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Interview with Bruce Smith, September 2007
Interview with Bruce Smith, image 1
Bruce Smith’s name is probably not familiar to you yet, but it should be. He has released an astounding twenty-two CDs since 2000, and most of those have come out since 2004. After a long career as an attorney, a life-changing experience convinced Smith that he needed to leave the law profession and concentrate his music. Once he got the ball rolling, it has continued to pick up momentum. Quite a few composers can crank out a lot of songs very quickly, but Smith’s music is complex, soulful, and polished. I have been a fan for several years now, and thought it was time to let him tell his story.

KP: Where did you grow up?

BS: I was born in the Sioux City, Iowa area, and lived there until I left for college in the mid-1970’s.

KP: Was yours a musical family?

BS: I was raised in a June and Ward Cleaver household. Father was a lawyer and Mother a homemaker. Father played sax in the high school band and was a good singer. I am the youngest of three boys. My oldest brother plays the guitar and banjo quite well and was a paid church singer in his younger days. My middle brother also sings, but never pursued a musical instrument beyond piano lessons when he was a young teenager. As children, my father would have my brothers and me sing traditional songs and carols for family gatherings. That was somewhat embarrassing, but my memory is that we were quite good!

KP: How old were you when you started piano lessons, and how long did you take lessons?

BS: I began piano lessons at the age of nine from the stereotypical “little old lady” down the street. She taught me how to read music, but not very well. When I became a teenager, I quit taking lessons and became involved in sports of all kinds. Since I played piano by ear, and still do, I continued playing other people’s music from memory and started composing my own simple songs. When I turned sixteen, my folks introduced me to a local high school music teacher who also taught piano. He was not a great pianist, but was an okay teacher. He introduced me to some contemporary jazz a small amount of classical music. When I was seventeen, my older brother introduced me to a college professor who taught piano at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. By this time, I had developed the beginnings of my own original music, but I found it difficult to write the music down. I was not well educated in music theory, nor had I learned to read the more difficult sheet music very well. When I auditioned for the Morningside professor, he agreed to give me weekly lessons. He was classically trained, but he appreciated improvisation and jazz. Under his tutelage, I studied most of the major classical composers. This was the first time I was really exposed to baroque and classical music on the piano. I had listened to countless tapes of music by these composers and especially loved piano concertos. At the same time, I was developing my own original compositions and style of playing, which improved as I gained more formal piano training and experience. When I graduated from high school, I auditioned for and was awarded a music grant to attend Morningside College. In 1972, I began my freshman year of college as a music major, with an emphasis on piano performance. The next summer, I played in a piano bar - something my parents were not exactly thrilled about. I bought some old fake books and learned song after song on my own. After the first semester of my sophomore year in college, I decided to change majors and go into law. I abandoned music completely, and transferred to University of South Florida in Tampa, where I completed my undergraduate degree. Then I enrolled at the University of Nebraska, and earned my law degree.

I spent more than twenty years practicing law, including private practice, state and federal prosecutor, and corporate in-house counsel with Tyson Foods. I left Tyson several years ago after a divorce, and settled with my two teenage boys in Sioux City. At that time, I decided to go back to my music and to begin finishing what I had started years ago, but never had the time to complete. In 2001, when I was at Tyson, I cut my first CD, called “Touch of Class,” and the company played my music as phone hold background music. That was exciting for me and represented my first attempt at live studio recording. I continued composing more works for the piano during the next several years, but when I left the company, I took off like rocket, composing and recording one song after another without stopping. I would practice my compositions so that I would be ready to record them in a studio and cut an entire CD in one day. The faster I could record, the cheaper the session would be!!!

KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teachers?

BS: My college professor encouraged me to improvise, but the main impetus has come from inside of me. I have been drawn to improvisation since I first started playing the piano. In fact, what prompted me to take lessons as a child was that after attending a piano recital that my older brother had played in, I sat down at our piano and began playing one of the songs we had heard at the recital.

KP: Did you play music at school?

BS: I volunteered my piano playing for the high school choir and swing club. I also played the clarinet in junior high and some harpsichord in college.

KP: How long did you practice law?

BS: I practiced law from 1978 until 2004. My main areas of emphasis included criminal prosecution, corporate, and environmental. When I left Tyson, I made a commitment to myself to finish what I had started in terms of composing music, so I have quit the practice of law indefinitely, to pursue this musical compulsion I have. A personal experience earlier this decade taught me that I needed to get going on my music, especially if the compulsion is from the heart. Music for me is from the heart.

KP: If you don’t mind my asking, what happened that made you leave what must have been quite a lucrative position for your first love (music)?

BS: The life-changing experience was a personal bout with cancer. After surgery, I decided I had better get on with unfinished matters, including my music, sooner rather than later. This new-found appreciation for one’s mortality may explain my sense of urgency and why I am moving so fast to get as much done as I can. I don’t do music for any dreams of commercial success, necessarily. I keep assuming I will fizzle out and have the music well run dry, but so far, that hasn’t happened. Being a fatalist, I figure what will be will be. Composing music is like writing books in that it will survive death and reveal hidden meaning in folks’ lives who create.

KP: You have produced an astonishing twenty-two albums in three years. Do you spend most of your time at the piano?

BS: Yes and no. It tends to run in streaks. Perhaps it comes too quickly at times. If I would slow down, I might improve the quality of my work over what it currently is. If I had the inclination, I would love to go back and refine many of the songs I have composed and recorded. I do find that changing settings (playing the concert grand at a local college or the grand piano at the local hospital, for example), helps the creative process. I may reach a brick wall for the moment on a tune, but then I’ll go somewhere else to play it and suddenly I make a breakthrough.

KP: Tell a bit about the next CD, “Cool Ease.” What I've heard so far has been incredibly good.

BS: There is nothing inspiring me to compose these new sets of songs other than the usual compulsion to keep going. My biggest fan, my mother, told me she likes “Cool Ease” the best so far. I at least have one loyal fan!!!

KP: Two! I love your music! Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

BS: If I could be Henry Mancini, I would gladly die and be born again in his image and with his talent; Sergei Rachmaninoff for sure; I love the Russian romantic influences; Ramsey Lewis for his unique jazz stylings; Dave Brubeck for his 5/4 beat. I watched the Peanuts cartoons on TV as a kid because of the music; thus Vince Guaraldi was a big influence. I love the clean and crisp music of Scarlatti. And finally, romantic movie themes. I was obsessed with movie theme music when I was a teenager. While other kids were driving around town at night doing the usual teenage things, I was sitting at home in front of the stereo listening to Henry Mancini tapes, or a Grieg piano concerto, or marveling at how Rachmaninoff could compose such music. I would then go down to my piano in the corner of the basement at 3 AM and start pounding away, trying to duplicate what I had heard on tape. It was truly a teenage obsession, albeit not a normal one.

KP: What inspired you to start composing your own music?

BS: As a kid, I composed songs of my own as a natural extension of the piano playing process. As I grew older, I became bored with the music I had practiced over the years. I remember back in 2000, watching the Oscars and telling myself that I could compose music just like these folks were doing for the movies. I proceeded to sit down at my old $100 upright piano, and pounded out my first song. It was as if I was a rock rolling down a mountain from that point forward. I have been unable to stop composing ever since. It is now a daily exercise. I have consciously tried to stop composing, simply to give myself a break, but I have found that to be a futile effort at this point in my life. I figure that if I am compelled for whatever reason to carry out this passion, I might as well do it while the iron is hot.

I truly appreciate the fact, now more than ever, that we can die tomorrow, and because of that reality, I am going to make up for lost time, musically.

The bottom line, however, is that music, for me, is like a drug that takes my mind and emotions to another place more than any other experience I have ever had. The intangibles of how I feel when I compose something original, that no one else in the world has created, is a natural high only God can be responsible for. The emotional experience is indescribable. I always felt mechanical when playing sheet music - I felt genuine playing without written music.

KP: About how many pieces have you composed so far? Have you recorded most of them?

BS: I have a personal Bruce Smith music library of approximately 250 songs now, all of which have been composed and recorded since 2000. Approximately 200 of those songs have been composed and recorded since early 2004. When I think about it, I get dizzy!

KP: Have you considered doing a CD of music geared to relax stressed-out attorneys???

BS: Works for me, so that’s all I want from the experience.

KP: Some of your music makes me envision someone playing the piano late at night when the rest of the world is still and dark. Is that just an image, or do you do a lot of your composing in the wee hours?

BS: Early morning or late night are the best times to create for me personally.

KP: Are your sons interested in music? Do they like your music?

BS: My 15-year-old plays the guitar rather well. I have taken him to a night club here in town on Wednesday nights to play with the house band. He plays blues guitar by ear. He has taken lessons for about a year, but is primarily self-taught. My other son, age 17, has not shown much of an interest in music. To each his own, right?

KP: Are you able to support yourself with music only?

BS: No. Someday I may have to return to the world I came from, but for now, I am willing to sacrifice financially in order to live my music dream.

KP: Do you enjoy playing live? It seems like your years of appearing in court would definitely take the edge off of performing for an audience. That isn't meant to sound disrespectful - it has to be very high-pressure to be a courtroom attorney, and there must be similar techniques for quelling nerves in that situation, too.

BS: I find that you have to discipline your mind to control the nerve factor. Trying to play solo music error-free is different from lawyering in a courtroom setting. I think it is harder, in fact. However, after a short period of time, the nerves are calmed by the familiarity of the music. If you love playing music, you find it to be settling emotionally, and it actually puts you in a different world. It also helps to always remember at the beginning to slow yourself down deliberately. Playing too fast will always get you in trouble and nerves tend to speed you up anyway. In fact, today when I was at the local college music auditorium playing their Steinway concert grand onstage, I was nervous for a few minutes and tended to rush a bit. Playing solo has to be like meditation. By playing you create an altered state of being. When that happens, you are at peace and it doesn’t matter if there are people listening or not.

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

BS: I gave a piano recital of my own music at Morningside College back in 2000, performing on a Steinway grand piano onstage before friends, relatives, and coworkers. What an exhilarating experience! What I was most nervous about was whether the people would like my music, not whether my performance was mistake-free or not. Afterwards, folks asked me if I had a CD they could have. ”Click” went the wheels in my brain.

KP: Are there any specific pieces that you feel say the most about who you are as a person? Any favorites, if they aren’t the same pieces?

BS: I used to have favorites, but any more, I have to go back and remind myself what I have in my music library. If I was forced to pick and choose, “Soaring” is one. I composed that in honor of my late father, who was the greatest man I’ve ever known. I just completed a piece entitled “Romantic Baroque,” which combines the baroque style with the heavy Russian romantic theme music and is filled with heartfelt emotion on my end. This is a very difficult question to answer, in all honesty. Each song is personal and has meaning to me.

KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?

BS: It is my opinion that meaningful music truly comes from the heart. You can play piano (or any other instrument) mechanically perfect, yet still lack the essence of what music really is. So, when I compose and record my music, I do so with emotion, meaning, and purpose. There is no other way, in my mind.

Finally, I firmly believe that music is an experience and ultimately an extension of one’s being.

KP: Who are your favorite composers?

BS: Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Scarlatti, Henry Mancini, Vince Guaraldi, Dave Brubeck, David Foster.

KP: Who are your favorite performers?

BS: Diana Krall, Vladimir Horowitz (deceased), Andrea Bocelli

KP: Do you have any hobbies?

BS: Most sports as a fan, golf, travel, fishing, and of course, MUSIC!!!

KP: What are your favorite colors?

BS: Black, rust brown, dark blue.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

BS: That my kids have happy lives, to play my music at Carnegie Hall, and to leave a music legacy my heirs can enjoy long after my death.

KP: Do you have any words of advice for young people who are studying music now?

BS: Study music if you truly love the craft. If you are not prepared to give your heart and soul to music, then do something else. Music can be a wonderful hobby for lots of folks, but if you think you want to be serious about a music avocation, then be prepared to sacrifice personally for your dream. Finally, never be discouraged, no matter what. If you believe, then it can happen.

KP: What’s up next for you?

BS: I will continue to compose, record, and market my music. I am working on some business projects for my music that I hope will reap some financial returns now that I have finally spent time defining the niche market I am appealing to. I am beginning to explore the college radio and campus concert arenas. If anyone can get me into Carnegie Hall for an evening performance, then I will have died and gone to heaven!!!!
Bruce Smith’s CDs are available at www.cdbaby.com and amazon.com, and he can be reached at pianomanone@cableone.com.
Kathy Parsons
September 2007