Though he’s now a professional musician and award-winning middle school band teacher, Mickey Smith, Jr. played so poorly as a child his mother asked him to practice outside.
His grandmother bought him his first sax, though no one in his family played music. Smith honed his skills in the woods around his southwest Louisiana home, gradually going from ear splitting to melodic. His high school band director encouraged his talent.
Smith grew up in Mossville, an unincorporated settlement in Calcasieu Parish founded by freed slaves in 1790. The community is mostly gone. Residents were either pushed out by pollution from a nearby chemical plant, or bought out by expanding petrochemical company Sasol. It’s a history Smith carries with him.
“It’s important that my music and my message help keep that community alive,” he says.
Smith was the first person in his family to graduate college, and that formative band teacher — among others — inspired a music education master’s degree and Smith’s current career as head band director at Maplewood Middle School in Sulphur. He also plays in a band called Sax in the City and runs a professional development program for music educators called Sound 180.
“I want folks to recognize that education is the profession that creates all professions,” he says. “We should be uplifting our educators.”
It’s a career at which he excels. Smith was named a national finalist for a GRAMMY Music Educator Award, and today he travels the country as a motivational speaker, using music as a way to connect with his audiences. Since starting at Maplewood in 2009, he’s expanded the music program from 30 students to 160 — about a third of the school.
“When you have that many kids in a program, and you develop a culture of learning, and a culture of community,” Smith says, “And that permeates throughout the rest of the school.”