Marion Smith cradled four hand bells in his arms as he stood in front of the Eckerd College Concert Choir. He chuckled as he rang each one, measuring the pitch for the choristers to hear. They giggled as he rang out each tone, the bell signaling the start of rehearsal.
After 27 years as director for choral music and hand bells, Smith, 62, is retiring from decades of organizing and traveling with the internationally recognized chorus, known for its tours to England, Italy, Spain and in recent months, Carnegie Hall.
"He's made me appreciate a lot more of the technical aspects," said Alan Berghuis, an Eckerd freshman chorister. "It's a lot of detail, refinement working."
Smith began with a church piano.
At Mount Olive AME Zion, his hometown church in Prichard, Ala., he gained the confidence to play in front of the congregation and sang in the choir. For Smith, it was a way of giving back after hours of using the church's piano for practice. His eight siblings were surprised by his interest in Tchaikovsky and classical music. But from the third grade, Smith knew he wanted to be a choral director.
"I had a strong appreciation for music all through elementary, middle school and high school," Smith said. "I've really lived my dream all of these years."
Smith's studies carried him through Xavier University in Louisiana, Washington State and Washington University in St. Louis to obtain his doctoral degree in music. He later taught for three years at Lander University in South Carolina before accepting an offer to join the Eckerd faculty in August 1987.
"Looking at its curriculum, it offered me opportunities to do things I wanted to, especially with the choir," Smith said. "I could expand the types of music I wanted to do."
Choral music is both passion and patience for Smith. In his 35-year career, he has directed the First United Methodist Church choir in addition to the Eckerd choir. Alice Austin, an Eckerd alumna, worked under his direction when she performed with both choirs.
"He's always been really passionate about his musical abilities and teaching choir," Austin said. "He handles difficult and stressful situations very well, and he really taught me how to do that and keep poise."
Faculty and students worked with Smith as he hosted choral and hand bell performances, both on campus and off. For 19 years, Smith hosted "Madrigal Dinners" that showcased the chorus in Medieval and Renaissance settings at the Museum of Fine Arts.
"I've never worked with anyone who works as hard as he does and strives for excellence," said David Irwin, director of instrumental music at Eckerd. "I frankly don't know how he was able to do everything that he did for several years."
The choir's music echoes through a classroom in Eckerd's Roberts Music Hall, but their tones have also rolled across the Great Wall of China and through St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Students in Smith's choir see his cultured, clever side with stories and organized tours of international icons.
But for Mari Vainstein, her four years with the Eckerd choir connected her to trained performance for the first time.
"I like that I've been a part of something for such a long time," she said. "I think I've become a lot more emotional with singing. In this last year, I've felt more in touch with the music than the way I did my freshman year."
Retirement from Eckerd is only the end of a chapter for Smith. His work as a choral director provided him the opportunities he envisioned from Eckerd's offer 27 years ago. But next he plans to keep performing, take long bicycle rides and visit national parks. For seven summers, Smith has performed with the American All Stars Choir and appeared at the International Hand Bell Conference and the Berkshire Choral Festival, allowing him to learn from other choral directors in sister festivals in Canterbury, Vancouver, Montreal, Santa Fe and Edinburgh.
But his time at Eckerd will be what Smith carries with him.
"It was things I've never thought I would do," he said. "My departing will be bittersweet because it's meant so much to me over the years."
Editor's note: This story has been edited to reflect two corrections. In an earlier version of this story, David Irwin's name was misspelled and an incorrect name was used for the Madrigal Dinners hosted by the Eckerd College Concert Choir.