Story last updated at 4:43 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

Musician finds her own beat
by Hal Spence
Morris News Service-Alaska

photo: entertainment

  Photo by Hal Spence
Smith takes her dogs Sadie and Misty with her whenever she can.  
Piano wasn't her first choice. At 7 years old, it was JulieAnn Smith's only choice.

"I wanted to be a dancer," the 48-year-old Anchor Point mother of two explained over coffee, reflecting on how she came to this relatively comfortable place in her life over such a rough and winding road.

Well-known today in music circles on the Kenai Peninsula, the pianist, harpist and music teacher is at home in the Alaska experience. She is as likely to be found casting a line into the Anchor River as casting her eyes across a piano concerto.

Over the summer, she was the musical director for Pier One Theatre's production of "Nunsense." She also performed in the show as Sister Mary Harpo, sitting behind a harp dressed in a habit, doing a remarkably funny reprise of a Harpo Marx routine.

She has played with the likes of Yehudi Menhuin, the world famous violinist, and the DeVere Quartet. She's lent her talents often to the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra and jammed with local rock and roll bands.

She also has piano and harp students.

But she is living a life far removed from that of her youth, and yet, one intimately connected to it by the thread of her musical gift.

Smith was born in Arizona in 1953, and like most children, followed paths determined by others.

"My grandmother had a piano, and between her and my parents, they decided I should be a piano player and do the 'Miss America' thing and all that kind of stuff. They took me out of dance when I was 7 -- I'd been in dance for a year -- and put me in piano lessons."

She was surrounded by music.

"My dad and both my grandmothers were exceedingly musical. My dad could pick up any instrument and instantly play it," Smith said.

By the fourth grade, she was performing and playing for choirs. The ability to read musical scores -- even complex ones -- came easily.

"Apparently, I was a natural, because I could instantly read music," she said. "It was never a chore."

Smith was still quite young when she began arranging a musical career on her own terms, stepping outside the confines of her strict classical music education into the world of pop and musical comedy.

Her instructors made attempts to squelch those tendencies toward improvisation and musical experimentation, but over time, she grew ever more musically rebellious.

"I woke up in high school," she said with a wink. "I started branching out, and that's when I started getting into real trouble with my piano teacher."

Her instructor was head of the music department at Arizona State University, a man of impeccable credentials utterly devoted to classical music with little tolerance for undisciplined players, especially those without the proper respect for the sacred scores penned by the masters, Smith said.

For her teacher, going beyond the written pages of the classical masters showed a lack of discipline, especially for the future soloist he saw in her.

"Their mind-set is totally into respecting that printed page, because Mozart, for instance, was such a genius and such a master that, well, how could I improve on what he did?" Smith asked.

"What they don't realize is that Mozart sat around from the time he was 3 years old and improvised for hours. He just happened to write down one of the improvisations. But they don't look at it like that at all. And to be a crossover musician, they look at you and say, 'You're so weird.'"

photo: entertainment

  Photo by Hal Spence
JulieAnn Smith of Anchor Point rehearses for her role in "Nunsense" at the Pier One Theatre in July. Smith is an accomplished musician who teaches harp and piano classes.  
Enrolled at ASU at Tempe, Smith got an opportunity to learn to play the harp. It was something she'd dreamed about since being old enough to watch Marx Brothers' movies with her father, who was crazy for the comedic team. Today, she has all the Marx Brothers movies on videotape, conveniently queued up at the Harpo parts, she said.

"You would think that it would have been Chico Marx that would have been the one to turn me on, because he does all his funny little antics on the piano. But it was Harpo. I just adored him and his harp playing. I fell in love with it. Harpo Marx, to me, was the ultimate musician. He didn't read music and never had a lesson in his life."

Harps, however, were ridiculously expensive. She could never own one.

"They can cost up to $50,000 -- the gilded ones," she said.

But the school had two, plus a professor who could teach the instrument, she said.

"So I put two and two together. For $40 a semester -- way back there in the Dark Ages -- I got a whole year of harp lessons."

It was six months before she knew enough to actually play.

"It was pretty torturous, not only developing the calluses, but the muscles, everything," she said. "But I never felt like quitting. It was such a dream."

After earning her bachelor's degree in music, Smith began teaching students and performing, including doing a nightly musical comedy routine at a famous nightclub called the French Quarter in Scottsdale. Along with that night life came a risky lifestyle, she said.

"I was the total musician," she said. "You can draw your own conclusions."

Though her path had its trip roots, she makes no excuses for the headlongs she took. The hazards she faced "in the business" in the 1970s were hazards of her own making. By her late 20s she was working, married with a toddler son, Sean, and playing at life way too hard. She felt out of control, too easily influenced by others.

"Even though I was still playing music, I wasn't making the decisions," she said. "Or, I guess I was, but I didn't feel like I owned it. Everybody else owned me."

About the time Sean came along, she knew she wanted out. Finally, in the fall of 1981, she, her husband and Sean left the arid southwest and headed to Anchorage.

"I got so burned out that I came to Alaska in total rebellion," she said. "I was not going to play music."

She wouldn't play seriously again for nearly 10 years.

Within a year, she was divorced and a single mother. A few years later, she had her daughter Jamie -- 3 1/2 months premature and weighing barely a pound and a half.

"So I was 24-hours-a-day taking care of her," Smith said.

She found herself on welfare doing day-care work to make ends meet. It was a grind, she said. Looking back, she said she wasted a decade in Anchorage.

When Jamie was 5, she packed up her two children and moved to a house surrounded by woods on North Fork Road outside Anchor Point. She was determined to make changes and clean up her lifestyle.

"It was like hiding. The kids loved it," she said.

She was still collecting welfare, but she wanted off, desperately.

"I found a little Podunk place next to the Bayside Lounge in Homer -- a hole in the wall -- and started teaching," she said.

She met Mark Robinson, the music teacher at Homer High School, and soon was playing piano for the choir and gaining local notoriety, which led to opportunities to display the true breadth of her talents.

Things were going well, but practically on the eve of her first performance with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, a horse-riding accident broke her pelvis. Surgery pinned her together, but it would be seven years, she said, before she would walk without pain or a noticeable limp. Still, she kept playing.

About five years ago, she acquired her harp -- a $10,000 investment -- thanks to an Italian company called Salvi, which manufactures an affordable-sized instrument, one she is able to wrestle into her car and transport easily to gigs, such as the production of "Nunsense."

Playing the harp is harder than playing the piano, she said. You have to have all your hands and feet going at once. Nevertheless, she said she finds it easier to improvise on the upright strings than on her keyboard, perhaps because of the way she learned the piano.

"To me, the piano is not intuitive. The harp is. I think it's because the piano is white, black, white, black, white, white, black, and so on. I'm getting better because, you know, you can slide off that black note onto the next. But (growing up) I was never allowed to do that."

Except to the degree that all stringed instruments are related, harp technology is ancient compared to that of the piano. By the harp's standard, piano technology may as well have been created yesterday.

While the piano came easily, Smith must devote hours to the harp. It's the only way to make playing automatic.

"I have to practice the harp all the time," she said.

She has begun teaching the instrument and has six harp students from Soldotna to Homer. She also continues teaching piano students. In doing that, she adheres to her own philosophy regarding instruction, refusing to impose on her own students the strictures under which she was compelled to learn as a youngster. She encourages improvisation at least as much as she requires practice and devotion to the printed page.

"It's great to be a good reader, and it's great to be a good improviser, but they're both part of it," she said. "These teachers, all over the place, who have no room for improvisation at all -- if they'd only just look at Mozart. Oh God, what I would have given to be alive when he was around, been a friend or something growing up with him."

Smith said she believes a firm foundation in music theory is invaluable, though she admits it was practically force fed to her.

"It really was the best thing ever," she said. "I know my way inside and out of every chord and key and every scale."

Smith said Alaska has given her opportunities she might never have had Outside. In many ways, she's living the Alaska experience -- in charge of her own life, making her own decisions, taking each day as it comes and enjoying it.

"That's one reason I like being a musician. I can make my own schedule. I love that," she said.

Take fishing, for instance. She finds peace and quiet along the shores of the Anchor River on 7 acres she is in the process of buying. In the summer, the underbrush grows so thick you can't see. She carries a loaded .44 magnum.

"I could annoy a bear -- if I could pull the trigger," she said. "I'm not a hunter."

Her coffee table is covered with assorted colorful fishing flies. She smokes her own fish.

"I'm fanatical," she admits, picking up an elastic wrist support and pulling it on.

"You'll see these all around my house during fishing season because I trash my wrists," she said. "It gets so bad I can't even play piano -- from casting."

In the back yard is a fenced area holding a flock of chickens. Actually, there are several varieties. She doesn't raise them for meat, just the eggs. She's also rearing a pig at another location. A wolf half-breed named Sadie and a black Labrador retriever named Misty are constant companions.

In the winter, you'll find her on the cross-country ski trails, trying to avoid moose.

"I've almost been trampled by moose twice."

Hers is a remarkably healthy way of life compared to that of her youth, she said.

"I need fresh air, and I need to feel healthy and feel good every day," she said. "That's my high these days."

Her life is more in order and she's in control, she said.

"It's great. I don't feel middle-aged. Fortunately, now, when I go in for my health exams, I'm not in the risk categories anymore."

Now that Jamie is only a year from graduating from high school, Smith admits to considering options for her own future. But she is a bit torn. Part of her would like to pursue a master's degree in music, but she'd have to leave Alaska to do it.

"There is a corner of my mind that is starting to not like the winters," she said. "But I can't imagine leaving. I'm too free-spirited. I really like living here."

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.