Tom Smyth stepping down as conductor of the Saint City Big Band
Saturday, Jun 07, 2014 06:00 am
Tom Smyth sits at his dining room table, the sun filtering in from a window illuminating a collection of paintings, masks and chess pieces he purchased during past world travels.
“Retirement has its tough sides. I have to get up at 7:30 in the morning to play hockey. So far I haven’t received much sympathy,” said Smyth, a big grin splitting his face.
Symth, a noted St. Albert music and science educator, is stepping down as conductor of the Saint City Big Band at a joint concert with its sister band, The St. Albert Community Concert Band on Wednesday, June 11 at the Arden Theatre.
For close to 35 years, he championed new works, revived forgotten ones and spun the favourites with nostalgic zest and ebullience.
In that time, Smyth influenced hundreds of musicians, and the event is bound to be an emotional, bittersweet and quite likely a joyous celebration.
Looking back to 1979, his first conducting venture as director for the St. Albert Community Concert Band, Smyth strongly promoted one major philosophy.
“Music is something you can do your entire life and it doesn’t matter if you put your instrument away for years, it’s still there for you. You can pick it up anytime in life.”
Raised in Edmonton with three sisters, his parents introduced him to the piano at age eight. But it failed to click. The sheet music he practiced simply wasn’t fun.
“I tried to get away without too much practice.”
In Grade 7 at Hillcrest Junior High, he discovered band class. He tested out the trumpet and was hooked.
“Music was something that gave me confidence. I knew there was something I was good at and I found being able to hear music in my head came easily.”
As a young boy, Smyth was naturally attracted to animals and cared for rabbits, tropical fish, salamanders and frogs.
“Even now, my brother-in-law has a dairy farm. I would go out and work with him and it was so relaxing and rewarding.”
Prior to graduation he enrolled in a zoology program at the University of Alberta. However, the 18-year-old’s viewpoint changed after attending a summer music program at the Naramata Centre for Continuing Education.
“I realized music is where I wanted to spend my life. But I didn’t want to perform. I wanted to teach.”
He switched to a music program and carried on performing in numerous university ensembles to gain experience.
An energetic, upbeat man, Smyth supplemented his income as part of dance band Sophisticated Swing. At its peak, the popular jazz band played 44 jobs in a year. However, it folded in 1990 as audience attendance dried up.
By 1979, Smyth had moved to St. Albert, teaching band at Paul Kane High. Through the local music network, he landed the role of director for St. Albert Community Concert Band.
His vision was simple – develop a more serious attitude within the band. At the time, many band members looked upon rehearsals as a social evening where chitchat dominated.
“Sometimes they’d have earphones while trying to play and they’d be listening to a hockey game. If the team scored, you’d hear them cheering. Today it would be unacceptable.”
Building on the tempo he set, Smyth initiated more challenging and intricate works – marches, Broadway hits and classical pieces that took different sections weeks to put together. One early favourite was Gustav Holst’s pastoral Chaconne from First Suite in E-Flat.
“It has a recurring theme done in a variety of ways. It’s done upside down. It’s done in a minor key. It’s played indifferent ways.
By 1986, Smyth stepped away from the podium returning to university to complete another year of education studying botany and biology.
In an odd twist of fate, when he resumed teaching at Paul Kane the following year, he was given band, physics, chemistry and science classes.
“I discovered I loved physics. It was my first physics class and I found it so logical.”
By 1987, he once again ventured to play trumpet with the concert band and the jazz band. Three years later, he was in the director’s role of the jazz band.
The jazz band joined the concert band, operating under the same umbrella five years earlier. St. Albert musician Aidan McGarrigle had formed a loose group of jazz players and inquired whether they too could operate as part of the community band program. The new musicians were embraced with open arms.
But in 2006, Smyth left his post with the jazz band. He retired from Paul Kane after teaching for 26 years, and Smyth and his wife Mary, also a retired teacher, had promised themselves an independent adventure.
After attending a job fair in Boston, they signed a two-year contract to teach in Shanghai at a school for international businessmen’s children.
Shanghai itself was a culture shock. It blended past tradition and modern flair with futuristic architecture into a swirling, multicultural mosaic of 18 million people, a far cry from St. Albert’s 50,000.
“If you can imagine a scene from Star Wars. Buildings like the Pearl Tower and the Jin Mao Tower are not square boxes. The Pearl Tower has three posts and a large ball and the Jin Mao looks like leaves growing up to a restaurant at the top and you can look down 82 floors below.”
Perhaps the biggest culture shock was being unable to speak the language. Staying away from western enclaves, the couple opted to live the Chinese experience.
“Not speaking the language, you felt very insecure as you were getting oriented. And trying to find simple things was difficult.”
Carrying on with the outstanding successes in Canada, Smyth not only taught a full roster of classes, he also formed a school jazz band. At the time, there were numerous Korean students who had never experienced jazz.
“They had no idea how to phrase jazz and it was quite a challenge. They used to joke I was their token white guy.”
Upon his return in 2008, Smyth picked up the jazz band’s baton without missing a beat. At this point in time, Saint City Jazz Band is one of the strongest in the area, and much of the credit belongs to Smyth for his dedication, enthusiasm and passion for music.
Although he is retiring as conductor for the jazz band, Smyth plans to hold onto his seat in the trumpet section of the concert band and will continue performing with the Gateway Big Band.
Dr. Angela Schroeder, conductor for St. Albert Community Concert Band, has also performed with Smyth at Concordia College.
“Every time he sits in, you can tell everyone in the trumpet section has a great time. I’ve sat in with him and he’s a funny, lovely person to play with and he makes the experience that much more enjoyable.”