SOMEONE WHO MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Duane Smith
Midori and Duane: Old Pals
Duane: Always There
Touring may sound glamorous and filled with adventures but as a way of life it can make us feel rather vulnerable and rootless. It is crucial that performers have the skills to manage the essentials of moving from one place to the next while keeping it all ‘together,’ as well as an ability to stay true to themselves in all situations.
Traveling on a nearly weekly basis as I do, I occasionally meet individuals who “make a difference,” who make me feel more at ease in a foreign environment, taking care of the needs of performing visitors like me without becoming obtrusive. The warmth of human touch cannot be quantified, yet its power is crucial in making visitors feel cared for, and ‘at home.’
Every time I perform with the San Francisco Symphony, I look forward to seeing Duane Smith at the airport after a flight. For the past seven years, Duane, who holds the title of Artist Liaison, has met almost every visiting artist at the airport, fulfilling a critical position vis-a-vis the interface between guest artists and the orchestra’s administration.
Duane radiates an immediate sense of caring and calm. During my stays in San Francisco I spend the majority of my time in the dressing room but I always seek Duane’s advice and help in recommending restaurants or finding my way around when I do go out. Basically, he keeps me in line and organized, as I am sure he does for other artists. For example, one of my trips coincided with a new program I was preparing that would follow my week with the Symphony. Since I was pretty much locked in my dressing room practicing from early morning until late at night, Duane moved in a refrigerator for me – fully stocked, of course. And to this day he has saved on his computer one of my last assignments for my NYU undergraduate degree, an essay which I had typed there and emailed to my professor. Every time I am there, I look at my old, naive essay and think fondly back to the times when I did my schoolwork at Duane’s desk.
I asked my friend, the pianist Jonathan Biss for comments about his experiences with Duane. This is what he had to say:
“The first time I played with the San Francisco Symphony, I arrived in town with a bad cold that quickly got worse. By the time the dress rehearsal came around, my head was throbbing, I was so congested it was difficult to breathe, and worst of all, I could hardly hear out of my left ear. As I walked off stage, feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, I saw Duane, who simply announced, “I’m taking you to the doctor.” He then called the symphony physician, who referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor, drove me to the office, waited with me for over an hour until the doctor could squeeze me in, took me to the pharmacy to get my prescription, and deposited me at my hotel, offering his services should I need anything else. Not many people would have done as much, and very few would have volunteered to do it. On my subsequent visits, nothing so dramatic has happened, but Duane has always bent over backwards to make me feel welcome. His presence, as much as anything else, makes playing with the S. F. Symphony a joy.”
When I was last in San Francisco, in October 2006, I interviewed Duane for this website:
1. Please tell me about your background.
I was born, raised and educated in Arizona, graduating from Arizona State University with a Masters Degree in Education. After 33 years of high school teaching, coaching and counseling, I explored careers in real estate and as a business owner in the ground transportation field. A part time ground transportation contract with the San Francisco Symphony led to the position of Artist Liaison when my predecessor was promoted within the organization.
2. Where do you live?
I live in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. While serving a 2 week summer stint with the Army at the Presidio SF, I decided the Bay Area was where I wanted to live. Thus here I am.
3. Do you have a musical background?
I’ve been involved in vocal music off and on since high school as a bass/ baritone, singing in quartets and choirs – with an occasional solo.
4. What are your hobbies?
Classical Music! Musical Theatre, and spending time with my 3 four and five-year-old grandsons (twins + 1) at the playground. When there is time, I play golf and travel, usually combining the two.
5. How would you describe your job?
I am the friendly face at the airport, welcoming our guests to the San Francisco Symphony. It is my job to ensure the well-being of visiting artists, from the time of their arrival to the time of departure, including transportation to and from airport, hotels, rehearsals, performances, visits to the doctor’s office, restaurants, etc. Guest artists range from conductor to soloist, sometimes their family members and pets, and on occasion an entire visiting orchestra.
6. What is your work schedule like?
Oh, it can be crazy with long hours! I often work 14-hour days and, during festival or Holiday season, I may not be able to take a day off in as many as four to five weeks.
7. What is the highlight of your job?
Meeting – and many times becoming friends with – the best in the classical music field. Dealing with the various personalities keeps me on my toes and makes every week different and interesting.
8. What do you do to prepare yourself before meeting a guest artist?
I prepare by reading the bios and program notes ahead of time in order to get somewhat familiar with the visiting artist.
9. What surprises you about your work?
I was surprised initially at the intensity and the many unexpected aspects of the job, for much of which I had little training.
10. What skills help you do your job on a daily basis?
Active listening skills, which were important in counseling high school students and serve me well in my current position. I am well organized and tend to think outside the box.
11. What are the good and bad things about your job?
Besides what I mentioned earlier, it keeps me young and energized and enables me to be around upbeat creative people. The bad side is the sometimes long hours and irregular eating schedule.
12. Have you seen any temper tantrums from artists?
I have seen sopranos cry, tenors with bad reviews thumb their noses at the critics, vowing never to return to San Francisco, and certain artists taking on an undeserved diva attitude. As a whole, most artists are very humble and of course, violinists are the most even-tempered!
13. What errands are you most frequently asked to do?
Such things as finding and providing black socks, studs for shirts, safety pins for stubborn zippers and broken suspenders, plus emergency trips to the bow repair shop, grocery store, pharmacy and trips back to the hotel to retrieve music scores, trousers, shoes, etc.
14. What are the differences in handling a classical artist backstage compared to performers of other genres?
Demands of classical performers are much more “toned down” than those of pop stars. Pop stars sometimes require pages and pages of items to be placed in their dressing rooms, some of which may not be available or at best, extremely hard to find. After hours of searching, they might then decide to change their minds and alter their requests!
15. Any other observations from backstage that you’d like to share?
It is great and rewarding to see a young and sometimes intimidated artist make it and become successful. Performing on a grand scale is very challenging and I salute the artist who lives up to his or her own standards and does not get wrapped up in the politics!
Behind the scenes, Duane is the person in charge, and his responsibilities are crucial to the smooth success of a live performance. He is everywhere that the artist needs him, somehow anticipating the next step on the agenda instinctively. One does not want to imagine the San Francisco Symphony without Duane.