ArticlesFeaturedIssuesJune 2022

An Artist at 80: Dr. Brooks de Wetter-Smith

Dr. Brooks de Wetter-Smith for a university course. Dr. Smith is the past president of the National Flute Association and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's James Gordon Hanes Distinguished Professor of Music Emeritus. For over four decades he has been a flute recitalist, concert soloists and masterclass teacher and has performed in nearly all 50 U.S. states and 23 countries. After interviewing him and many of his colleagues and students, I was able to provide a comprehensive profile of his work as an artist and educator as he approaches age 80. 

The Artist at Eighty

Dr. Brooks de Wetter-Smith moves animatedly around the stage as he plays the Nielsen Concerto for Flute with the UNC Symphony Orchestra. But despite playing a piece that has its reputation for being ferociously difficult, Dr. Smith’s facial expressions convey amusement rather than stress. Through his instrument, Dr. Smith converses with the conductor and the rest of the orchestra with his characteristic playing, and no one--not even critics-- can deny his excitement for the music he plays. But while he gives an animated performance, he maintains steadfast discipline to his technique throughout. He skillfully utilizes a wide range of techniques for advanced players--from flutter tonguing to circular breathing--as well as some that are cautioned against by flute professionals: such as a diverse amount of movement and changing of positioning that could interfere with the sound of the instrument. Reflecting on his performance career, he talks about how he is primarily focused on serving the audience as well as the composer of the music when playing, and using his unique strengths as a flute player to do so.

Those strengths are always in development according to him. At age eighty, Dr. Smith served as the president of the National Flute Association, and is the James Gordon Hanes Distinguished Professor of Music Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He retired from the university in 2017. He has spent over four decades as a flute recitalist, concerto soloist, and masterclass teacher and has performed in nearly all 50 U.S. states and 23 countries. He is also a published photographer who has been to every continent except for one--it’s not Antarctica, it’s Australia.

Dr. Smith greets me in an Oxford shirt and khakis, but the stuffy demeanor one would expect from an elegantly dressed man is unlike that of Dr. Smith. “Nobody is really a stranger to him once he starts talking to you,” Professor Tonu Kalam, the UNC Symphony Orchestra conductor, tells me. Professor Kalam has been Dr. Smith’s colleague for three decades. He adds that Dr. Smith is open, warm and outgoing—both as a person, but also as a musician and artist. Within minutes of meeting we are telling each other stories about our lives, but his impersonations of the people in his stories beat mine by a milestone.

Dr. Smith and I skip the elevator and walk down five flights of stairs after eating taco bowls at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill restaurant. I’m out of breath when it’s over but he doesn’t show any signs of exhaustion. “That felt good!” During lunch we conversed about his special memories with people-- among them, his work with Sir James Galway (whom he refers to as “Jimmy”) who is the first wind player to receive the honor of being knighted, Jean-Pierre Rampal who is personally credited for popularising the flute as a solo classical instrument in the post–World War II years, Marcel Moyse whose ‘French style’ of flute playing influenced the modern standard for flutists worldwide, and his colleagues and students. This is just the start of our tour of the campus, and Dr. Smith was enthused to be my tour guide. First post-lunch stop: Kenan Music Building and his office there.

He always beats me to the doors and holds them open for me. We walk to his office, but not before observing the photographs of his that decorate every wall in the building and hearing the stories behind each of them: from the location, to the process of capture to the photo editing. He uses Photoshop and Lightroom, once waited 7 hours to get the perfect photo of shadows cast on a tree, and once had to persuade the UNC administration to let him take photos from the scaffolding of the Kenan Music Building as it was getting constructed. He befriended many of the construction workers through this.

When Dr. Smith was in fourth grade, he started playing the flute. His parents encouraged him to start on the instrument since he was getting braces soon, and since his father was an amateur flute player who could teach him for a year. Dr. Smith studied flute under many people after his father, starting with his father’s flute teacher, then notably Marcel and Louis Moyse, James Pappoutsakis, Jean-Pierre Rampal, and Sir. James Galway.

On the Moyse’s and a majority of flute teachers from his youth, he reflects that while they taught him a lot about music, “I didn’t learn how to teach from them. I learned how not to teach.” He says his father’s flute teacher left him in tears after lessons, and reflects on how this remains a vivid memory for him, even after many decades: “I felt he was really destroying me in the process… I just kept coming back every week for more verbal abuse.” His parents, however, told him to stick it through and that he was taking lessons to learn, not because of the instructor’s personality. He realized his natural talent for the flute, evidenced by winning prizes in Greater Cleveland music contests, and agreed to this, recognizing that his teacher’s harshness towards him was a sign of belief in his potential. He knows he wouldn’t have been pushed as relentlessly if his instructor didn’t believe in his potential.

When he moved from Ohio to New Hampshire in 9th grade, he ended his studies of the flute when he couldn’t find any teachers there. But while he didn’t have anyone to study under throughout high school, he still became the best flute player in the state, becoming first chair in All-State band and orchestra all four years in high school. He credits this to the harsh discipline his teacher from middle school imposed on him. He resumed his flute studies in his junior year of college at the University of New Hampshire, when told by a conductor that finding an instructor was essential for those who wanted to start in music. He ended up studying under Marcel Moyse and his son Louis. “They were merciless,” he recounts and talks about how Louis would sit in a rocking chair and smoke while he taught until the whole room reeked of smoke, and recalls a time he worked on Mozart's Flute Concerto in D Major with Marcel Moyse. Moyse wanted him to accent certain spots in the piece, but when he did, he would be yelled at to "ACCENT!" and play it again. He would accent more, but that would only make Moyse angrier. Dr. Smith recalls that Moyse would start yelling and cursing at him angrily in French, and that while he luckily at the time had no idea what it meant, he--in panic--decided to really overdo his accents. There was a short pause as he looked at Moyse and Moyse looked back at him, and he feared he did too much accenting. Moyse then said, “It was as if Mozart was there!”, which Dr. Smith described as the greatest compliment–and one of the only compliments– he ever got from Moyse. He adds, “I think most of us teachers try to do the best that we can and bring different perspectives.”

However, when he met James Pappoutsakis (or Mr. P, as he called him during their studies) as a masters student at New England Conservatory, he “changed my whole concept of teaching… It was not about him. It was about the music, and the students who love the music. We loved him.” Dr. Smith describes how Pappoutsakis taught until his death, due to health complications from smoking, while hooked up to an oxygen tank. Dr. Smith was profoundly moved to see how dedicated an educator could be to their students, and realized that this is what teaching should be. He described Pappoutsakis’ teaching style as challenging but humanizing without verbal abuse. He argues “You can't just affirm the student but not teach them. So you have to find that balance.” He adds, “We're not teaching machines, we're teaching people. That attitude of really caring for the other person is a kind of a foundation for the teaching.”

When expanding upon his own teaching philosophy, he reflects that despite difference in ages, cultural background and more, “we are all the same life experiences...We really are part of the same entity.” He adds that when a teacher realizes that a student of theirs is the same kind of a person they are, they would be able to concentrate on what binds them together and feel concerned about the well-being of their students as people. When teaching music, he says “You're dealing with an aesthetic life and existence devoted to emotion and trying to find inspiration and be inspiring.” He adds that although few students will go on to have careers as performers or professors, they are putting up with all that one would put up with in connection to developing musical skills because it’s who they are.

Professor Kalam shares that Dr. Smith’s interest in the sciences gave him a broader sense of what mattered, rather than having a tunnel vision about music, and for this reason “he has an incredibly long standing of devoted students who adore him no matter what.” He adds that students that graduated 20 years ago are still talking about him as a teacher and person, as well as what he meant to their development as flute players and musicians. Dr. Pauline Jung, a former student of Dr. Smith’s says that there’s never a competitive feeling amongst players in Dr. Smith’s flute studio, and feels that he created and fostered a collaborative space for his students. She describes how Dr. Smith is a life coach to her, in addition to being a flute instructor and adds that he comforted her and encouraged her when she came to him concerned about not knowing what path to take in her studies. She has now finished a Doctorate of Music at Boston University and credits Dr. Smith with helping her get to where she is today.

On his own performance career, Dr. Smith declares “I love trying to communicate with people through the sound of music… There’s an incredible stream of energy that pours out of you when you’re performing.” He talks about a ritual he does before performances, which he describes as saying a mantra or kind of prayer that he will bring joy and inspiration to his audience. Professor Kalam says Dr. Smith, as an artist, has “a very high sense of taste… outgoing, tasteful, and classy” and details how after Dr. Smith lives with, grows with, thinks about, and experiences a piece, he is able to offer the listener something not just from the composer, but from his persona, which keeps audiences coming back for more.

But it’s not just the audience he is dedicating himself to-- it’s the music as well. “I like to feel like I’m serving the music, trying to serve the art form” Dr. Smith states. He adds that any form of art is a time consuming experience of discovery and deliberate decision making, and that there is no single correct way to go about it. He believes that the results of such decisions lead to a much more meaningful outcome. Dr. Laura Stevens, who took over Dr. Smith’s former flute studio at UNC, comments that before rehearsals “every single breath, every single phrase, every single nuance is thought out” by Dr. Smith.

Dr. Smith laments the commonplace confusion among artists over the difference between confidence and ego. He describes confidence as the ability of an artist to believe in the validity of what they do as well as their capabilities, while ego is a blinder that an artist puts on themselves artistically, personally and interpersonally, since it gets in the way of trying to uncover what lies in the art. He specifies the Rodrigo concerto is a prime example of this, and describes it as an esteemed piece which every musician is going to have to lend their personal interpretation to. A musician with ego would play it fast and show off all their best technicalities as a player, while a musician with confidence would be able to take the piece--in all its difficulty--and believe in their ability to make something meaningful out of it. Andreas Evers, a former student of Dr.Smith’s and Fulbright scholar mentions that while many talented flute players let their ego get in the way of the music when they perform, Dr. Smith never did, which “is something that makes him outstanding.”

But after the pandemic hit, Dr. Smith’s performances around the world were cancelled. He remains positive however. “It’s been a time of a lot of reflection, introspection and creative energy,” and describes it as a good and important time for growth, inspiration and exploration. Dr. Smith and I speak a bit about his plans for the future, and he brings up examples of how others retired from the music performance scene, and how it has impacted him. Around the end of several of his own teacher’s careers, it was clear to many that they were no longer capable of maintaining their high level of artistry. They kept wanting to perform because the music was still inside them, and it felt as necessary to them as “ having breakfast in the morning.” Dr. Smith argues that the best approach for them would have been to continue playing to their heart's content, just no longer in front of the public. Playing in private would give them the best sense of the real reason they play-- it's who they are. He adds that seeing so many performers continuing to perform beyond their prime has taught him to come to terms that he would one day, like many great artists before him, face the end of his career, the deterioration of his performance quality, and the decision to stop holding concerts.

Professor Kalam confirms that Dr. Smith, in an office down the hall from his own, still keeps in touch with the flute by practicing “virtually every day”, but also that photography, another artistic side Dr. Smith has cultivated over many years, has grown into a larger presence in his life after he retired from UNC. Dr. Smith mentions that he has been exploring more types of photography during the pandemic. Engaging his scientific background, he is currently studying for an FAA examination to be certified as a Remote Aircraft Pilot. This would allow him to experiment more with aerial photography, which has always fascinated him.

The COVID-19 pandemic--and the uncertainty exacerbated by it-- has been an opportunity for Dr. Smith to further discover his love for playing the music itself. Of course, as a performer, he has always put the music before himself, but he now has a more defined belief than ever on how important it is to play because it is a reflection of himself. The pandemic allowed him to further refine his craft without the pressures of an audience, or the pressure to produce results, giving him the opportunity to engage completely in the process instead. At age eighty, Dr. Smith is an educator, a soloist, a recitalist and a published photographer among much else, but what matters the most is the work he did to get there, as well as the thought behind it.

Interview by Michelle Tom a  journalism undergraduate student at Duke University who has studied the flute for a decade. She has studied flute under Ms. Judy Grant, and played in New England Conservatory's Senior Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble. 

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