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SHS Band Director to retire after 34 years

After 34 years, Shelbyville High School Band Director Russell Smith will retire.

“It was something that I’d always wanted to do,” Smith said. “I saw the impact my high school director had on kids. I went to IU, studied music education there and was lucky enough to get a job right out of college at Seymour.”

“Seymour was a great place,” he said. “I learned a lot. I worked with one of the best directors of bands I’d ever met, and he just happened to be a Shelbyville High School graduate. His name was Steve McGrew.”

After being at Seymour for three years, the superintendent put the Shelbyville position opening in his mailbox.

“And that really bothered me, because I thought, ‘Man, what have I done wrong that he wants to get rid of me?’” Smith said. “I set an appointment and I saw him. He said he saw it as his job to show people in the profession that there are other things out there. His philosophy was that people either grow wings or they grow roots, and he was very happy if I would grow roots in Seymour, but there were other opportunities out there and he wanted me to see those.”

Smith applied and interviewed here on a whim, and “the rest is history.” He said he inherited a wonderful program from the previous director, David King.

And he chose to grow roots here because it’s been a great place to live, he said.

“It’s been a great place to raise a family and it’s been a great school system through the years,” he said. “And probably the thing that’s kept me have been the fantastic kids I’ve been able to work with over the past 34 years. They’re the cream of the crop and a daily inspiration for me.”

“They have a culture of excellence,” he said. “They expect great things, they work toward high goals, they expect a lot of themselves, and they expect a lot of others. That’s been a daily challenge for me and for the students.”

“We kind of live by Aristotle’s saying, “We are what we repeatedly do. So excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit,” he added. “I think the students have adopted that saying by Aristotle.”

Smith regards these students as the highlight of his career.

“The biggest highlight is the ability to work with the kids that I’ve worked with,” he said. “They’ve not all gone on to be music majors, but I think they’ve all left school with an appreciation of the music making process and of the art itself.”

He teaches that music is an art, not a sport. That said, they’ve participated in ISSMA organizational contests.

“We take two bands, the freshman band and the advanced band,” he said. “I would say for definitely the majority of the time, we’ve earned superior or gold ratings with both bands.”

“I’m most proud of us being able to sight read,” he added. “Even in our performance, if we haven’t earned a gold rating, we’ve earned a gold rating in sight reading. I think we’ve nailed the sight reading at ISSMA organizational contests all but once. I would think that is an accomplishment.”

Another accomplishment Smith has is growing the program from 115-ish students when he first started to 175 prior to COVID.

“We now have AP Music Theory that students can take, we have a regular Music Theory class they can take,” he said. “We were just awarded a grant from the Blue River Community Foundation to fund a program called Harmony Bridge.”

Harmony Bridge is a program that allows students to play chamber ensemble music in retirement homes on a regular basis. While this program was on hold for a while because of COVID, students did get to have their first performance right before spring break.

“Now that retirement villages have been mostly vaccinated, that’s going to help,” Smith said. “We’re going to take the music out to the retirement homes and play for them. That’s been a big accomplishment as well – seeing the students work in small groups and sharing their talents to make the world a better place.”

Some of Smith’s favorite memories include the 9 trips to Florida, performing at Disney World.

“Most recently, in 2019, we went to a [Disney] clinic and the clinician after hearing the band warm up and play a few tunes, selected the hardest music in their folder,” Smith said. “He said he’d only done this with two other groups this year, so that was a big point of pride I think for the directors. And students read the music and played it, performed it very, very well.”

Another memory included having a band play during an IU basketball game in 2014.

“The Marching Hundred was on a road trip to Ohio State, and there was a performance they had to do at Lucas Oil that weekend, so we played a midweek game and a Friday or Saturday night game at Assembly Hall,” he said. “We filled in for the Big Red Pep Band. That was fun.”

Some of these students went on to play in the bands they filled in for that night.

The students are what Smith is going to miss the most.

“I’m going to miss the interaction everyday with the students,” he said. “Seeing them grow both as people and as musicians, seeing their energy, seeing their enthusiasm for life and making music and for really making the world a better place.”

“I think in many regards our adolescent students get a bad rap for not caring about how things are, but I think the opposite is true,” he added. “Our high school students really do care about the future, they care about their experiences, and they want the best for everybody. And I’m going to miss that.”

“I’ll miss the process of making music with them and working with them,” he concluded.

Smith has been able to retire for several years, but he said he would know when the time came. He used to say he’d retire when he stopped having fun.

“I haven’t necessarily stopped having fun, it’s just been different,” he said. “Steve McGrue, he always said you’ll know when that day comes. That day hit midway through last semester. I think my body has given out. It hurts to conduct anymore. Just in the shoulders and in the physical movement of the arms, for doing it for so many years. And then of course the COVID thing, that weighed pretty heavily on me as well. Coming to school was kind of like playing COVID-roulette.”

But even though he’s retiring as a band director, he won’t be retiring from music. Smith plays trumpet in his own German band, The Schoolhouse Four Plus Three.

“The guys in the band will be able to take on more gigs, and we’ll be able to play more often, and I think that’s going to make them happy as well,” he said.

He said the name came from the fact that when it was formed, four of the members were band directors, and there were three others.

“Now four people are retired, plus three of us others still working,” he said. “Now that I’m retiring, and one of the other members who plays clarinet is retiring from Seymour, I think we’re going to have to rethink our name a little bit.”

While they play German music in the fall, their music choice depends on the season. They’ve played Dixieland music, as well as brass quintet. His band has played weddings too.

“I look forward to playing,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of fun to play.”


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