Entering the presence of Kenny Smith is like walking into a positive force field. The sun shines more brightly, people seem more patient and Kenny's smile radiates in a way that makes you think, "Hey, everything's going to be all right."
Not that Smith has had an easy road to travel. At 37, he's a "non-traditional" undergraduate, studying Music Education and Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. In addition to his full-time class load, Smith directs the choir and plays services for two separate churches. Sunday mornings at 7:30 a.m. find him at Southern Baptist in Avondale, while three and a half hours later he's playing to and motivating an entirely different crowd at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Evanston.
Smith also directs a Gospel choir called Kenny Smith's Peace and Serenity Ministries. "Peace and Serenity," as he calls it, has been his pet project for the past 18 years.
" 'Peace and Serenity' is an outreach ministry," Smith explains. "Eighteen years ago, we started with 12 members.
Now we've got over 50, and they range in age from 12 to 87."
The group performs in various locations around the city, including churches, nursing homes, parks, prisons and schools.
"We sing all types of music," Smith says, his eyes shining with enthusiasm. "Classical, Gospel, Jazz. We do some A Capella. We've had two productions at the Aronoff Center."
For those projects, Smith served as director and choreographer. It seems he enjoys a challenge.
Smith was raised by his mother, whom he credits with supporting and encouraging him from an early age.
"I said I wanted to take piano lessons," he relates, "and one week later I was at Baldwin Music Academy. I know that was a sacrifice for her. But she did it, and I'm very grateful."
Following a successful high school career at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Smith auditioned for CCM and was immediately accepted.
"At that time, I really wasn't ready to go to school," he says. "I didn't hang in there. I did maybe the first quarter."
Instead, Smith left CCM and went to work in corporate America. He kept music in his life by playing for Southern Baptist and directing his Gospel group. Eventually, he realized that something was missing from his life, and he says that studying music has "filled that void."
"Music is my passion," Smith exclaims, beaming from ear to ear. "I have to do music every single day. I've been doing it for 30 years."
Not that the transition from the working world to the collegiate one has been simple.
"The most difficult thing about studying at CCM?" Smith says, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. "It's getting back into a study mode. Learning how to meet deadlines."
He smiles again, putting a positive spin on the challenge of balancing classes, directing the choir and his jobs. "But the discipline I'm getting from school is helping me in my personal life — in my jobs in the church and with 'Peace and Serenity.' I've never been this organized."
While going back to school full-time is challenging, Smith is thrilled with the education he's receiving at CCM. "They (the faculty) are refining me and polishing me and teaching me new methods and approaches."
For Smith, the most rewarding thing about studying is seeing his growth and development. He has many goals for the future and plans to spend some time teaching and some time performing.
"Ten years from now, I will have gone back to get a master's degree," he says. "I'll be teaching in a school system or at another level. Hopefully I'll be growing, recording and traveling with 'Peace and Serenity.' And, hopefully, I'll be in a Broadway musical."
A tall order. And for those keeping track and casting, his favorite musical is Ain't Misbehavin'.
Robert Zierolf, head of CCM's Composition, Music History and Theory Division, believes that Smith's positive attitude and efforts have made an impression on other students at CCM as well as the members of his choir.
"Kenny is a warm and generous person," he says. "If you met him, I'm sure he would have a positive effect on you."
Zierolf spent two weeks with Smith and 24 other CCM students on a recent study abroad in Italy. While in Venice, Smith had the opportunity to perform with a professor from the conservatory there. "There was a piano, bass, drums and a sax," Smith says. "I got to sing — songs like 'Misty' and 'Satin Doll.' It was a wonderful experience."
In fact, Smith puts those two weeks in Italy at the top of his list of most influential experiences in his life. "(The time outside the U.S.) allowed me to think outside of the box and look at life in a different way. It opened my eyes to the whole world that's out there and let me see another culture, how people live and relate to one another."
Smith wants to share his enlightenment, hence his goals for teaching and studying Music Ed. For aspiring musicians, he advises, "Go to school. Stay in school. Don't ever give up on your passion. Starve, be hungry, but follow your passion." ©