Ellen Dinwiddie Smith Q&A

January 19, 2021
Ellen Dinwiddie Smith makes exquisite music with the Minnesota Orchestra.

“I believe the skills and dedication it takes to play an instrument are important and can transfer to many areas in life. I think it is true that you favor different instruments much as you might favor skating over skiing — you might like them both but excel at one over the other. I suppose if you are like me, tennis might be beyond your abilities.”

You have been with the Minnesota Orchestra since 1993 and have traveled the world with it. How do foreign audiences respond to the performances? 

I am fortunate to be surrounded by amazingly talented colleagues and I’m thankful that our reputation makes it possible for us to attract the best young musicians from around the world. I am also grateful that our recent recordings — Mahler, Beethoven and Sibelius Symphonies — as well as tours — Asia, Europe and South Africa — have helped us garner a reputation as a leader in the field. The most important thing for me is bringing relevant, great music to our community. Our staff and crew are fantastic — I would like to give them kudos here for all the hard work they do making it happen. The vision of our board enables it all to come together — they deserve a standing ovation, too.

Were you drawn to the horn at an early age? 

I started the horn in elementary school; my band director in Texas chose it for me because he thought I had a good ear, and I’m left-handed. From the first day I bought it home, I just wanted to play. The first year I had to practice in the garage, but by the next year I improved enough that I was allowed back in the house. I did play the trumpet a little as well as the piano, but when I went to college there were only enough hours in the day for the horn.

At Juilliard were you asked to broaden your palette or did you live and breathe horn music 24/7. 

I most definitely lived and breathed horn 24/7. I was often the first one in the practice room and the last to go home because brass players need to space out their practice sessions. Juilliard is a fine school but as I tell my students, it isn’t where you go, it is the work you do that counts. The advantage of living in New York was that I was able to go to concerts and hear orchestras from around the U.S. and the world. It was really educational. However, I really found my voice at the Curtis Institute of Music. Curtis is smaller and very selective — everyone there is on full scholarship. It takes time to develop into a musician and I was fortunate to have many fantastic experiences at Curtis, with amazing student colleagues, faculty and conductors.

MinnPost wrote about the orchestra’s 2018 trip to South Africa. You were quoted saying the you were to there to learn from local musicians as much as play for them. What did you learn?

This incredible trip reinforced to me how powerful music can be in connecting people. South Africans are so open and so expressive — the choirs that joined us brought energy to our performances that was infectious. I hope to continue to spend the kind of powerful positive energy that they brought to each moment. 

You also teach at the University of Minnesota. Do you feel most students can learn to play at a reasonably high level? Or does there have to be a substantial component of born ability? 

Students can learn to play at a high level with hard work, but I do not discount natural ability. I’ve noticed that often these two go hand in hand, as many of the students I teach at the university are fine players when they start their freshmen year. I believe the skills and dedication it takes to play an instrument are important and can transfer to many different areas in life. I think it is true that you might favor different instruments much as you might favor skating over skiing — you might like them both but excel at one over the other. I suppose if you are like me, tennis might be beyond your abilities.

You also love scuba diving. What do you love about it? Where do you go to do it?

I grew up in a military family and when I was young we lived in both Florida and Hawaii, which is why I think I took to diving the first time I tried it. I am passionate about the ocean and scuba diving. I love the quiet and the intense feeling that time slows down. One must stay calm and focused and stay in the moment. The ability to control one’s breathing is important in both brass playing and diving. I’ve met so many amazing people on my dive trips from all walks of life and have made lifelong friends. A few years before our South African tour, I met a couple from Cape Town. They hosted my husband and me after the tour. We had a fabulous week exploring. After my husband left to return home, this couple and I went to Tofo, Mozambique to dive. This is a trip I never would have done had it not been for the tour. The neat thing about diving at that time of year in Tofo is that the humpback whales migrate close to shore. We saw them breaching everywhere as we went out each day. The highlight was when a pod of humpbacks visited us while we were scuba diving, which is a rare occurrence and one I will never forget.

How have you been staying musically busy during the pandemic? Are you dying to get back to performing?

I’ve kept up a schedule of several hours of practicing a day. I have done several recording projects; I’ve participated in many online masterclasses and was the one of the featured artists for a three-week horn camp this past June. I’ve been teaching via Zoom and hold student masterclasses each week. I volunteer with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies horn section. The Minnesota Orchestra has done several live performances that have been, and continue to be, broadcast on TPT and on Minnesota Public Radio. You can check out many performances that are still available to see and hear on the Minnesota Orchestra website. And here’s a link to some scuba-diving footage with music I recorded.