Young pianist’s skill takes him to state performance
DOUGLAS — Becky Smylie can’t remember which company’s commercial it was. She racks her brain, pillaging through the blurred memories of the past 13 years to no avail.
Her nightly routine circa early 2008 rarely strayed from its path. After a long day of excruciating work – par for a brand-new mother’s course – Smylie would sit in her living room chair, her face illuminated solely by the light of the television screen.
In her arms, Smylie held her infant son, Frank, keeping him warm while he drank from his bottle of warm milk.
Frank was a relatively calm baby, rarely untucking the soft spot of his head from within his mother’s tender grasp.
There was just that one rare exception: whenever that commercial ran on the television.
“It may have been Verizon or AT&T, some kind of phone service, I want to say. I really can’t remember,” Becky admits now. “But every single time that ad came on the TV, Frank would turn his little head to listen. Every time.”
Something about that commercial and the catchy jingle that played behind it. The average ear might have missed the song altogether. It was high-pitched yet quiet, barely audible over the louder voices in the advertisement’s foreground.
But little Frank heard it.
He heard the music, and whenever the commercial replayed, he’d look to the light of the screen. And without fail, every time it ended, his head turned right back into his mother’s arms.
That completely random advertisement was, if you will, the opening note to Frank’s ongoing song. That commercial led his parents – Becky and Lowell Smylie – to an irrefutable revelation.
“He had music in him, even from such a young age.” Becky says. “Looking back, that’s kind of where it all began. And it was beautiful.”
“Music is just something I’ve always had a joy for,” Frank, now 13 and soon to begin the eighth grade, opines. “I can’t really explain it.”
As Frank grew, his parents searched for different avenues for him to express himself musically. First, it was dance.
“I remember when he got to the second grade, he would be required to take these ‘brain breaks’ and he’d dance during them. And I remember him just going crazy dancing. I was just like, ‘Whoa, okay!’” Becky recalls.
So she signed her son up for dance classes. That didn’t work out.
Next, at age 10, he found enjoyment in playing the saxophone. It was a wonderful experience, but his lessons only lasted a year.
That’s because when Frank turned 11, he picked up a passion he very well may never put back down: the piano.
“It was so fun for me to learn songs on the piano,” he explains. “I liked working on them and being able to say I accomplished them. And as I got further into it, I saw deeper into the musical world. That grew my love for piano, being able to just enjoy playing the music and also dive into everything deeper behind it.”
Frank’s progression was strikingly quick, as he swiftly began outpacing other kids his age. He studied piano under Cindy Barnard in Douglas for a year, before she informed him that retirement was in her plans.
“Cindy kind of mentioned casually that she was going to have to hand Frank off to somebody else,” said Becky. “So I said, ‘Oh, I guess I better start looking then.’”
“I looked at Casper College at all the professors they had there. And that’s when I found her.”
By “her,” Smylie means Paula Flynn – Casper College pianist, founder of Way Out West Music Academy and relentless ball of positive energy.
Flynn brought Frank in for an interview – a custom process for all of her prospective students – and Frank immediately felt drawn in by Flynn’s radiant personality.
“She was so energetic, so full of energy. It kind of took me by surprise,” Frank concedes. “But I could just tell that she was really passionate about what she does and how she teaches. And I could tell she was professional in how she did things.”
Flynn’s first goal with Frank was simple: feel out his progression skill.
“What I worked on with Frank was figuring out where he was level-wise,” Flynn notes. “First-year students tend to have a hard time being musical, if that makes sense. But Frank, he just has so much joy in his playing. And he has such a quick mind.
“Holy cats, that kid is quick.”
The teen’s “quick mind” earned him a spot in Flynn’s program. He spent a year learning and growing at Way Out West.
“From that first practice with Mrs. Flynn, it was such a different style. She had a whole different world of ways to practice and learning techniques that a lot of higher-level musicians use.”
And this past June, the opportunity of a lifetime arrived. Frank was offered a chance to play at the Wyoming State Achievement Day concert.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he effuses even a month later. “I was so excited and proud of my achievements.”
“He deserved it,” Flynn says. “He was selected to play ‘The Butterfly,’ which was this super delicate piece. And let me tell you, he played it beautifully.”
Frank was one of just 20 Wyoming kids selected to perform in the concert in Casper. He was Douglas’ lone representative.
“To qualify for the concert you have to really be able to perform,” Flynn explains. “You have to show real artistry. You’ve got to play all the right notes, all the right rhythms. And Frank did that. He was incredible.”
Lowell Smylie believes that Flynn has helped release his son’s “innate ability” on the piano.
“He just has so much natural talent. Even when he practices with her and makes a mistake, she doesn’t have to tell him to redo it. He knows what he did wrong and immediately tries to fix it. They’re already on the same wavelength without even having to say a word,” Lowell explains.
Lowell concludes his thoughts with an offer.
“You’re already here,” Lowell says, chuckling. “You might as well hear him play a song.”
Frank’s eyes light up as he grabs his songbook with a grin. He scurries excitedly to the brown Yamaha baby grand piano in the living room, taking a seat on its leather stool.
He glances in the direction of his parents who both offer a reassuring nod. He announces that he is going to play one of his favorite songs, an upbeat classic titled “Clowns” by famed Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky.
A hefty breath later, Frank does exactly that: he plays. And it’s astounding.
His talent is undeniable; his experience of just two years rivals that of those with thrice as much, if not more. He aces the piece.
His parents’ faces can’t mask their pride in their son, and they shouldn’t have to. He is gifted beyond his years, and he’s only growing more refined with relative age.
Frank’s had the music in him since he was just a baby in his mother’s arms.