mr. Smith, for introducing me to the great music that has been my companion all these years. May you rest in peace


K2grandsons said...

I grew up living across the street from the Smiths. His wife was my elementary school principal and his daughter, Mrs. Kincaid, was my private flute teacher. They were very nice people.
I think the girls' first year band experience had to be different. I remember a lot of slavery, taking cafeteria trays up for the upper classmen band members, and wearing stupid fast food restaurant hats around. We didn't have to do anything terribly embarrassing or painful.
There were good time in the Grenadier Band and a lot of growing up happened during those years. I think bussing and having to change from an English band to a more traditional high school group did Mr. Smith in. He was there when I graduated in 1973, but not much longer.
Thanks, Lee, for the memories.
Kim Vaughan Harrison

Lee said...

Good to hear from you, Kim. I played a few times as a high school kid with the city band that Mr. Smith conducted, and he was more open and friendly there -- I'm glad I got to see and appreciate that side of him. Speaking of Kincaids, wonder what happened to his grandson, Nick, who was in my year of school ('72) and played euphonium...? Nick had two of the nicest '55 Chevies I've ever seen.

Kim Bowden said...

So well written, Lee. And so true. I loved the band. I loved the marching, the concerts, the rehearsals, the British music and even the sweaty parades in our wool suits, complete with salt tablets for keeping heat exhaustion under control. My social life in high school was the Warwick High School Grenadier Band and Bagpipe Corps. And I loved how Mr. Smith gave us opportunities to play other instruments. I went from clarinet, to alto clarinet, to e-flat clarinet, to viola and even played the fife. I got to wear moleskin on my spit-shined shoes to march in patterns on the sacred gymnasium floor. I cannot to this day watch a marching band without crying, moved by all the memories. Mr. Smith gave so much to us that at the time went unappreciated by the bratty teens we were. I hope he knows how much we appreciate him now.