From singing in church while growing up on a dairy farm in Ohio to opening for big bands, Bill Smith and music go way back.
He studied drums in Africa and played for US troops stationed in Iraq. His band, Truth & Salvage Company, has opened for a number of notable acts, including the Lumineers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Steve Miller Band. He has been a studio drummer and has appeared on more than 30 albums.
And for the past eight years, he’s been helping Acadiana students explore their own interests in music.
Smith, chair of performing arts at the Episcopal School of Acadiana, has been with ESA since 2015, but has been a working musician for more than two decades. His music career took him to some of the biggest markets in the music world – Nashville and Los Angeles – before coming to Acadiana to start a family.
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At the same time, it helps ESA students learn music theory through modern, popular music.
“I teach basic music theory through popular music so they can apply it, instead of learning ‘Hot Cross Buns’ on the flute or whatever, we can do that to a song they might be familiar with,” said Smith.
From dairy farm to recording studio
Smith began playing in bands full-time in 1997, but his interest in music dates back to singing in church with his mother and siblings while growing up on a dairy farm in Southeast Ohio.
“It’s been a huge part of my life,” Smith said. “I’ve just been singing in little country churches all my life.”
After high school, Smith went to Tennessee Tech University to study music therapy, where he joined the marching band and the African Drum Ensemble. He also developed an interest in jazz and began playing in the community with various jazz and rock bands.
He eventually earned a BA from Brevard College in North Carolina, where he studied performance percussion with a minor in jazz history. Like Tennessee Tech, he was involved in playing with various community groups.
“The life of a musician is to work a job during the day and play your music at night,” Smith said. “I just kept doing it for years and got better at it, got more passionate about it.”
For his day job, Smith usually worked as a teacher or carpenter to supplement his income and support his music career. After honing his teaching and woodworking skills, he had the ability to move to almost any city and still be able to find work, he said, whether it was playing music, teaching or building things.
From North Carolina, Smith headed to Los Angeles, where he met his wife, and then to Nashville. In both Nashville and Los Angeles, Smith worked as a drummer in studio sessions. While in LA, he also worked building sets for reality TV shows, a skill that helped him with school musicals at ESA.
“That’s really how my music career started,” Smith said. “I just decided to do it and it just kept snowballing with whatever interest I had.”
Being a music coach
Smith and his wife – a native of Acadiana – moved from Nashville to Louisiana to raise their family, which led him to take a job at ESA. His ESA classroom, located at the back of the campus chapel, showcases Smith’s longtime love of music.
The room is a little eclectic, but no one would doubt that it houses a solid music program. The shelves are stacked with various instruments, including one that is loaded with several guitars. Posters for various musicals and bands are all over the walls, and much of the center of the room is dominated by a drum kit.
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The classroom is also a good representation of Smith’s teaching style, which focuses on letting students learn through the music they enjoy.
“I basically let the kids, in short, pick the songs they want to learn, pick the instruments they want to learn, and then I help them learn and play those songs and those styles of music and those instruments,” Smith said. “I like to think of myself as more of a music coach than a music teacher.”
Smith also tries to give his students a live experience, with his students playing in an annual concert at the Acadiana Center for the Arts and performing at various area events, such as Tinsel and Treasures and the Festival International de Louisiane.
Students also take part in school musicals and go to Dockside Studio once a year to record.
It’s all about teaching them the skills they may need to thrive in the music industry if that’s what they want to do.
“I teach them how to be in an ensemble, how to be in a group, how to work with each other, how to accept each other and how to encourage each other,” Smith said.