Playin’ Around With Playbook: Grammy Music Educator Winner Mickey Smith Jr.
As a music educator, my guiding principle is: if you believe in students, they will believe in themselves. You must arm them with the self-confidence and inner drive to reach their full potential on their own volition. This isn’t always an easy task.
When I learned of Mickey Smith Jr. and his mindset, I was uplifted. As a source of inspiration for the music education community, Mickey encourages us all to “keep on going!” Educators must push for purpose in their lessons and approach the classroom with “mindfulness, resilience, and significance.”
As a motivational speaker, musician, and the 2020 Grammy® Music Award Winning Educator of the Year, Mickey’s knowledge, and passion for music is endless. After his tenure at Maplewood Middle School in Sulphur, LA, he is now the music director at the Greene School in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he continues to inspire us all. This week on Playin’ Around With Playbook, Sammy and I were able to sit down and speak with Mickey.
We are so glad to have Mickey as a friend here at Playbook!
Below is an excerpt from our conversation on October 7th, 2021. Click here to watch the full interview.
SAMMY MILLER: I had the fortune of going out with Playbook to the KBA (Kansas Bandmasters Association) conference. We were setting up our booth there and in walks this burst of life into the room and I was like okay…I wanna know this guy. He had an aura of positivity. That night we had a concert for the band directors and I asked Mickey, “would you bring your horn and play a song with us?” Everyone was like: you gotta hear Mickey play, you gotta hear Mickey play. He literally tore the house down. There’s not a roof where there used to be where we played in that room.
Photograph of Mickey tearing the roof down with Playbook in Kansas.
SM: The following morning I had the great fortune to see him present an hour-long clinic to all the band directors. He spoke about this idea of establishing the culture of your classroom. Mickey — could talk a little bit about how does an educator create a culture?
MICKEY SMITH JR. : Yeah, man. I really do feel like we serve the WIFA generation. And that’s the What’s In it For Me, you know and when people say stuff like oh these kids they’re all about what’s in it for me, I get excited. Because like, they gave you the template. Okay, if you went out to eat and you ordered something and the waiter brought you something different, come on, you’d be a little perturbed. I’d ask why did you bring me the other stuff. So I look at it like this, you know, they don’t always do it the way that I would want them to do it. But I always try to take time to see who I am teaching and see who I am reaching and then create a menu: a palette that feeds whatever their needs and their desires are. I think that’s what creating a culture is.
TRISTA FORD: Why did you choose the age group that you chose to teach?
MS: They chose me. Like, coming out of college, there was no way you would have told me I’d be teaching middle school and elementary. There ain’t no way. I was a college drum major, you know, I was working with ensembles at the collegiate level. I was like I’m going to come out here with this on fire kick butt high school group, we’ll get that duke ellington award. And I started student teaching. We had to do both high school and middle school, so you went to both. And with everyday that passed, there just became a greater and greater gap. It just became incredibly obvious, I’m really digging this middle school thing. And I love the fact that my experiences with middle school they start from nothing, and you get to see that beautiful progression from nothing into them walking that thing. Now, fast forward, I got close to twenty kids in my program that are teaching now, as music educators. To get that whole spectrum is like, wow, it’s such a beautiful thing. What excites me is to think what the next is gonna be.
SM: No matter what you always seem to know how to turn something around and say you know what, this is an opportunity. I know so many educators that I talk to these last couple years have just beaten them down. Do you have a mantra, what kind of stuff grounds you when you’re really struggling?
MS: *points to large sign in room that reads KEEP ON GOING* That Ain’t for the kids, that’s for me to be honest. I’ll say this to my educators. There’s nothing special about me, but there is something significant about me. There’s nothing special about any of us, until we realize that we all have a sound. We all have a significance. It changes the way you look at the day. So I start my day and I greet my day. Everyday I greet this day with love in my heart. I don’t think you can do this job without love. It will eat you up if you don’t. I want to remind people that they have a sound. I want to remind you of why you got into teaching, because of love. Life has a way of separating us from that love, so I challenge folks in each and every day to take time to fall back in love with it. Find those things that make you hungry to get into a classroom. Find those things that make you hungry to get on your instrument. And try to reconnect with that. With that, you’re able to put purpose into your day. So I don’t plan out my day, I put purpose in my day each and every day. Life is so challenging and so busy that it’s not deep, but it feels deep. We lose sight of the simple things, stacked on top of each other to make the greatest impact.
TF: You said “The playbook is my resource of choice for the modern classroom.” Going off of that, why do you think programs such as Playbook are so important in today’s classroom?
MS: Imma be real with you. I am 100% truthful when I say this. When I went to your session, and I heard you breakdown. I gotta be honest, I’m from Louisiana, I’m like what these dudes know about Louisiana? It wasn’t just academic, you know the spirit of the music. Sammy had an understanding that it’s about togetherness, it’s about community, it’s about generational uplifting. I don’t see that in a lot of platforms, and as a performer, many times you watch these groups that have spin tracks that mute parts and add parts. I have always said man that’s the way to do it. I’d never seen anyone do it before you. When I met you and I saw your platform, I said, this is the tool of choice, because it’s so intuitive, it’s so natural. It’s not forced, It’s an extension of the natural nature of music, that i think anybody who’s not doing this is doing themselves a disservice. This is from my heart man.
Some of these books, if you ain’t already there, you’ll never get it. But you meet people where they’re at. So if you have a group that don’t have the proper instrumentation like I’m at right now, and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to put on a show. Now I have the added luxury of a performance track to fit what instrumentation I have and most importantly, what I don’t have. And give the kids the tools to practice and listen to great outstanding musicians that they can model themselves with, that they can play along with. And finally, just like that kid on the bike, when they ready to take them training wheels off, they can mute my man or my lady, whoever’s playing.