Ashley Smith is the band director at West Liberty High School. She is from Syracuse, New York, and earned her Bachelor of Music Education from Syracuse University and her teaching license from New York State. After Syracuse, she accepted a graduate assistantship at the University of Northern Iowa, where she earned her Master’s of Arts in Music with a conducting emphasis in 2013. She began at West Liberty High School in fall 2013.
Smith grew up playing piano but her principal instrument is the clarinet. Her passion is arranging music for marching band and pep band, and she enjoys writing marching band drills as well. In addition, she said she is gaining more experience arranging for show choir.
Smith’s love for directing began when she was a member of the Pride of the Orange Syracuse University Marching Band. In 2009, she was selected as one of three drum majors. Smith said, “I was already studying music education at the time, but as drum major I had a chance to apply my knowledge to real-life situations by helping to plan and teach rehearsals, arrange music, and help organize the student leadership program. I quickly realized that this was something I was incredibly passionate about, and I wanted to continue doing this type of work for the rest of my life, hence becoming a high school band director. I had great mentor-teachers in my high school band and my college marching band, and looked up to my band directors as mentors and role models.”
Smith enjoys working with the students because, as band director, her role is unique. “I love watching the growth that my students make from their first day of high school to their graduation four years later! Very few teachers get to have the same student four years in a row, so I am fortunate to get to work with my students over the course of their high school career and help them develop as people, musicians, and leaders.”
West Liberty’s band is an elective and students do not need it to graduate. Smith feels that makes a difference in the attitude and commitment of the students. She said, “The band enrollment tends to fluctuate from year to year, but on average we have grown from about 40 to 60 students in the last few years. Students who enroll in band genuinely want to be here and want to work hard to accomplish their goals, which creates a sense of teamwork and student ownership of the band.”
In addition to being an elective, Smith believes band and orchestra are unique in that they are focused on a group working together. “The success of any individual student depends on the success of his or her peers. In a math class, you take a test, and you get your grade back, and it’s whatever you earned – it’s not affected by the grade a student next to you got. But in band, if the person next to you is playing the wrong notes or playing at the wrong time, it can throw off the entire ensemble,” Smith said.
She feels this dynamic teaches the students to work together and help each other succeed. “Students work together to support each other into making the best performance they can, because there are no ‘bench players’ or substitutes. Every student participates in every performance, and we are only as strong as our weakest members. I think it’s a valuable life lesson and teaches strategies and attitudes for students to be successful in college and beyond.”
As a band director, Smith knows there are many behind-the-scene aspects that go into a successful and effective band program. Smith said the extra duties keep her busy but also make her job interesting and exciting. She said, “Many classroom teachers teach the same lesson to students throughout the day in each of their class periods; with our small-group lessons, I teach upwards of fifteen different lessons to students, tracking their progress and tailoring my teaching approach to each student’s needs.”
In addition to the work during lessons, Smith says there is a great deal of preparation that must go into performances and competitions. “There is a lot of paperwork, from transportation requests to registration fee invoices, and I spend a significant amount of time communicating via email and social media so that parents and family members always know what is coming up for the band. I’m also responsible for most of the maintenance of our equipment or instruments, so any spare moment I have, I’m probably assembling a drum set, fixing trumpet valves, or driving the marching band trailer to the practice field for the next day’s rehearsal. There’s always something to be done and very rarely any down time!”