Sandra Smith at Presbyterian Church of Floyd. Photo by John Hopkins

A soft-spoken woman with a shy smile has been helping Floyd County girls and boys find their voices, literally, for half a century. In a community best known for old-time music of the mountains, Sandra Rector Smith teaches respect for all music – from folk ditties to the complex scores of the Baroque masters.  

That she has taught so long in one place should be encouraging at a time when Virginia educators worry about a thousand or more teacher vacancies and a turnover rate of 10%. Her career might suggest that being in the right place, the right job, is the secret to a stable career.  Sandra Smith, you could say, was born for music.  

“I was told that the day I was born my father told my mother he was getting a piano,” she said.  “My mother was extremely musically inclined. She could hear a tune and go to the pump organ and play it. I think her mother was the same way.”

In Independence, her little hometown in Grayson County, the tiny Sandra Rector started piano lessons at the age of 5.  By seventh grade she was playing for services at the town’s First Baptist Church. 

“There was a geologist from Texas who would talk to me after church,” she recalled. “He had books and records up to the ceiling in his house.” His name was Roderick Stamey.

“One day he lent me some records and said I should see what I thought of them.  Well, they were wonderful.” They included “Hungarian Dances,” piano pieces by Brahms.  “I hadn’t heard anything like that. I was hooked on music!”

In those years, people tended to assume that women would raise a family, or if not would be teachers. “I played clarinet in the school band, but didn’t enjoy playing outdoors in extreme weather” – like the April hailstorm that blew in over the Apple Blossom Festival parade in Winchester. “It dented the brass instruments. Exciting, but not fun.” The band, she decided, was not her calling. 

One year she attended a program in Preston Auditorium at Radford College (now University). “It was a group of choirs – all part of the college,” she said. “I don’t remember what they sang, but the sight of it was impressive. … They were all dressed up in kilts and evening gowns. I was spellbound. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

And she did do it. She’s teaching in the school she joined right out of Radford, giving music instruction to children of middle-school age and coaching a high school chorus that teens can join as an elective course or an extracurricular activity.    

Two generations of graduates from Floyd County High School recently paid her a remarkable tribute – organizing a scholarship fund in her honor and kicking it off with a festive concert at Salem’s First United Methodist Church.  

They meant to surprise her with it, but an email to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Music Festival, which she chairs, inadvertently tipped her off. That evening she tried to suppress her smile at the news, but couldn’t quite do it.  

So how does a teacher who is hooked on Brahms do her job in a county where it has been said that every family owns a banjo?

Part of the answer is that she teaches a broad range of music. “Most of the time the students grow to love the music,” she said. “Most of them warm to it quickly – or anyway they don’t fuss about it.”

“What I do probably helps with traditional music,” she said, “because it trains the ear.”

For a Floyd youngster wanting to follow old-time music, there are plenty of options. Beyond sitting in on weekends at Floyd Country Store, kids can get weekly instruction in Floyd JAM – Junior Appalachian Musicians – where the emphasis is on playing traditional tunes by ear rather than from printed sheet music. It’s one of dozens of JAM programs in Southwest Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

At the high school, Floyd choral students start off the fall learning Christmas music. It’s not all religious, but it’s singable. They’re preparing for the holiday madrigal dinner, a Floyd tradition for more than 35 years. Every five years, until an interruption during the COVID-19 pandemic, the kids have performed the full Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah,” singing with the Floyd Community Chorus and guest soloists. Each spring, they do a musical – maybe “Oklahoma!” or “HMS Pinafore,” for instance.

A stirring “Hallelujah Chorus” was part of the program on May 7 in Salem, conducted by Vickie Sowers, a Carroll County music teacher who was Smith’s first student accompanist when she started at Floyd in 1971. The 40-some singers were Floyd High graduates, with fellow alum Michael Bower, now music director at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, New York, accompanying on the church’s Schantz pipe organ.

One grad who didn’t get to sing that day was Judy Ann Farmer of Hillsville, who as a child sang to Sandra Rector’s piano and organ music at the Presbyterian Church in Floyd. “In 12th grade,” she wrote on Facebook this spring, “I almost quit school but Mrs. Smith along with a couple of other teachers convinced me to stay. Several years later, I found my voice, the voice Sandra Smith assured me was there. The voice she had for many years coached and trained sang out.

“I thank God for teachers like Sandra Rector Smith.”

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The Sandra Smith Scholarship is for a Floyd graduate going to college to seek a career in music. You may contribute through Floyd County Cares, 100 E. Main St. Suite 108, Floyd, VA 24091. At last report, the fund has grown to $11,247. The alumni committee hopes to award the first scholarship in 2023.

John Hopkins writes from Floyd.