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An Interview with Chris Smith

by Scooter Pirtle


Originally published August 22, 1992.


University of Evansville Professor of Horn Chris Smith started his drum corps career in 1978 at the tender age of 10. He marched with the Belleville Black Knights Drum & Bugle Corps for eight seasons, and then spent two seasons with the Madison Scouts. During the '85, '86, & '87 seasons, Smith was the Drum Corps Midwest individuals champion on French ham bugle. He was also the DCI individuals champion in '86 and '87, and a member of the first place Madison Scout brass quintet of '86 & '87.


In 1989, Smith received his under­graduate degree in music performance from Murray State University in Kentucky. Smith studied horn under Lowell Greer at the University of Michigan, receiving his Masters in 1990. At the age of 24, Smith accepted the position as Instructor of Horn at the University of Evansville. Currently, he is a member of the Evansville Philharmonic and the Owensboro Symphony in Kentucky. Smith recently returned from a six week tour as the associate principal horn with the OCB (Barcelona Symphony).


This interview took place on the evening of July 28, 1992.


Chris lives in Evansville with his wife Kathleen, an accomplished musician herself, whom marched with Chris in the Black Knights.


Scooter Pirtle:  Many gifted collegiate brass players would like to try drum corps, but they're often strongly advised against it by their college instructors. Now that you're a university faculty member, do you find yourself steering young players away from the activity?


Chris Smith: No, not at all. I find that drum corps was an experience I used to get the jobs I have at the present time. I have quite a few students who are interested in marching drum corps, and I tell them that as long as they're in an area or an environment where they can learn constructively, I think it's an OK situation. For instance, if a kid says he wants to march with a tiny corps, I don't mind that. If they march with a big corps, I don't mind that. As long as they take care of themselves and know how to regulate building a good foundation and stay with what I, or previous teachers, have taught them, it's alright.


SP: You're one of the rare players who has made a successful transition from drum corps brass playing to symphonic playing. In what ways did the activity help or hinder you?


CS: I think it helped in the sense that it kept me "career oriented." Drum corps is very, or at least when I started out in drum corps, it was very regimented, very strict It helped me say "this is what I want to do, so I'm going to go ahead and do it!" It's something that I think a lot of people could do if they decide to do it that way. It also helped me build endurance, mentally and physically. It's helped me find different ways of interpreting music. As an orchestral player, I won't have the chance to play jazz. Whereas playing with Madison, I got to playa lot of jazz. And in the other sense it helps you realize that playing the French horn orchestrally is not the only thing there is. Playing natural horn in baroque ensembles, or playing a baroque horn, or even playing hunting horns, is a way of being "different" just as drum corps is "different." My teacher up in Michigan, Lowell, said that he liked that I wasn't "narrow-minded" and that I would play a two-valved bugle or a valve & rotary whatever. He thought that was really neat because that’s the way music used to be.


SP: Your old instrument, the French horn bugle, is becoming an endangered species. Is this because of the demands of playing this imposing instrument, the increased difficulty of today's "high speed" marching requirements, the lack of competent players, or the addition of the third valve to the brass choir?


CS: I don't think it's the third valve that's done it. My former corps, whose not marching anymore French horns, was one of the corps that had the strongest French horn lines, along with Santa Clara and the Phantom Regiment. There are also corps that I've seen that have gone away from it, but have come back, such as the Cavaliers. Before, they just marched mellophones. There's not as many kids going into French horn as there used to be. When I go out to recruit at high schools, I don't see as many horn players as I used to…Those kids say "Hey! I'm not going to make a living playing my horn."  I don't think it's the demands on the field, because I think the demands have always been there. I think there is a lack of people to fill the positions.


SP: The Madison Scouts dropped the French horn bugle this year. They're now using mellophones with French horn mouthpiece adapters in place of their French horns. What are some "pros" and "cons" about this?


CS: [Laughs] Well, the "pro" would be that the people who are the French horn players are going to still be able to play on their mouthpiece without having to change their embouchure. The "con" is going to be that the sound is not going to be a "mellophone-like" sound. The register is going to be cut off because it is going to be a smaller horn with a deeper mouthpiece, making it more difficult to play. You're going to get different kinds of sounds out of a mellophone with an adapter because of the way the taper goes into the mouthpiece. It has to be very "fine" or it's not going to work correctly with the horn acoustically. Those are problems that I don't know if they have dealt with, I hope they have.


SP: Many French horn players who are marching drum corps are being required to switch to mellophone bugles and to also switch to the mellophone "trumpet-styled" mouthpieces. For those players who make the switch, how can they best limit the damage of switching back and forth between concert French horns and mellophone bugles?


CS: The only thing I can say is that it is going to be more difficult for a player to switch over to a mellophone mouthpiece all summer and then try to pick up a French horn mouthpiece and try to sound like a French horn player. They need to take their mouthpiece, that new B.E.R.P. thing, or even an adapter to practice back and forth so they can keep the same feel of the French horn mouthpiece…Because the embouchure is completely different from a mellophone to a French horn.


SP: You mentioned the B.E.R.P. (Buzz Extension & Resistance Piece) system. Is that like a mouthpiece extension?


CS: It's an extension of the mouthpiece which gives it the same resistance as you would have with a normal French horn so that you can buzz the upper and lower notes. You may have noticed, especially on larger brass mouthpieces, if you cover the end of mouthpiece with your pinky, you can hit the lower notes. The same thing holds true with a French horn mouthpiece or a mellophone mouthpiece.  The B.E.R.P. helps you do the extensions low. If not, you're going to be buzzing all highs which will stiffen the chops a little bit.


SP: That makes sense…You were very successful at the solo and ensemble competitions you competed in when you were marching. What insights or advice would you give to today's mid-voice competitors?


CS: I would suggest that they play something they know they can play. Nothing over their head and nothing too underdeveloped or "easy."


SP: Back when we were doing individuals, the big thing was the real Avant Garde type music. You always did the classics.


CS: Yeah, I never got into that.  Even though there were some Avant Garde pieces that I performed, they were written by composers like Malcolm Arnold that tried to be almost a "neoclassicist" The thing I found that worked the best for French horn, and even mellophone, is something that is for a solo wind instrument which is unaccompanied. There's a Persichetti "Parable for horn." It's twentieth century, it has a lot of weird things in it, and it would be perfect because it is written specifically for a solo wind instrument You're going to be able to play the literature that's written on the page without doing a lot of damage. I've heard too many people try to play Mozart or Strauss and when you get to the big piano interlude there's nothing there. Immediately you jump twelve bars ahead, which changes the entire form of the piece.


SP: What are some of the more common performance errors you've seen French horn buglers make and how can they be corrected?


CS: The thing that I have noticed a lot of the horn players having a problem is sometimes they get too timid because they're afraid they're going to crack notes. At Madison, we always said in the French horn line that it's better to make a mistake and make it loud and clear than try to "pussy foot" it and try to be timid. I think a lot of the time the French horn players don't "go for it” enough. Along with that, French horn players generally don't use enough breath support as they actually need. Another thing, this is something that I didn't discover until my later years in drum corps, a lot of French horn players play on mouthpieces that are entirely too small for marching on the field.  I don’t mean by cup diameter or depth, but throat size.  I found that the larger the throat, (just like symphonic players} the bigger the sound. And French horn buglers are being told that their sound is too bright and too harsh.


I think if they played a mouthpiece with a little deeper cup and a wider diameter in the throat size, they would have a little more flexibility to play the notes and feel more secure with it and put more air behind it. The problem is that with a smaller bore, there's too much resistance. Therefore, it's going to cause cracked notes, especially when you're running around the field and hyper-ventilating through three pieces. I remember when I was up in Madison; people looked at my mouthpiece and noticed that. We actually "bored out" some mouthpieces, but you're not supposed to tell anybody that.


SP: Too late.


CS: We bored them open just a little bit and if you listen to the '87 & '88 Madison Scouts, the '88 guys were the ones who ended up doing it later in the season and they really cranked in '88. They had a good French horn line.


SP: Yeah, I think they had one of the better French horn lines…Percussion instruction and performance techniques utilized by drum corps has generated respect from the international percussion community. Drum corps horn lines, however, have not yet enjoyed this level of "acceptance" from the "legitimate' brass world. What do you think can be done to change this?


CS: I think it takes more people like me in my position to help encourage it to other people. Right now, I'm still an avid fan who still goes to drum corps shows. This past weekend I went to the Nashville show and I saw quite a few friends of mine who play in the orchestras I play in. They're brass players and they're band directors in the area. 20 years ago, orchestra people hated drum corps. To them it was bad, it bashed up your face, and all of that. I think now a lot of people in orchestras don't understand drum corps at all. They're almost to the point where they're ignorant of the style of what drum corps is.


I think you also have people who are starting to come into orchestras that know what drum corps is about and know that it is a good experience for what they need to do (i.e. high school band directors or college band directors). Here at U of E, our trumpet player doesn't frown upon it.  I don't frown upon it, and our low brass instructor does not frown upon it at all. So, our entire brass faculty is definitely on the positive side. However, there are a lot of schools where they're not. Those people end up retiring and moving out and the people moving in are going to do more justice for the program.


SP: Thanks for the interview.



Where are They Now?


Chris Smith is currently a faculty member at Texas Tech University.