Music Industry educator and renowned composer and arranger Robert W. Smith dies from complications following cardiac surgery

Published 6:28 pm Thursday, September 28, 2023

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Troy University and the world of music has lost one of its greatest stars.

Robert W. Smith, Professor of Music and coordinator of the John M. Long School of Music’s Music Industry Program, died Thursday, Sept. 21 due to complications of cardiac surgery. Services will be at 2 p.m., Friday, Sept. 29 at Claudia Crosby Theater on the Troy University Troy Campus.

Known as one of the most popular and prolific composers of concert band and orchestral literature in America today, Smith had more than 600 compositions in print, with the majority composed and arranged through his long association with Warner Bros. Publications.

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This fall, he was elected Vice-President of the American Bandmaster’s Association, the organization comprised of the nation’s most distinguished musicians. He would have become the third TROY faculty member to serve as ABA president. He was nominated for membership in 1996 by Dr. John M. Long, who would later become ABA President Emeritus.

As an educator, Smith returned to his alma mater in 2006 to teach in the Music Industry Program, which launched a Master of Business Administration degree last year and its undergraduate degree Bachelor of Business Administration in Music Industry this fall, following his full-time stint with Warner Brothers that took him all over the world as a guest conductor and clinician.

Dr. Larry Blocher, past Dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts and Director of the John M. Long School of Music, was able to lure him back to TROY more than 16 years ago.

“He was one of the finest teachers I have ever known.  More importantly, he was my trusted friend,” he said.

“Robert was a friend for more than 30 years.  I first met him at a band festival at East Tennessee University where we were both serving as clinicians.  As I watched him work with students, I knew there was something special about him.  Our professional paths crossed several times over the years, and my admiration for him and our friendship grew.  It was Robert who told me that the Director of the School of Music position would be open at Troy University.  He encouraged me to apply,” Blocher continued. “It was an honor for me, as Director of the John M. Long School of Music, to recommend that Troy University hire Robert as the first Coordinator of the Music Industry program.  We worked together as colleagues for 16 years.  He approached each day with passion, vision, rigor, and kindness.  He was genuinely excited to be working at ‘the school he loved’.” 

“I am grateful.  And I will miss him,” Blocher added.

Smith, who owned RWS Music and was a vice-president for the C.L. Barnhouse Company and Walking Frog Records, was a product of Daleville and then-Troy State University, where he played lead trumpet for Dr. Johnny Long’s Sound of the South Marching Band. While at TROY he studied composition under Paul Yoder. After graduating, he completed a master’s at University of Miami, returning to TROY in 1997 to become Director of Bands following Dr. Long’s retirement.

“Robert W. Smith was a close family friend and wonderful colleague. While others can speak about his music and influence in our profession, I will remember him as a close friend, confidant, and supporter,” he said. “He had my back, and I had his. He was loyal, and put others, especially his students, first at all times. He loved his family more than anything and was so proud of his wife Susan, and his daughters Madison and Savannah. I will miss him terribly and cherish his memory.”

It was his family that motivated much of his efforts while inspiring those around him.

Kenneth Beck, a SOTS alumnus who is now Lecturer of Music Industry in the Long School, recalled following Smith’s Facebook feed one weekend as he hopped from city to city across the country, only to be back in Troy in time to see his daughter’s Sunday afternoon performance.

“Robert was one the fiercest men I have ever met, not just about music, but about business, education, and most of all, family,” he said. “Family was certainly a keystone in Robert’s life, and he made sure they knew it. His passion for education is unmatched and flows through many generations of educators around the world and will continue for generations to come . . . Robert made me feel like a colleague, like a friend, like a confidant, like family, like a son, and I will always cherish the short time we spent together, the knowledge he shared with me, and the confidence he instilled in me to reach further than I ever thought possible.”

Smith’s reach within the music and entertainment industries was wide, and he often collaborated with major musicians and tied TROY students to the business through student groups such as the performance group POPulus and student-run Illium Records. He routinely put his associations with professional music to work for the growth of his students, sometimes turning those associates into students themselves.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and Grammy Award-winning artist Chris Vrenna is one of those associations. Vrenna was one of the very first Music Industry MBA students. He teaches music technology at Calhoun Community College.

“I am heartbroken to hear of Robert’s passing. He became a mentor to me when I moved here to Alabama, welcoming me to the state, and introducing me to other music industry educators,” he said. “I feel so fortunate to have known Robert over the years and to be able to participate in a couple of TROY’s music events like ‘Mic Check,’ watching him work and absorbing his boundless energy and passion for all things music and music education. Beyond his love for education is his pure musical talent. We are at least lucky to have his numerous compositions to cherish forever.”

That “boundless energy” for music education was appreciated among his colleagues in the Long School as well.

“Robert was a brilliantly creative musician. He was a major leader and influencer in the profession, and yet he was always warm, personable, and welcoming. He always had time for a stimulating and thoughtful conversation,” said College of Communication and Fine Arts Dean Dr. Michael Thrasher.

“A person of boundless enthusiasm, he was fiercely dedicated to his work. He was particularly dedicated to Troy University, and I am most thankful to have had the opportunity to work with him and to call him my friend,” he said.

It was those friendships amongst his peers that helped make the Long School a dynamic educational force where musical creativity could be fostered by all.

“Robert is a dear colleague and friend to me,” said Hui-Ting Yang, the Long School’s interim Director and the University’s Steinway Artist.

“Respectful” and “supportive” are words she used to describe how he dealt with everyone, including his boss.

“The energy, caring, and passion that he has devoted to our students and the world of the music industry are unforgettable,” she said. “While it is difficult for our students, faculty and staff in the School of Music, we will continue to carry his legacy and to bring our Music Industry program to the next level.”