Reginald Smith Jr. had no other option.
He was at home in Atlanta. He had an audition for the voice department at the University of Kentucky the next morning. The family car had broken down.
So at 11 p.m., he boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Lexington. He rode north through the night, arriving about 8 a.m. with nothing but a toothbrush in his pocket, the suit he had to wear for the audition and a few hours of sleep.
He changed into his suit in a bathroom and hustled to get ready to sing his audition piece, George Frideric Handel’s Honor and Arms.
“They said, ‘We don’t need to hear anything else,'” Smith says. “Then they said they had this thing called the Alltech competition Sunday, and would I sing in it.”
He had no idea what the Alltech competition, an annual scholarship contest for incoming undergraduate and graduate voice students, was. But Smith had a policy: sing whenever he had an opportunity. And fortunately, because he’d wanted to take a look around Lexington, he had bought his return bus ticket for Sunday night.
So he sang in the competition.
“When they said, ‘Audience favorite, Reginald Smith Jr.,’ I thought, ‘That’s nice; they like what I’m doing,'” he says. “When they said, ‘First place,’ that was even better. But when they said, ‘Tuition waived … ‘”
Smith’s fingers draw the tracks of tears rolling down his cheeks.
“When you come from a low-income family, and someone tells you that you can go to school for free … ”
For a moment, it seems that Smith might shed some tears again.
Since winning that Alltech Vocal Scholarship Competition in 2007, the baritone has continued to go above and beyond to make and take opportunities. This summer, he is scheduled to go to the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York, the oldest vocal training program in the United States. But, he’s about $1,500 short of the money for airfare and tuition, so he is presenting a free concert at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. Donations are, of course, welcome.
He has done it before, using his voice to help develop his voice.
When he was 15, he was one of the youngest students ever accepted to the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. In need of money to go, he started singing around Atlanta, even setting up in front of a bookstore one day with his CD player.
In Graz, he met UK voice professor Everett McCorvey.
“I only had one lesson with him,” Smith says. “But I remember, he said, ‘If you ever need anything, call me.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, he won’t remember me.'”
Smith did end up needing something: a new voice teacher. He called McCorvey to see whether he could recommend anyone in Atlanta.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah! You’re the young one,'” Smith says.
McCorvey hooked him up with Atlanta teacher Elizabeth Colson, who eventually pointed Smith to UK at a time when his college sights were on Boston’s prestigious music schools.
One thing Smith liked about Kentucky was a warm, collegial environment, where professors got along and star graduate students would talk to him and give him advice.
Talking to fellow baritones Eric Brown and David Baker, Smith heard things like, “If you want to do something, do it and don’t look back.”
Smith wanted to sing. It’s right there on his Facebook page: “Activities: Singing, and more singing.”
So, he auditioned as a freshman for the Lexington Philharmonic’s performance of Messiah, landing the baritone soloist gig for George Zack’s final turn conducting the iconic oratorio.
He auditioned for UK Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel, knowing there were no parts in the show for him, but taking the opportunity to audition. Kentucky Symphony Orchestra director J.R. Cassidy was there and ended up engaging Smith as a soloist with the Northern Kentucky group.
“I never close any options,” Smith says.
The effort has made him one of the highest-profile undergraduates in the UK Opera program, whose public face is mostly graduate students. And there was evidence of the lengths that he’d go that first weekend in Lexington.
After the Alltech competition, he went to a reception at UK President Lee Todd’s house.
“I kept telling people I needed to get to my bus; it was leaving at 8 o’clock,” Smith recalls. “People said, ‘Oh, ho-ho. That’s funny,’ and I said, ‘No, really, I have to make that bus.'”
Eventually he boarded the bus for home, stashing the giant ceremonial checks for his competition wins in an overhead storage bin.
As his career grows, Smith must hope he doesn’t have to take any more overnight commercial bus rides to sing.
But if that’s what he has to do, he probably will.
- Note: Smith is also singing in UK Opera’s annual Grand Night for Singing concert. More on than next week.