10 Lessons I Learned from Dennis Smith

April 23, 2024 Barbie Wong

When I was in high school, I was a mess. I’m sure most of us felt that way during those teenage years. Luckily, I got into the premier choir group at my high school, the Madrigals. I was still not one of the cool kids, but I got so much out of being in that group because it was led by an incredible choir director, Dennis Smith. I have often stressed the importance of finding the right music teacher. As a teenager, I got to learn from one of the best.

Dennis taught me many things about music and life. He also made me feel welcomed. I was a pimply Asian kid wearing glasses and discount clothing, and being part of the Madrigals gave me a place where I truly belonged. Dennis created a space where students of all backgrounds could come together and sing. Dennis passed away on April 21, 2024 and I will miss him dearly. I am so grateful for all that he taught me, so I wanted to share a few things I learned from him.

10 Lessons I Learned From Dennis Smith

1. Share your music. Dennis loved sharing music with others and would invite us to sing anywhere. I’ve sung at Hearst Castle, on sidewalks, and in cathedrals–all impromptu. When we were on tour in the Pacific Northwest, we sang on the ferry to Vancouver. I still remember the waves lapping and enjoying harmonizing with my friends. Another time, we were rehearsing a song and Dennis wanted to see if we really had it, so we all walked to the principal’s office and sang for her and her staff. I think Dennis knew how much joy came from sharing music–not only to those who heard us sing, but also for us musicians.

2. Listen. Dennis taught us to really listen while we are singing. Are we in tune? Are we singing the rhythms precisely? How much are we singing together? But in addition to teaching us to tune in to each other musically, Dennis was also a great listener with people. He truly heard you when you were expressing your ideas. Dennis listened with his heart.

3. People first. Even though Dennis was a stellar musician and loved music, he cared about people first. He never put anyone down or sacrificed something to make the music better. He cared about connecting with his students and making sure that we were supported as human beings. Putting people first was an important step before making music.

4. It doesn’t matter if your family situation is less than perfect. I still remember sitting in Dennis’ office after school one day and hearing his stories about his childhood. He came from very humble beginnings and had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get through school and become a choir teacher. Hearing his stories made me less embarrassed about my family’s poverty. I think he knew that we didn’t have very much and he did what he could to make me feel less isolated.

5. Make friends by making music. I made so many friends through singing with Dennis, and I cherish these friendships to this day. One of the best parts about my love for music is I continue to make friends through making music.

6. Take time to reflect. After every music performance, Dennis would gather us the next day and let each person talk about what they thought about the performance. I had never done anything like this before and I loved that he gave us space to reflect on such an important event.

7. Circles are powerful. Dennis had all of us sit in a circle during our post-performance reflection time as well as the beginnings and endings to our annual tour. Dennis knew that when everyone is in a circle, the way we connect to each other becomes even more powerful. Sitting in a circle allows everyone to see everyone else. We are all on an even playing ground. To this day, when I gather a group of people–whether it’s my students, friends, or family–I make sure we are sitting in a circle.

8. Be creative. Dennis was incredibly creative. He wrote beautiful music, which we got to sing. He also built a strong choir program from scratch. Dennis knew that in addition to good quality music, he also needed funding to sustain the music program. He was quite scrappy and found multiple ways for the choir program to make money, including selling concessions at our high school football games. I spent many happy nights with my friends squashed in a trailer dishing out chili cheese nachos to hungry fans. 

9. Stick together. We had a buddy system when we were on tour. I’m sure it was for logistical reasons, but it also taught us to keep an eye on one another and to help each other when we needed it–on and off stage. I’ve passed this lesson on to my kids by encouraging them to help one another whenever they can.

10. Look your best. Dennis emphasized the importance of presentation, from our attire to our stage presence. He taught us to take pride in our appearance, recognizing its impact on our performance and confidence. I remember the thrill of receiving the Madrigals’ red dress and making sure I looked my best before we went on stage. 

Thank you, Dennis, for all that you’ve taught me. Your legacy lives on with the hundreds of students you’ve taught and with all the music that we continue to make.