Some people are born with an ear for music, some are not. Fortunately, Janet Smith, a Cal State Fullerton professor and musical coach, has been using her musical ability to help students for nearly 36 years.
Through the years, Smith has worked with many professional opera and oratorio repertoire. A few of her students have even made their way into the professional arena.
When Smith came to California 40 years ago, she had no intention of staying or teaching, but a set of events changed her views about teaching within the musical field.
“You can only teach what you know,” Smith said.
Smith is a mezzo-soprano who has been a soloist, but loves to be part of a larger stage that incorporates different singers. That is why she loves oratorio, as the singers have to convey emotions through just the song, without costumes and set designs.
Music has the ability to change people’s lives, which she always tells her students before a recital, Smith said.
The Oklahoma native was in an eight-singer, two pianist project called the Los Angeles Vocal Arts Ensemble. “One of the most filling that I ever did,” said Smith when referring to the experience.
The ensemble toured around the United States for many years, performing in multiple concerts. These outings lead to the production of three professional recordings.
When Smith was in second grade, her mother, who was also musically talented, took her to the neighbor’s house for her first piano lessons.
The rest was history.
As Smith was growing up, she mostly played the piano for the choirs. But, when she did sing, she would sing the middle part because that is always the hardest, she said.
It started as a joke when a friend suggested that she should sing for one of the voice teachers. When the professor asked if she wanted to take private voice lessons, it became a reality for Smith.
What started out as a joke ended up in a long career.
Within her career she has mostly done oratorio and recitals, but she has done some opera in Los Angeles and Oklahoma. She has toured with different groups throughout the United States and some parts of Europe.
Smith does not sing anymore, but said that doesn’t slow her down.
She is currently a professor at CSUF and gives private lessons on and off campus to students.
“I was at Chapman for 17 years and now I’ve been here 18 years,” Smith said. “I’m finally happy that I’ve been here longer.”
She co-directs the opera theatre performances on campus each year. At the end of each year, she realizes how much work it really is, but still loves it regardless.
Some of her former students, such as Jennifer Rogers, have become professionals in the classical music field.
Rogers, 30, first met Smith when she was 18. Rogers attributes many of her skills as a musician to Smith.
As a former CSUF vocal major, through Smith, Rogers got into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and is currently a professional opera singer.
She still sends Smith vocal recordings to get her opinion about her vocal coaching sessions.
“I really trust her ears and I trust her opinion,” Rogers said. “She has such a vast knowledge of things.”
She is so approachable and tells you what she really thinks, Rogers said. She is a very classic woman, but is also very fun and silly.
“She’s a walking encyclopedia of musical knowledge,” Rogers said. “She brings the best of people”
Receiving feedback from her current and former students is important to Smith and what drives her to keep going. Smith believes it is important that her “kids” succeed in their dreams.
One of her current students at CSUF, Sarah Goodwin, 23, a vocal performance major, said Smith has always been extremely supportive in her musical abilities.
“I appreciate how picky she is because I feel like it makes me better,” Goodwin said. “She’s always pushing me.”
Goodwin takes private lessons from Smith, and is part of the opera theater class that Smith teaches here on campus.
“I may not be their last teacher or their only teacher, but I made a big difference in how they are approaching it,” Smith said.
As Smith approaches her 40th year as a teacher, she said she has no intention to stop teaching. If Smith retires, she believes she will still teach because her students mean the world to her.
“If I can still keep going and still keep doing it, then what else would I do,” Smith said. “I mean, if I retired and could do what I want, it would teaching.”
She referenced a Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four”, about getting older and how students are staying the same age because of how long she has been a teacher, but it doesn’t bother her because teaching is what she enjoys doing.
“I’m kind of the diction queen around here. I love clear, clean words and if you can’t say things clearly and cleanly then nobody’s listen to you, let alone get anything out of it,” Smith said. “That message is absolutely as clear as and as emotional, or informative, or loving or whatever it happens to be, as possible.”
She is a classically trained singer that expects nothing but the best from her students and hopes that her students always give as much energy to their performances as she does in hers.