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Meet Taylor Smith

Today we’d like to introduce you to Taylor Smith.

Taylor, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in Hemet, California. Hemet is a weird place. It’s not quite rural, not quite suburban. The cost of living there is significantly lower than other parts of southern California, which is why most people end up out there I suppose. It is 90+ miles from both Los Angeles and San Diego, but some people still brave an hours-long commute in exchange for the low(er) cost of living.

In a way, the low cost actually brought a lot of problems; we would hear about meth labs blowing up in the valley almost weekly, and, while I wouldn’t say things were *dangerous*, there was more gang activity than you’d expect from a town so far flung from California’s urban centers. (I was at a baseball practice as a kid when there was a drive-by shooting at the park.)

In hindsight, I am able to see that we were quite a bit less financially secure than I realized as a kid; we lived a lot closer to the poverty line than my parents ever let on. I never really thought of us as “poor” or “working class,” but I understand those words a lot better now, and I think they are close to accurate.

One great thing that Hemet had despite all of its problems was really high-quality music programs in the schools. Back in the late 70s, Hemet High School hired a band director, Jeff Tower, who took that scrappy little town and made it internationally famous.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the Hemet High School bands won dozens of awards; they played at both the Playboy and Montreaux Jazz Festivals; they marched in a few Tournament of Roses Parades in Pasadena. Mr. Tower (and the elementary music teachers that fed into his program) literally put Hemet on the map as a musical powerhouse on the west coast.

Apparently, I was one of those kids that was just naturally gifted with music. My parents bought me this crappy Casio keyboard and an Alfred learn-to-play-piano for Christmas when I was about six. I didn’t have a teacher but used the book to learn a few basic things.

Then, I joined the school band in fourth grade, starting on the trumpet. My teacher was shocked at how quickly I was progressing. I didn’t think that much of it, I just kind of liked playing trumpet. In middle school, I got orthodontic braces, which don’t pair too well with playing the trumpet, so I switched to low brass instruments (baritone, euphonium, and trombone).

Then came high school. I just kept playing in the band. At the request of Mr. Tower, I started playing bass in the jazz band during my junior year. A year later, I was good enough to earn a full-tuition scholarship to attend the summer jazz workshop at Idyllwild Arts Academy and another full-tuition scholarship to attend Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho).

I hate to admit it, but I was still just kind of getting by on raw talent; I wasn’t actually dedicating that much brain space to any of this stuff. It all just happened. When it came time to pick a major, I didn’t think about it all that much. Music just seemed like the obvious thing. It didn’t really occur to me to study something else.

When I graduated I didn’t really have any employment prospects; I started submitting applications for graduate programs. Before beginning college, I am not sure I even really knew what graduate school was, but, here I was submitting applications to fancy schools.

I ended up at Claremont Graduate University (in Los Angeles County) in 2005. I finished my MA in 2006, but *still* didn’t have any pressing employment opportunities, so I just kept going to school. I figured that I hadn’t exhausted my curiosities yet and having more education was only going to help once I *did* have some employment opportunities.

Once I finished my MA and was plugging away at my Ph.D. classes, I started applying to jobs everywhere they were open. I applied for jobs in Tennessee, Minnesota, New Jersey, and other places I am sure I’ve forgotten about. I was only interested in about half of the jobs I was applying for, but I thought of each application as a way of practicing for when the jobs I *did* want *did* come along.

I count myself as extremely lucky to have landed where I did. I accepted a full-time teaching job at Cuyamaca College in 2008. The job description called for someone with a somewhat unique skill set amongst academia-trained musicians, and I just happened to have the right training, background, and professional interests to match up with this job perfectly.

I took over as the Chair of Performing Arts in 2013 and (*finally!*) finished my Ph.D. in 2015. Since I have been at Cuyamaca College, I have taught music theory, music history, and music technology classes as well as directed the college’s pop music ensemble. It’s an awesome job. My students are great.

When I find the time, I also do some performing. Given my crooked path—see below—I am able to take a pretty wide variety of gigs. Sometimes I play rock gigs on electric bass, an early music gig on viola da gamba, and a classical gig and jazz gig (one of each) on double bass in the same week.

The next week I might be in the recording studio every night, some nights as a bassist, others as a producer. Right now, I am working on an article for a musicology journal; they are publishing a special issue about the Beach Boys, and that’s kind of “my jam.”

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Despite the fact that I landed a full-time, tenure-track position at only 26, the path I took to get here was pretty windy (and bumpy at times). In fact, if there is anything that has stayed constant throughout my journey thus far it’s me being restless and constantly curious.

I mentioned earlier that I started playing the trumpet in fourth grade, but then I switched to the baritone/euphonium/trombone in seventh grade. When I was in eleventh grade, the bass player in the jazz band quit; our teacher pulled me aside and said, “Taylor, I want you to play bass now.” I knew almost nothing about the bass, and I told him so. He said he knew I could probably figure it out. So, I took the school’s electric bass home on Friday and came back on Monday, stood in the back of the band next to the drummer with a terrified look on my face and pretended to be “the bass player.”

After ending up at Ricks College/BYU-Idaho on a jazz bass scholarship, I was informed that I couldn’t actually *study* jazz bass as my main instrument. I could have *classical* bass as my main instrument… but I didn’t have any experience with that at all. Before college, I had played exactly zero classical bass. And, the college also told me that they didn’t have a bass teacher; they had a cello teacher who could teach bass, but he wasn’t really interested/able to teach a beginner/jazz bassist.

But, being a music major, I was required to take private lessons, so they stuck me with the best bass student. He was a great player, but not a good teacher. As a music major, you do these playing tests in front of the music faculty each semester. Just to make the pressure even more intense, they call these tests “jury exams” or just “juries” (as in, you might get thrown in jail if you don’t play well enough). At my first try, the faculty was *not* impressed. They were kind but asked what instrument(s) I *did* have classical experience with… because my bass playing was not cutting it.

I said that I played the trombone in my high school concert band (which was true). They said, “How about you make trombone be your “major” instrument, the one you take lessons on, but keep playing bass in the jazz band?” That was a kick to the gut, but, yeah, whatever, I need to do what I need to do. I was then, officially, a trombone major for two semesters. I *hated* it. Lucky for me, a new cello/bass teacher came and had no problem taking me into his studio… I could be a bass major again!!

I thought I was perfectly fine, but it turns out that my mental health was actually pretty poor around the time I left home. It’s all kind of a complicated blur at this point, but I was diagnosed with major depression in 2001, about six months after leaving home. I was totally lost. I was 1000 miles away from home. My family was supportive but far away. I knew literally *no one* when I arrived at my new school. I thought I was going to school to do one thing—play the bass—but I ended up having to do this different thing.

Being a religious school, Ricks College/BYU-Idaho had an intense social pressure baked into its culture. There were certain things you simply *did* and other things you *didn’t,* things you had to *know.* That environment can build strong people, but it can also break less-strong people. One night, feeling furious at those around me, feeling fed up with what I felt were demands I simply couldn’t meet, I swallowed a fist full of pills.

Looking backward, that is terrifying. At the time, I thought I might have to go to the hospital and get my stomach pumped, which would be a signal to the world that they needed to quit pushing me so hard. Luckily, nothing happened. I was kind of sleepy for the next day, but the meds had no other immediate effect. It actually took a few days before I realized the severity of what I had done that night. It’s still scary to think about.

When I started college, I went in as a music education major. I wanted to be a high school music teacher. Music education was what this particular school excelled at, and I greatly admired my high school band director, so it just made sense. But, after about five or six semesters, I realized—for several reasons—that I did *not* want to be a high school music teacher.

Luckily, the difference between one music degree and another is pretty small, so I didn’t really “lose” much time by switching majors. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with music, but I still found it really interesting and exciting, so I kept the “music” part of my major and dropped the “education” part. I had a bit of an epiphany one afternoon in a practice room. Music majors spend tons of time in these tiny rooms—glorified closets, really—practicing hour after hour, trying to work through the pickiest of minutiae.

I was in there one afternoon preparing for my senior recital (think “everything-depends-upon-it-exit-exam”), and I thought, “I can’t wait until I can be done practicing for the day so I can go to the library and work on my analysis paper.” What?! Who says that?! That’s when I realized that I should probably go to graduate school and study music history.

I was much more excited about *reading about* music and *talking about* music than I was *performing* music. That is what musicologists do; until that moment, I don’t think I had ever even *heard* of musicology or even knew that it was a thing. I figured it out and started applying for master’s programs in musicology.

Another odd twist is that I made an almost complete 180 in the music I was interested in while in college. I went in as a jazz bassist; jazz was what I was most interested in, classical music was pretty far down the list. I had a series of bad experiences with the head of the jazz band (and an overall frustration with how jaded he was), and I got pretty turned off to jazz.

At that same moment, I was discovering classical music for the first time. I had always derided “classical” music as stuffy, dead, white music, but I was learning how much cool stuff there was, especially in the pre-Classical eras. I ended up dropping out of the jazz band in favor of the chamber orchestra and baroque ensemble. In fact, when I figured out that I wanted to go to graduate school to study music history/musicology, I was most interested in music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

At eighteen, I wanted to focus on music from the 1950s and 1960s; at 22 I wanted to focus on music from the 1550s and 1660s. Of course, I didn’t stay put for very long. I finished my master’s degree with an emphasis in historical performance practice and almost immediately started wandering around other musical and academic topics in my head. I, again, ended up pretty far away from my last topic of interest, landing with pop music and recording studios in L.A. during the 1960s.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Brian Wilson (specifically on the ill-fated *SMiLE* album). My dissertation advisor was a scholar of medieval music, one of the members of my committee was a harpsichordist… As far as I know, I am the first person to write a dissertation about rock ’n’ roll in Claremont’s musicology program. (I actually found my way to Brian Wilson after spending almost eighteen months compiling research on electronic music and mashups. Long story.)

All of this bouncing around felt pretty natural for me. It’s only in hindsight that I can see how crooked a path that all was. All of this was the result of my kind of wandering through music and academia just seeing where my curiosities took me. Neither of my parents went to college. I am the oldest of five kids. This whole world was brand new to me, and I couldn’t decide which doors were the most fascinating, so I just wandered through all of them. I ended up here, so all’s well I guess.

What should we know? What do you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I suppose that one of the things that makes me stand out is my versatility as a teacher, scholar, and a musician. I feel pretty confident in almost any musical style and with a few instruments. This might make me one of those “Jack of all trades, master of none,” but I enjoy the flexibility my background gives me.

It’s kind of cool—and somewhat unique, I think—to be able to take an early music gig, a rock gig, a classical gig, and a jazz gig one after the other. Similarly, to be fluent in all of these musical “languages” allows me to speak and write about them as an “expert” without necessarily being pigeonholed into only one of them. And, while lots of people can do that to some extent, I actually have the academic credentials to back up my claims at “expertise” in each case.

At Cuyamaca College, we offer two programs that are unique to the area. We offer Associate of Arts degrees in Music Education and Music Industry Studies. In each case, we are the only community college in San Diego County that offers degrees in these fields. We do this on purpose. There are *a lot* of colleges in San Diego—at least thirteen by my count—and most of them have music departments of one size or another.

Cuyamaca is one of the smallest of these colleges, so we need to do something the others aren’t. We noticed that these two areas, music education, and music industry, were not available in any community colleges, so that became our *niche.* Of these two, I think our Music Industry Studies program is the one that really sets us apart from other places.

(I say this not to disparage our Music Education program in any way; it is a great program and is very useful to our students and community. I believe in it wholeheartedly.) Treating popular music and the music industry as a topic worthy of deep academic study is a pretty new phenomenon.

As I mentioned earlier, I was the first doctoral student at Claremont to write about rock music; when I was in college, which really wasn’t that long ago, classes like History of Rock or History of Hip-Hop were close to non-existent, let alone whole academic programs built around the idea of pop-music-as-a-serious-thing. But, in the past fifteen years or so, we have seen quite a lot of these courses and degree programs pop up around the country.

One of the coolest classes that we offer at Cuyamaca is a class called the Music Industry Seminar. Basically, this class is like a music industry lab, where students are able to work on real-world projects in the industry as a way build experience and a portfolio of work to draw upon when these same types of work are no longer “academic.” Each fall, we adopt a few local bands and help them in whatever ways they need; we have recorded demos, booked gigs, shot music videos, and built websites for several local artists.

In the spring, this class sponsors the Coyote Music Festival, a four-hour outdoor music festival featuring local bands. The students in the class do (almost) everything it takes to make the show happen, including choosing the bands, organizing the logistics, designing promo materials, advertising the concert, and executing all of the stage crew, sound crew and other needed tasks during the show. The concert is held on the college campus each May and is free to the public.

The point of the event is to give each student experience with what it takes to make an event like this happen while interacting with local artists and business networks. I wish I would have had opportunities to try things out like this when I was a student!

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Curiosity. Curiosity and a willingness to explore ideas. Those two things have brought me farther than any sort of work ethic or talent (though those are helpful).

As far as the future of the industry looks, I think niche specializations are going to be harder to support. There was once a time that one might be able to make a living by being a musician in *one* style, a classical pianist for example, but that is becoming increasingly difficult. The same thing goes for other sides of the industry as well; stand-alone big recording studios are becoming rarer each year.

In the 1990s, a big studio in L.A. might employ dozens of people, full-time. Most of the studios and those jobs are gone now, replaced by small-scale studios with little-to-no full-time staff. Record producers used to be able to carve a niche for themselves as experts in a specific style or as “on-hand” at specific studios, but they are now having to do double and triple duty as engineers and arrangers.

My experience is that the musicians who know their way around the technology, who can record a track themselves rather than have to go somewhere special, are the ones who are getting the calls to record. The people doing the recording, the promoting, and the performing are now the same person as opposed to the three it used to be.

So, if I could make a prediction about the future of music making (and music teaching or scholarship for that matter), it would be that it will only continue to move in this direction. The more tools you have in your arsenal, the more prepared you will be when someone needs them. We won’t be able to rely upon some else to do all of those “non-musical” jobs that we used to.

In a way, I suppose it’s a form of the “death of expertise,” though I envision it a bit differently; I see it as “the death if having only *one* expertise.”

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