Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Christopher A. Smith
With a song in his heart and a note in his throat, Christopher Smith has truly found his calling in the world of musical performance.
A 2002 graduate from Milton High School, Smith obtained his bachelor’s degree in music performance-voice from Waverly, Iowa’s Wartburg College in 2006. In 2009, he added a master’s in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
Today, he is not only a private voice teacher and owner of Smith Voice Studio in Milton, he also is music director for Youth Choirs of Southern Wisconsin, Rock Prairie Presbyterian Church and the Badger Chordhawks Chorus.
Aside from honors that include scholarships at both Wartburg and the New England Conservatory, Smith is a past Chordhawks Barbershopper of the Year and winner of both Skylight Opera Theater and MMTA awards during Metropolitan Opera auditions in New York City. Away from music, he has been awarded the Volunteer Service Award from President Barack Obama and is an Eagle Scout and Ordeal member of the Order of the Arrow in Boy Scouts of America.
Smith’s family, which he says is the main reason he returned to the area, includes his parents, Harvey and Janet, brother Nathaniel, sister Rebecca and niece, Madison Titus. He also has a cat, Callie.
1. When did you first discover your love for singing? Oddly enough, I owe my love of singing to my former band director, Ken Devoe. For many years, I played flute in his school band. I sat last chair and rightly so—I was a terrible flutist. When you’re younger, however, you rarely possess that level of self-awareness. So, I kept playing flute, and I kept getting seated last chair. Finally, toward the end of my sophomore year in high school, I decided, to spite Mr. Devoe, I would quit the band and join the choir instead, while also taking voice lessons with Sue Blumer. The rest, as they say, is history.
2. Why do you think so many people are afraid to sing in public? Singing is a complex and deeply personal experience. You have to learn and implement the proper vocal techniques, resist the urge to overthink and listen to/analyze your voice, all while making yourself vulnerable in front of strangers—even those who might hate what you have to offer. Doesn’t that sound scary?
3. Some of your past vocal students have appeared on “American Idol” and been accepted at prestigious schools such as Juilliard and the Eastman School of Music. What is it like to see them achieve that type of success? There is no greater joy in teaching than watching a student progress, whether it’s a simple “a-ha” moment or a professional achievement. I am so proud of all of them.
4. What has been your favorite musical act to see live? I have a friend who says I speak in hyperbole. He says, “Whatever’s right in front of you at any given moment is your ‘favorite,’” so this is kind of a hard question. I just saw “Dear Evan Hansen” in Chicago, and that was incredibly moving and probably one of the best things I’ve seen recently. And I always enjoy Parker High School’s professional-esque productions.
5. Do you have any pre-show rituals? No, I do not. Singing is hard enough without adding another psychological component.
6. Has there ever been a time where you were nervous on stage, or have you always felt comfortable singing? There’s never been a time when I was completely comfortable on stage. In fact, even after doing it for so long, I still get nervous when I sing. I’ve learned to channel that energy into something positive, but personally, I think nerves are an important tool. They keep us fresh as musicians and prevent us from becoming complacent or apathetic. I’d be wary of a performer who “never gets nervous.”
7. What type of music did your parents listen to when you were a child? Did it influence your future tastes? I am very fortunate in that I grew up in a very musical home. My parents listened to a lot of classical music on NPR and old records, but they also exposed me and my siblings to a wide variety of other styles—choral, musical theater, rock, folk, etc. I absolutely believe this influenced my tastes in music.
8. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. I’m partially deaf in my right ear. Too many rock concerts when I was younger.
9. What person in history would you most like to meet? There are a lot of historical figures I’d like to meet: Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Theodore Chanler, Mozart, Beethoven ... the list goes on. As someone who frequently collaborates with composers on their music, I would relish the opportunity to meet any composer of opera and art song whether past, present or future.
10. In addition to leading the Chordhawks, you are director of the Youth Choirs of Southern Wisconsin, director of music at Rock Prairie Presbyterian Church and you also consult with arts organizations nationwide. Where do you find the time? I don’t sleep. No, the truth is I’m always working; it just doesn’t feel like work. I am very fortunate in that regard that, every day, I get to pursue my passion as my profession.
11. What is your astrological sign? Do you believe in astrology? I’ll be honest: I had to look this one up on the internet. Apparently, I am a Capricorn, and my “personality is characterized by a charming and creative nature.” Lucky guess?
12. At the grocery store, what item always goes in your cart whether you need it or not? You can never have too much chocolate.
13. In your opinion, what is the most challenging genre of music to perform? That’s a tough one. Every genre has its own set of unique challenges. That said, I think 21st-century classical music is probably the most challenging overall. There’s nothing quite like singing polyrhythmic polytonality while also running a gauntlet of tempi and meters, but that’s also what makes it so rewarding.
14. You have spent much of your career concentrating on opera and orchestra music. Away from work, are there any other genres that you enjoy listening to, or any you would rather have no part of? My roommate in grad school used to tell me that I’m secretly a musical theater singer in the body of an opera singer. I suspect that’s because I was always listening to musical theater, but I like to think I have eclectic tastes. I enjoy classic rock, folk, pop, old school country, etc. I am not, however, a fan of rap or hip-hop.
15. Have you ever sung karaoke? If so, what is your go-to song? I have sung karaoke, but only in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I’ve always loved the movie “Duets” (from the early 2000s) and, inspired by this film/dared by my college friends, I decided to give this style a go. I chose my song, took the stage and belted out a very operatic “Copacabana.” I haven’t sung karaoke since.
16. Do you collect anything? This probably will come as no surprise, but I only collect music paraphernalia—records, CDs, songbooks, etc. I am particularly fond of older hymnals and sheet music that is out of print. Finding these hidden gems really makes you appreciate the golden age of music publishing more than 70 years ago.
17. Having accomplished so much early on in your career, is there a goal that still eludes you? In music, everyone’s work is left perpetually unfinished. That’s one of the things I love about it, because whether it’s now or 50 years from now, there will always be so much more to learn, always so much more to sing, always so much more to do.
18. What is the first piece of advice you give to a prospective singer? I don’t really have a “go-to” first piece of advice for prospective singers. Every singer has his or her own unique goals and needs, and I tailor my instruction to the individual.
19. If you could learn to do anything, what would it be? I’d like to learn to play the guitar. It’s one of the many things on my musical “to do” list.
20. I see that you were the 2002 recipient of the Chordhawks’ vocal scholarship. How does it feel to now be leading that same group? Wow … so many emotions. It is truly incredible how serendipitous life can be. I mean, this amazing group of guys believed in me when I was just a kid graduating high school. I doubt any of us thought a mere 15 years later they’d be reaffirming that belief as I became their director. The Chordhawks are very special to me. I am so grateful for them and for their support. I am thrilled that things came full circle for us and that I get to work alongside my “brothers in song” every Monday night from 7 to 9 p.m. at First Lutheran Church of Janesville. (Forgive the shameless plug.)