Christmas shoppers hurrying through busy shopping centers are often arrested by the sounds of music—live music—proclaiming on brass instruments the joyous news of Christ’s birth. As familiar as Salvation Army kettles are the Salvation Army musicians, whose presence and music at this holiday season remind all who hear of the real meaning of Christmas.

Shoppers in Willowbrook Mall near Montclair, New Jersey, are often attracted to the music that is expertly and sensitively played by one particular quartet of Army musicians. And if they pause long enough to listen and watch the musicians, they may recognize one of the players. The blond cornetist in uniform is Philip Smith, co-principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic. In that capacity he shares first-chair responsibilities, which include playing frequent solo passages as well as solo performances with that notable symphony orchestra.

But above all, Philip Smith is a Christian, and he is one professional musician who is unhappy with the idea that he somehow “balances” his Christianity with his role in one of the nation’s premier orchestras. “What I do with the New York Phil is my vocation,” he says. “That’s where I go and do my job—the same as anybody else does. The Salvation Army is my church. When I’m not at work. I’m as active as I feel I can be in the church.”

Smith is a fourth-generation Salvationist whose heritage can be traced back to the Army’s founding days. His great-grandmother was converted at one of the earliest Salvation Army open-air meetings in London, even though her husband belonged to what was known as the skeleton army—a local group opposed to the Salvationists preaching on street corners.

When he says he is as active as possible in his church, he means it. As a member of his local corps band, Smith is involved in concerts, trips, and the busy Christmas schedule—except when there is a conflict with his Philharmonic duties. He also teaches Sunday school, and with his wife, Sheila, participates in a biweekly Bible study held in their home. Sheila, incidentally, is also a member of that shopping mall quartet, playing alto horn. The couple has two young children, Bryan and Erika.

Music, of course, is an important part of the Salvation Army. “When you’re five or six years old,” says Smith, “you get invited to come to singing company. When you get your teeth, about age seven, someone says, ‘Why don’t you come and play in the band?’ It’s almost impossible to have been in the Army and not be a musician of some sort.”

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Brass bands play a major role in the Salvation Army because they supply most of the instrumental music for Army services. An organ is rarely found. Pianists and organists complement the band in accompanying the congregational hymn singing. There is also a songster brigade—a choir—that participates with the band in worship services and in music festivals.

Quite naturally, the Army has spawned many fine professional musicians. Especially in England, many Salvationists play professionally in orchestras and bands. Smith can name several such present or former Salvationists he knows personally: Dudley Bright in the London (England) Symphony; Charles Baker in the New Jersey Symphony; William Scarlett in the Chicago Symphony; and his own brother-in-law, James Scott, in the Calgary Symphony in Canada. (See also “The Salvation Army: Still Marching to God’s Beat,” p. 18).

Phil Smith’s father taught him to play the cornet. Derek Smith also directed the corps band in which his son played as a youngster, and he was bandmaster of the divisional youth band in which Philip participated. Derek Smith is currently bandmaster of the first-class New York Staff Band. (A staff band is comprised of many of the finest Salvation Army musicians from all the Army bands in an area and plays for radio and television in addition to touring on weekends.) Phil has also played with that organization, and, in fact, is featured virtuoso trumpet soloist on a recording by the New York Staff Band entitled Bravo!, conducted by Derek Smith.

Phil did not study music professionally until he went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York following high school. There he studied trumpet under Edward Treutel and William Vacchiano and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He spent three-and-a-half years playing trumpet in the widely acclaimed brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before winning the coprincipal chair with the New York Philharmonic in 1978. He acknowledges the influence the CSO’s principal trumpet, Adolph Herseth, added to his training, and Herseth supported much of Phil’s father’s earlier teaching: both believe it is necessary for a musician to get beyond the music in order to be expressive in what he or she plays.

During three summers Phil also played in a Salvation Army group called “Redemption”—a rock band whose sound was not unlike that of the secular “Blood, Sweat and Tears.” The group would go to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and play three sets every night on the boardwalk, interspersing their music with witnessing and counseling. “We wanted to do this more than just in summer,” he says, “and we had hoped at one time that it would go full-time. But you need financial backing for something like that and, unfortunately, we weren’t able to make that happen. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I enjoyed it; but maybe it was the Lord’s will that it not happen. We’re all involved in something else at this point.”

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For Philip Smith, of course, the “something else” is the New York Philharmonic. This past fall he and three of his colleagues in the orchestra began a Christian fellowship group in the Philharmonic. Says Smith, “There’s a tremendous ministry to be done in a place like that where you’re dealing with 100 musicians. To be a musician, your ego has to be strong—you have to believe in yourself in order to achieve. As a Christian, I definitely feel the Lord can help a person keep that ego in proper perspective. I see that it is very easy for musicians to say, ‘What I have achieved, I have achieved’—without any assistance from the Lord. What a tremendous opportunity there is to witness to people about the power of the Lord when all they’re thinking of is their own glory.”

A year ago, New York Times writer Mike Norman heard Phil playing with that Salvation Army quartet in Willow-brook Mall—it is a common practice at Christmastime for the local Army band to break up into quartets and play all day Saturday at shopping malls. Norman saw a potential story and set out to do a newspaper piece about the Army at Christmastime. It turned out to be a story about Philip Smith. “He did a tremendous article,” Phil says. “I’ve had other articles that played on my Army involvement too much and made a big circus out of it. But this article was really strong, and he allowed me to witness in it. Of course, when the article appeared, the TV stations picked up on it, and two [local] stations came out and did taping. One came to the hall [Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the Philharmonic’s home], and I said pretty much what I wanted to—witnessed like I wanted to. The other TV station came to the house, but when I tried to do the same thing, the interviewer was not especially interested in having the conversation go in that direction.

“I remember having said something about trying to get across the real meaning of Christmas in playing things like ‘Silent Night’ or ‘Away in a Manger.’ But unfortunately, when he edited the tape he spliced in the music for ‘Have Yourself a Merry Christmas’ instead.”

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The New York Times piece and subsequent television interviews are not the first time Phil Smith has had the media spotlight turned on him. There was a People magazine article several years ago that suggested he was “a Salvationist who stands on the street corner and plays for God, and sits in the concert hall and plays for Solti [conductor of the Chicago Symphony].”

“That attracts attention,” he says, “and if it’s left there, it’s enough for a story. But it doesn’t say anything about the motivation for what you are doing. In fact, the picture they had [in People] was of me in uniform, sitting in a box in Orchestra Hall [in Chicago], looking at the stage. That probably wasn’t the best picture they could have taken, because it goes back to that question of ‘balance.’ They were trying to balance both sides—divide the two—and there is no division. It is one life.

“I want people to know that I feel my talent is from the Lord. I want them to know how much he means to me. Whenever I do a recital, or the two times I’ve played at the International Trumpet Symposium, I always finish with a witness. If they’ve asked me to give a recital, they’re going to know what makes me tick.

“That’s the way it is. That’s who I am.”

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