Duty of an Artist: Lucas Smith

An Interview with Pianist Lucas Smith

by William Smythe
all photos courtesy Lucas Smith

Garbed like a king, but with the grace of a queen, Lucas Smith steps up to the Steinway. He nods to the conductor after adjusting his seat, and the orchestra starts swinging, flourishing their instruments gracefully. He listens intently, his head in sync. Not a drop of concern crosses his face, except a furrowed brow, as if he is waiting for the right time to arrive. He waits as a man would wait for a train
that he’s taken every day and, by now, has gotten the schedule memorized like the back of his hand. Speaking of hands, Lucas’ fingers delicately play with the air, as if he were the conductor himself, his nails waving the space like a baton.

As the strings settle down, Lucas takes his cue and plays a chord, as if plucking it from a ripe plum tree in an orchard
of sound.

Baby, it’s Beethoven tonight.

Lucas was born in Memphis in 1995. He always had a special interest in the musical arts, playing trombone in his middle school band. However, he grew a fondness for the piano after getting an electric keyboard one year. He played those keys until they broke to pieces or got jammed. Even though he passed up the trombone, Lucas still credits the instrument as a major influence on his classical training later in life.

Lucas didn’t choose music as a career path initially. That wasn’t until halfway through his first year of dental school, where he found himself aimless during the semester. To alleviate his ennui, he began to play his piano as an outlet. As he grew more passionate in his playing, Lucas moved majors and schools, going to the University of Memphis for piano.

To shed light into the darkness of men’s hearts—such is the duty of an artist.

Robert Schumann

Besides the piano, Lucas also has a specialty in playing the harpsichord and has been the resident harpsichordist for the Collegium Musicum at the university. Part of his studies took him on a conservatory trip to Ochsenhausen, Germany in the Bavarian countryside. There, he marveled at the works of Beethoven and Bach while learning lessons from modern-day masters in his craft. He graduated in May of 2023.

During his time at the University, Lucas won the Rudi E Scheidt Soloist prize, where I saw his performance which I illustrated in the opening section. The magic of that night still astounds me, and I’m certain Lucas would agree that that is the beauty of art and music. There is a power that artists like him wield, an ability to conjure emotions out of pure sound.
After our interview, Lucas has plans to practice with a singer and flutist (for two separate events) as well as prepare for his usual Sunday church service at First Presbyterian in Somerville.

So, Lucas, I hate to begin with such a basic question, but I have to know: who are some of your favorite composers?
Oh, that’s a loaded question. I can’t just love one. They all have a special place in my heart. But, if I had to have a top three, I would say: Debussy for sure; Bach of course.

But I have a special fondness for HT Burleigh: an African-American composer who studied with Antonin Dvořák. He was a major figure in the early 1900s. In my opinion, he is vastly underrepresented. He only has one work for piano solo, but Burleigh created a ton of work for singers. One thing that I would say makes him stand out, though, is that he put the spiritual tradition into a Eurocentric style and notation. That is something I really admire and respect about his work.

Oh wow, I had no idea about HT Burleigh. I may need to look more into his life and career. Would you also be interested in composing your own works?
Oh, not right now, as if the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. I have been working on a few things but I wouldn’t say I have anything finished or ready for the public. But, someday, I wouldn’t mind having a composition. Isn’t it any artist’s dream to have something lasting and monumental?

I can stand behind that sentiment for sure. What incited your passion for classical music anyway?

At first, I had a special interest in jazz. But, after seeing how that genre incorporates the basic principles of the classical tradition, I started diving into that genre a lot more. I still dabble in jazz of course, but I definitely got attached to classical after I began studying it. Part of the joy of classical is finding new joys while exploring all these old composers. I have an open heart to what I’m presented with. And these composers provide you with so much material to play with.

They certainly have. Would you be interested in doing non-classical work though?

Lately, even if I get to do things non-classically, I can’t help but zhuzh it up classically. What I mean is that even if I get my hands on contemporary music, like Rihanna or Gaga, I can’t stop myself from finely tuning it to how it might sound in Beethoven’s hands. I would change the harmonics but not the melody. I even make the church music I perform on Sundays sound authentically baroque.

Ah yes. I have a question about your church work. How does it feel being queer-identifying while in the church scene? Do you see any issues between the two?

The way I see it, you’ve got to find the right place. You’ve got to find a group of people who will fight for you and who will also support your artistic endeavor. Even though we live in the South where not everyone has the same ideals, we still at least have the same sense of community. All being said, I have my own reservations about going to a church where I don’t feel welcome. In fact, I’ll even take a lower paycheck to be somewhere where my soul is fed. Because at the end of the day, you need to feel welcome and happy, not rich and miserable.

So, another basic but much-needed question is what do you hope to see in your future?

I still see myself staying in Memphis. But, I’d love to have a much bigger teaching studio. Even though I only have a few students, I want more. I would also absolutely love to collaborate with other composers or musicians and create concerts. It would be great to expose people to music they may have never heard before and that they would be touched by. I’d of course love to see the music department grow at my church.

Finally, and curiously, are there any dirty secrets in the classical world?

No comment. Those, I’m afraid, are staying locked away! Or at least between colleagues (laughs). I gotta maintain some semblance of sanctuary for my fellow miscreants in the arts.

Oh, fine! Be that way. Well, I said I had one final question I’d be remiss not to ask: if you could give advice to anyone interested in pursuing your profession, what would it be?

You should treat everyone with kindness around you because that’s worth more value than mere money. Show up and answer calls. Be fast and diligent or else you will get left behind. Our field is a lifestyle, a dedication; not a frivolous hobby. Also, you should try to maintain a good mental headspace. I do so by opening myself up to new experiences and reminding myself that ‘I’m only human; mistakes happen.’ Try your best not to dwell on past failures because eventually, if you stick to practicing dutifully and keeping yourself open to learning, you will make great successes and strides in this field.

With an au revoir we conclude our interview, even though I believe Lucas still has a few thoughts left up his silken sleeves. Perhaps in a follow-up article, he will reveal more. But, for now, leaving a little mystery for him to divulge at a later date doesn’t hurt.
If you’d like to know more about his upcoming concerts or works, then you can follow him on Instagram (@pianolukey) for more updates. As for lessons, he teaches at the Howard Vance Guitar Academy (information can be found on his Instagram). Call for a personal lesson or to book him privately for your events.