I know a lot of you must be thinking that music is an artform, therefore you don't compete. I see it differently. The local nightclub decides which band will play at all and in which time slots. Those bands are competing with each other, even if they never meet on a field of competition. Then, of course, there are The Grammys. That is clearly a competition (by votes). And television has created many competitive game shows around musical talent as well. Of course, Music is an art form as well. I find it a tremendously effective emotional outlet, too. But if you ever start thinking about what it means to play for others, you will soon realize you are getting into a competition of sorts.
Music is in my genes, courtesy of my father, Ron Smith. Through all of my childhood, my father was a professional trumpet player. He was playing in the U.S. Army band in Frankfurt, Germany when I was born. After the army, and while I was in grammar school, he was playing in big band jazz bands while experimenting with rock-jazz fusion sounds. By the time I reached junior high school he was a rock star, or at least that is how I thought of it. He was a trumpet player and writer for Malo, Jorge Santana's (Carlos Santana's brother) band. I got to be backstage with them at Winterland, The Fillmore, Sacramento Civic Center, and many other local venues. Although I didn't get to go on the road with him, I got to meet lots of musicians backstage or at after-parties. After four albums with Warner Brothers, Malo had run its course and my dad settled into business life - while still playing in the Oakland Raider Band. Music was clearly his outlet.
I started playing trumpet in fourth grade. My dad gave me one of his old trumpets, a handmade French Meha Bessen, which I still have. In the summer after 5th grade, I auditioned and was selected to a summer music program at UC Berkeley. The admission selections were based on musical ability and academic need. When I showed up for the first day of classes there were 33 students - 30 black, 2 Chinese, and me. My first class was - Jazz Band. A small black drummer, the only student younger than me, looked at me when I came in and said, "What's that white boy doin' here? This is Jazz class." An older trumpet player backed me up and said they should let me play before making comments. The competition was on! And very importantly for my societal development, I also got a chance to make my first friends that weren't White or Hispanic (which were the hugely dominant races where I grew up). I learned so much that summer having taking courses like choir, orchestra, music theory, and individual instruction on trumpet.
By the time I got to high school I was getting pretty advanced for my age at trumpet though I was still mostly playing just at school. As a Freshman, I soon became close friends with another trumpet player, John Parry. It seemed like I was always just slightly better than John. It was perfect because John fueled me to get better and better. By our sophomore year, I was the first chair in the school marching band. Our music teacher asked me to enter the state solo competition and I quickly agreed. With some help from my father, and a lot of help from Forest Buchtel (Woody Herman, Malo, Blood Sweat & Tears, and others), I not only received a #1 ranking, but I was also given one of the 6 command performance invitations for the awards performance. I was honored as the Best Solo High School Trumpet Player in California at 14 years old (I had skipped kindergarten). It was the competition with John and the coaching of my dad and Forest that got me there.
When I started living in the dorms at Menlo College a funny thing happened. While walking in the dorm hallway, I heard someone practicing trumpet and they were very, very good - clearly better than I was. I knocked on the door and met my soon-to-be good friend, Nick Moore. Nick had grown up in California, too. How had I not seen or heard of him before? It turns out Nick did not try out for the solo competition, but he was the first chair in the State Honor Band. So what did I do? Change the game. Nick and I joined with several other very talented musicians in the dorm and made a band, Mercury. We played material with trumpets and some without. It gave me a chance to work on my singing, too. We had a lead singer, so if I wanted to sing more I had to work at it, and I did. I became the band manager and got to do some of my first marketing work too, landing us some interesting gigs, including one after a charity softball event featuring, The Oakland Raiders, The Raiderettes, several Alameda County judges, and a team of midgets. Watching the dance floor was hilarious!
After transferring to Cornell, I would occasionally perform in coffeehouses as a singer/master-of-ceremonies. I would get a guitar player or piano player to accompany me and I would perform songs in front of the curtain (some I had written) while other acts would set up behind the curtain. When I graduated from Cornell, a friend of my father offered to produce an album featuring me. I turned him down. Music was fun, but I had seen a lot of the drug culture around music. I wanted to utilize my engineering skills and someday have a family and I had seen how difficult it was for some musicians to raise a family.
As my business career increasingly brought me to Japan, I found myself singing Karaoke with customers quite often. One place I took my customers to in Roppongi actually had a live band who would often ask me to sing with them if I stayed late because they didn't want the customers to think it was Karaoke night. Word of this got around to a then acquaintance of mine, Jim Hogan. Jim asked me to be the backup singer for his band at a charity event where his band was playing. I went to one rehearsal, then the show itself, and had a blast. Six months later, Jim invited me to a practice. Jim said the lead singer couldn't make it so I should sing the lead for the night. At the end of practice, Jim said, "Congratulations! You are the new lead singer". We have long since become very close and have had the opportunity to raise money for several charities while playing at some great venues including The Fillmore (deja vu in the green room), House of Blues Anaheim, and the Moody Theatre (Austin City Limits). There's no competition in this area for me anymore and I know my pipes will eventually break down. But if I had not been pushed during my summer in Berkeley or by John Parry, I would never have become the musician I later did.