AU choral music director Smith adds coda to 34-year career
AUBURN - Thomas R. Smith says close to 2,500 Auburn University students have sung and played for him since he became Auburn's director of choral activities in the fall of 1972.
He has led hundreds of concerts and thousands more rehearsals as director of the Auburn University Concert Choir, a by-audition-only chorus of about 100 voices, and also of the University Singers, a show choir of 36 dancers and singers and nine instrumentalists.
But Smith, 62, is nearing his last rehearsal and last concert as Auburn's choral activities director.
He's retiring May 31. And some of his former students have organized an alumni concert and are asking former members of the Concert Choir and University Singers to gather in Auburn May 27-28 to rehearse and sing for Smith one last time.
"He has touched so many people's lives, and we just want him to leave with having this as a memory," said one of the organizers, Dale Farmer.
"He truly cares about people. He always strives for excellence in everything he does. I don't know of any other person, ever, in my experience that is loved as much as he is, and respected as much," said Farmer, 51, a flight attendant who is back at Auburn working on a doctorate in music education.
Smith, 62, said the heart attack he suffered last fall was a wake-up call, one that told him he needed less stress in his life, along with more exercise.
Smith has chaired Auburn's music department since 2000 and he said he's always put pressure on himself to get a performance ready and perfected.
"Having to measure up to your own expectation is a lot of pressure. And that part, I won't miss," Smith said. "I like when the perfection comes, and you can experience it, but I will not miss the pressure of having to get it to that point."
Smith said he's looking forward to spending more time while he's healthy with his wife, Gayle, and their adult son and daughter and 14-month-old granddaughter.
He plans to remain the choir director of Providence Baptist Church near Beauregard, a post he has held since 1974. And he's open to new musical challenges.
But Smith said that, just as most Concert Choir members never again sing with a group that good once they leave Auburn, he likely will never again direct such a quality choir, and he'll miss that.
He said some of his favorite memories with the Concert Choir include:
Singing at the National Cathedral in Washington in 1999.
Performing "Belshazzar's Feast," by English composer William Walton, with the Alabama Symphony in Birmingham in 1990.
Performing Giuseppe Verdi's "Requiem" with the Alabama Symphony in Birmingham in 1989.
Performing Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Columbus, Ga., in 1992.
The annual spring tours, on which the Concert Choir and University Singers fill three Trailways buses for three days of concerts at churches, schools and other places in Alabama and neighboring states.
Smith said about two-thirds of his singers over the years have been nonmusic majors. So why do they, and music majors, sing in choirs when they get to college?
Creating good music is one reason. But Smith said creating a sense of family is another.
"It provides them an opportunity of a place to belong, and they can combine their talents with all these other folks and produce something that's more powerful than any of them can do on their own," smith said.
"There are certain lessons that you learn through music that are going to be applicable to any field, wherever you are: The discipline that it takes, the application of oneself to a task, learning how to work with other people, coming together and putting all those different personalities into one group," Smith said.
"It's so important in singing in the choir that, in order for the music to be unified, the group has to have a sense of unity and oneness," he said.
More than anything, Smith said he's going to miss working with students, and ``the opportunity to relate to them, to be a mentor sometimes, sometimes to be a friend."
"Sometimes, you're a teacher. Sometimes, you're a golf buddy," Smith said. "There are just so many aspects of those things."
Hester Tippett Maginnis, 32, a homemaker from Helena, was in Auburn recently watching Smith conduct a Singers rehearsal once more, before he leaves.
"It saddens me," she said. "He's always just been a huge part of my life."
"I love music. And he was really a father figure, too. He had an open-door policy. Any time we felt had had trouble, we could go in and talk to him," said Maginnis, who sang in the Concert Choir and Singers in 1991-95.
Ken Thomas, 41, the choral music director at Auburn High School, also sang in both groups. He said Smith stands out because of his love for music, love for people and unselfish spirit.
"He has been a mentor, a friend, and of course, a teacher," Thomas said. "In working with my choirs, I always in the back of my mind think, 'How will Dr. Smith feel about what I'm about to present?' That's just how much he means to me, and to choral music in general."
Smith said he tried to lead by example, and by never asking someone to do something he wouldn't be willing to do, a practice he hopes his students will remember and follow.
"I'm just going to miss the relationship with the students. That is the No. 1 thing," Smith said. "And I'll miss the opportunity of making music with the Concert Choir and Singers."
"Both are totally different groups, but the choral quality, we've striven to make that the same for both," he said. "There's a high quality."
"It's been a joy," Smith said. Then he paused and continued, "It's been a joy. And I really am blessed to have had the opportunity to be in one place and do as much as I've been able to do over the years."