Derrick Smith: Making music and riding high

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Derrick Smith

Music’s the medicine of the mind. — John A. Logan

If John Logan is correct, then call this week’s portrait Dr. Smith. Derrick Smith is a renaissance man — a singer, performer and cyclist, who helps keep the music flowing as the senior director of development at Curtis Institute of Music.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m originally from New York. I was born in Queens, and then we moved around quite a bit throughout my childhood. So I lived in Queens and then the Bronx, and then in middle school, we moved to Maplewood, which is a suburb in New Jersey. I went to public school for middle school and then went to a private all-boys high school for high school. 

What did the folks do?

A combination of things, so my father did business operations for Pitney-Bowes management services. My stepmother was an educational consultant in our school district. My biological mother passed away when I was young, but she was a conductor for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). She actually drove the A Train. 

Wow! From the Duke Ellington song “Take the A Train”?

Yes! The one and the same. 

My grandmother was a conductor too, but of music, though she probably conducted that song since she worked with a lot of the greats from Harlem. That must have been cool to have a conductor mom. 

Yeah, it was. Sometimes when I’d be on my way home from school, I’d catch the train my mom driving, and that was pretty special. I love New York City trains to this day because of that. 

What’s a trait that you think you got from your parents?

I think I got my positive disposition from my parents and also my willingness and ability to work hard. I’ve always been able to focus on the task at hand, even with things swirling and spiraling around me. They taught me that people depend on you, so you have to make sure to get things done. I’ve always felt that that resilience and focus and dedication to my job — whatever the job was — is something they instilled in me. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I actually wanted to be a physician. 

Really? 

That or a pop star! And I’m neither a physician nor a pop star, though I still sing, and I did all of my pre-med work. I just didn’t take it to the next level and go to med school. 

Oh, I could never. I see a paper cut, and I’m like, blah!

[Laughing] See, I’m OK with blood and gore, it just wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted for myself. As I grew up and progressed and went to college, I still wanted to find a way to help people, but I realized that I could do it in other ways, and I’d be happier.

You casually mention college, but I looked at your LinkedIn and saw Dartmouth and Harvard listed. Not too shabby, mister! 

[Laughing] And I went to the University of Salamanca in Spain! I did a semester there that was great. 

What was one of the high points of your Spain adventures?

Oof, maybe we should keep those off the record! Let’s talk about the culture shock of a city boy going to school in New Hampshire! 

Dartmouth?

Yes, it was a very rural environment, and I absolutely fell in love with it. There was always something new for me to discover. The thrill of being outside in the winter and seeing your breath frozen in the air and your scarf actually freeze to your face was wild. I’d never been in a climate like that before, ever. I actually got frostbite my freshman year. 

Yikes! Where?

I was walking from a parking lot to my dormitory carrying a box, and I wasn’t wearing gloves.

Wow, do you still have all your digits?

Yes, technically what I had what was called “frostnip.” I did some damage to the nerves in the tips of my fingers, but I didn’t lose any fingers, thank God. 

That would have put a damper on your nonexistent medical career! You spent time in Europe, do you speak any other languages?

Yes, I speak Spanish. I don’t like the phrase “fluent in” because I consider language to be a living and changing entity, and because I don’t live in Spain, I can’t be fluent with the new nuances. But yes, I can speak it. 

Do you have siblings?

I’m number two of six kids. There are four boys and two girls. We’re a blended family. 

Like the Brady Bunch.

Yes! We’re the Latino and Black Bradys. My older brother and younger sister and I have the same biological mother and father. From my stepmother, I have two stepbrothers, and from my father and stepmother, I have a half-sister, and we had a dog to complete the group. 

What was the family dynamic like?

Truthfully, we were a little crazy. I don’t know how we didn’t end up more bonkers than we are! We were all very strong-willed people living together under one roof. There was a lot of competition between the siblings, [laughing] but I always won! I was “that” child. I was not very close to my father growing up, but now my father is one of my best friends. 

What were some of the extracurricular things you were into in college?

Oh gosh, I sang in an a cappella group called the Dartmouth Aires; I was in a fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon. I was in the pre-med society; I was in a musical theater performance group. I was also in a hip-hop dance group, and I was in a couple of student societies for leadership and volunteer work.

So you kept a little busy when not getting frostbitten. 

Ha! I’m used to an over-programmed life. I’ve always been that way. I like having a really busy schedule. I like having things to look forward to. 

Tell me about your main occupation now.

I’m the senior director of development at the Curtis Institute of Music. I oversee all of the fundraising operations — donations from individuals, corporations, governmental programs, foundations, etc. It’s great. I never thought that fundraising is something I’d do professionally, but it’s the perfect fit for me. I get to participate in events and meet people, do monetary transactions at a high level. I’ve always been a connector, and now I connect donors to philanthropic strategies that make them feel good and help us meet our needs as an organization. Whether it’s to directly fund a production or set up a scholarship or fund health and wellness programs on campus, I help them find what fits with what their interests are best. 

Do you get to see a lot of performances?

Yes, all of our performances are student only, and we have some amazing artists! Sometimes you go to a recital and think, wow, this student has something special — that extra factor that makes them stand out, and you can’t wait to see them soar in the music world. 

And in your spare time?

I sing in the Orpheus Club, which is an all-men’s choir, the longest-running all-men’s master choral group in the country. It’s almost 150 years old. We have a mid-winter concert coming up in March and a spring concert at the Kimmel Center in May. I also perform in a few a cappella groups within the choir. I’m also a big cyclist. You can usually find me riding my bike on weekends, weather permitting. I do the New York City Five Boro Bike Tour with my dad each year. It’s a 40-mile ride through all five of New York’s boroughs and across five major bridges and draws over 30,000 riders. We’re doing it again this year, and I’m bringing some friends from Philadelphia. And I’m training for the AIDS/Life Cycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I did it last year for the first time, and I loved it so much I’m doing it again, and I’m putting together a Philadelphia-based team to go. It’s a 545-mile ride to raise money for two AIDS/HIV organizations. It’s pretty cool. My picture is on the cover of their Facebook page ad! Oh, and when I’m not on the bike trying to dodge cars, I’m out trying to dodge hits on an LGBT dodgeball team. My still over-programmed life! 

When did you have time to come out?

[Laughing] I’ve always known I liked men, and I’ve always operated with the understanding that gay was a thing, and that is what I was. I didn’t talk to my family at first, because they were very religious. I knew that other people thought it was a bad thing, but I never felt that way. I officially came out to my family after Dartmouth. My stepmother asked me about my sexuality in front of my father, and I, being bold and brave, said, “Actually, I’m not questioning my sexuality at all. I know exactly who and what I am.” Surprisingly, the thing they were most upset about was the fact that other people knew before them. 

How did that work in the fraternity?

I grew up with a lot of male presence, between my brothers and my dad and my all-boys high school, so when I went to college, I wanted to join a male-oriented organization. I value the sense of brotherhood that it brings. I didn’t think anything of it, but apparently, I was the first openly gay guy to rush at my fraternity. There were other guys who were gay, but they weren’t out. But after I joined, some began to come out, and down the line, we’ve had some openly gay pledges. Later I went back to Dartmouth and worked as an administrator and was the house advisor for Sigma Phi Epsilon for five years. 

Are you a packrat or purger?

I’d say I’m a hybrid. I like keeping things of sentimental value, but I keep them hidden. My place is kept neat, but there are drawers and closets filled with memorabilia. 

Do you collect anything in particular?

As a kid, I collected coins and rocks, but nothing as an adult, unless 2-3 bikes are a collection.

Your go-to karaoke song?

It depends on if I’m happy or sad! “She used to be Mine” from the musical, “The Waitress” by Sara Bareilles. I also like to sing, “All of Me” by John Legend and, on occasion, some good old Celine Dion. 

What range do you sing?

I’m a high tenor.

Ever have any paranormal experiences?

Like ghosts? No, but I’ve had times when I’ve dreamt things that have come true. It’s happened a few times. 

The last good letter you received?

A friend recently passed away, and I took some time off from the choir as a result. A bunch of the men got together and sent me a card that had the choir’s crest hand-drawn on the cover with everyone’s signature inside. It was nice to know that even though I stepped away for a minute, there were people who cared for me and loved me and wanted to express it. It got me to tear up for a minute when I received the card. 

Who would you want to be stuck on a deserted island with?

Oh! My immediate thought was Beyoncé because I want to meet her, but maybe I should pick someone with building or trade skills to help me survive! Wait, are there resources there? Is it a social situation or a survival thing? OK, for pleasure, in reality, I’d pick my dad. If it was for survival, maybe one of those home-improvement people or good-at-architecture types who could make plans to build a boat. 

What was your craziest cycling moment?

I was in a ride, and all along the route, people are lined up, holding signs, cheering you on and handing out water and snacks. I was coming down a hill, and there was a stoplight at the bottom. A kid was standing in the intersection giving out Twizzlers, and I remember thinking, “Aww, that’s so cute!” So I rode in to get a Twizzler from him, but as I grabbed the candy, the way I was riding in I couldn’t stop, and my feet were clipped into the pedals, so I ended up sideways on the ground in the middle of traffic with hundreds of people asking if I was OK. All I could do was laugh and say yeah. I thought it was hysterical and fortunately, I really was OK. But I learned my lesson! 

Which was …

Don’t take candy from children on the side of the road!