Musical sergeant serves as Air Force arranger

By Jaime Ingle

MASCOUTAH, Ill. – Being an arranger for the U.S. Air Force Mid-America Band has its perks.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Dean Smith has played for every living president since Ronald Reagan and has played for President Reagan and Ford’s funerals.

He has traveled around the world to entertain soldiers, including his son, David, stationed in Iraq.

But one of the best parts of the job? He’s stationed at Scott Air Force Base and gets to live in Mascoutah, the town where he grew up, less than a mile from his parents, James and Josephine.

Dean, his wife, Dot, and daughter Dana, 14, live in a stately yellow, two-story house with red, white and blue bunting draped along the railing.

His home away from home is the air base office where he composes and arranges music on a computer that has two keyboards, one for typing and the other with black and white keys like a piano.

He’ll take a tune and write parts that suit the band’s instruments. For “Sweet Home Alabama,” he adapted the music written for two guitars and a piano to work with only one guitar.

He demonstrated how he can listen to just one instrument at a time.

“I can isolate just the brass,” said Dean, 43, clicking a button to make the computer play just the brass section’s notes. His eyes get wide as he talks about music.

The notes to “Rocky Top Tennessee” appeared on a large page of sheet music on his computer screen. It’s a song they’ll take on the road five to six times a year.

As first sergeant of the band, Dean makes sure his musicians know their music and helps them with personal issues. Sometimes it’s getting them home for a family emergency. Other times it’s being available when a musician needs to talk. There’s no time for grudges between band members.

“When you’re playing music you have to learn to work it out for the betterment of the music and the band,” said Dean.

He’s the man behind the music.

“It’s not about me, it’s the band,” Dean humbly notes.

Clad in his camouflage uniform, he took a break from arranging to listen to the band rehearse in an adjoining building. Dean quietly slipped in the back near the large drums as band director U.S. Air Force Maj. Daniel Price led the band.

Music has been a major part of Dean’s life since fourth grade when he started playing drums.

“I was bored with drums, and when I started trombone (in fifth grade) I didn’t take it seriously.”

He protested to his mom, a music teacher, but practiced – grudgingly.

In high school, Dean got serious about his music. He enjoyed practicing and studied to be a music teacher at Murray State University in Kentucky.

He tried teaching, but it wasn’t for him. Dean joined the Air Force in 1989 and auditioned to become a trombonist for the band. First, he was sent to the East Coast, then traveled to Europe.

His arranging career started in 1995 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He wasn’t satisfied with the arrangement he had been given for music from “Cats.”

“I said, ‘That’s terrible. I could do better.'”

His commanding officer heard him and encouraged him to write his own arrangement. Dean did and wowed him.

But his 45 musicians have their opinions, too.

“It’s trial by fire. The military is brutally honest. Sometimes they tell you, ‘Hey, man, that was really bad.'”