Greg Smith, Bass Clarinet, has been performing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra since 1975. This Q&A is part of our Home Is Where the Art Is series of artist stories featuring our musicians.
When did you first start playing your musical instrument?
I took some piano lessons at age 5 and can remember the first tune I ever learned…but not the correct fingerings. Clarinet and bass clarinet followed in 7th grade, where I first met MSO second clarinetist Nancy (nee Mayland) Mackenzie.
What stories come to mind that led to your choice to make music a focus in your life?
Seven years of UW Music Clinic and the joy of making music with my friends there and in WYSO come to mind. I first went to Music Clinic as a boy alto in 6th grade, and still remember performing “Dona Nobis Pacem” in a massed youth choir in the UW Field House. Richard Wolf was the conductor. I seem to recall he used a really, really long baton—like at least 30 inches!
Who was most influential in shaping your talent and inspiring your passion for music and your instrument?
UW School of Music Administrator Arne Bo helped me learn and understand the importance of “Quality Before Ego”, both in music and in life.
How do you prepare for concert rehearsals?
Listen and practice. Over the years, the availability of digital parts and YouTube performances has become a big help. It used to be one had to purchase an album to hear a piece that was not common repertoire.
Tell us about what happens during rehearsals from the point of view of your part and section in the orchestra?
Within the section and across the orchestra, we work together to match and blend the fundamental elements of our combined sound—pitch, timbre, rhythm, and articulation—and also to come to a common understanding of Maestro DeMain’s interpretation of the piece.
What are your routines leading up to a concert performance?
If you mean just before the performance, it’s check twice or more to make sure I have the music and equipment before I leave home, and even then and not infrequently, pull to the side of the road to make sure the reeds, music, or some other item is indeed in the car! And oh, leave with plenty of time to have a flat tire or be stopped by a train. Then, I always try to leave my cell phone in the car, where I don’t have to worry about it going off back stage during the performance!
What is special about playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, John DeMain, and performing with your colleagues?
The sense of family, unity of purpose, and after all these years, appreciating how far the orchestra has come musically and the ever-growing and enthusiastic support of our audiences. I am proud to be part of this organization.
Tell us about what you most love to do outside of your career as a musician.
Going on road trips with my loving wife Anna.
What do your daily or weekly routines look like these days?
Recent activities included serving as a city of Madison Election Official, which in addition to Election Day, involved a lot work processing absentee ballots both before and after the election. Next up is updating the web site for one of my bands and (warning to my family and neighbors) perhaps learning to play the bagpipes.
What are things you’re cooking, shows/movies you’re watching, and/or other hobbies you’ve developed during this time?
We share Fish Fry Fridays with our next door neighbors. Each household takes a turn finding a carryout fish fry to deliver to each other’s front porches. We’ve also discovered the NOM NOM NOM kits available through Liliana’s Restaurant. We take home a box of locally-sourced ingredients to prepare a meal conceived by a local chef. The proceeds benefit local farms, local restaurants, and local organizations including REAP and the Dane County Farmer’s Market.
I am also working my way through several years of missed podcasts for “Whad’ya Know” and “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”
What music inspires you and what do you listen to for personal enjoyment?
Puerto Salsa Radio through TuneIn Radio.