Trumpet Master Phil Smith Reflects on Time at UGA

On the fourth floor of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia, there is an unassuming door labeled plainly as “Philip Smith.”  Although most students catch their breath as they walk by this door, inside you will most likely find an older gentleman with a cheery disposition listening to Mahler or studying old scores.  If you should knock on the door, he will open it, flash you a wide smile whether you are a familiar friend or mere acquaintance, and, in a distinct yet warm northern accent, invite you in to shoot the breeze.  On his bookshelf you will see resting among piles of old sheet music endless books on the technical study of trumpeting, a well-used Bible, and sepia photographs of students, friends, and family.  This is Mr. Philip Smith.

Although it would be difficult to guess by his quiet humbleness and friendly demeanor, Smith is considered the master of virtuoso solo performance on trumpet.  He performed as the principal player in the New York Philharmonic for 36 years, garnering attention as a seemingly inhuman musician of both perfect technical and lyrical skill.  His list of awards and accomplishments includes soloist guest performances with international ensembles, tours across Germany, Japan, and Brazil, and featured performances of the master works such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.  Because of this legacy, the musical world gently sighed in farewell 3 years ago when Smith announced his retirement from performing.  Students of the University of Georgia, however, swooned at the discovery of his next plan.

In 2014, Smith and his wife moved from New York to Georgia as he accepted a professorship at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music teaching brass fundamentals and ensemble performance to eager students.  Three years later, the music department is still star struck by Smith’s casual presence.

“People often ask, ‘Why did you end up going to Georgia?’, and it was simply because someone asked,” recalls Smith.

Having given guest lectures several times at the university throughout the years, Smith already felt familiar with the facilities and faculty of the school of music prior to calling Athens his permanent home.  When the school lost longstanding trumpet professor Fred Mills in 2009, the dean of the music school, Dale Monson, extended an invitation to bring Smith on full time.  Smith however, wasn’t quite ready to leave the New York Philharmonic just yet.  It wasn’t until 2013, as his world flipped upside down with receiving the news of a diagnosis of focal dystonia, that he considered stepping down from the coveted first chair position and leaving the stage behind.

Beginning as a small air complication in the minute muscles of his face, Smith found that in warming up for a master class at UGA in August of 2013, he wasn’t able to play notes in a familiar scale. “That was the first hint that something was wrong,” says Smith. “It was the first time in my career that I never played anything in a master class.”

A month later, as he readied himself for a final season with the philharmonic, he quickly realized the gravity of this seemingly insignificant complication as he began to experience a complete inability to play. “I went from not even thinking about playing and from being able to play anything and everything to not even being able to play a C-scale. That rocked my world,” reflects Smith.

Dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes the muscles to randomly contract, holds the body captive in often painful cramps.  Marked by slow rehabilitation and immense patience, the road to recovery presented a blow to Smith’s identity as a musician and teacher.   “I’m not coming,” he told Monson following the diagnosis, “because you’re not getting who you think. I’m not going to be able to play.”

Despite his inability to perform, the school still yearned for Smith to join as a professor to share his knowledge and experience with students.  Hoping to find a quiet place to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Smith and his wife relocated to Georgia and he began a new chapter of life as a professor.

While Smith admits that overcoming dystonia presented a wealth of challenges and frustration, he found a silver lining: “I think it’s made me a better teacher, as I’ve had to work on things myself. It’s made me a little less frustrated with others. I’ll say, ‘They’ll get it,’ as I’ve had to say, ‘You’ll get it,’ to myself.”

Across the board, Smith’s students corroborate his proficiency as a professor. “He’s an incredible teacher,” says undergraduate music major Lillie Smith.  “He always knows exactly how to say things and always says exactly what he wants, musically.”

What extends beyond Mr. Smith’s immeasurable knowledge and skill is his compassion and investment as a teacher, with his favorite aspect of coming to UGA always being the students: “Academia is not performing; It’s not fair to compare the two. But the one thing that I love here more than anything else is working with all the kids.”

He and his wife often open their home to all students of the trumpet studio, extending invitations for holiday dinners and group socials.  He makes it a priority to make them feel welcome and comfortable as members of the musical community.  “The best way I can describe him is with the phrase ‘fearless leader, humble servant,’” says Sydney Hasler, member of the trumpet studio and brass band.  Smith even mentioned plans for a celebratory cookout following the brass band’s success in a national competition this March. “I just think that’s part of it,” says Smith. “That’s important to me.”

Just as musical greats mentored him in his early career, he now hopes to play that role, taking sincere personal interest in both the struggles and successes of all his students. “It makes it easy to get the best if there’s a mutual respect. Maybe they’ll end up being a teacher, maybe they’ll end up being a professional performer, but they’re no less important as people. That to me is a lesson in of itself. We learn to love folk, to encourage folk, and to build people up.”

With August marking the three-year anniversary of Smith’s arrival to UGA, he reflects on his experiences since leaving the stage behind.  In addition to teaching students in the trumpet studio, he helped reform a British brass band, the same type of ensemble he first began playing in at the age of 8 with the Salvation Army Band.  In addition to training students to become top musicians, his goal is to help make the University of Georgia a destination for students pursuing a world class music education.  As he sees it, the greatest challenge to this is the strict, university-wide GPA requirements for students auditioning to the school of music, something considered a second priority in comparison to talent at major music conservatories.  “We’re all about sports here at UGA, and I love that, but if we’re willing to let talent triumph in that situation and work with kids in their academic standing, then maybe we need to think about that in the art schools as well,” poses Smith.

Although Smith’s list of achievements continues to expand even through retirement, he claims that the best thing he’s done in life is to simply live and share music: “It’s not so much about accomplishments, but my greatest accomplishment has been being blessed to live a life that’s been a lot of fun, from a performance standpoint to working with kids in Athens, Georgia, and everything in between.”


2 thoughts on “Trumpet Master Phil Smith Reflects on Time at UGA

  1. Joe Johnson

    Rae I enjoyed your piece on Dr. Smith. He seems to be a very talented musician and a very interesting man. I agree with you that you can tell the real person by what they have on their book shelf. What a person reads seems to make it into the person they become. I’m going to print this out for Nana. In your seventh paragraph I think there is a word left out.
    It begins Despite his inability perform. Should it be Despite his inability to perform?
    Love Popa


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