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Michael W. Smith preaches hard work, God-centered mindset during visit to Liberty University School of Music

Michael W. Smith speaks with students during a visit to the Center for Music & Worship Arts on March 6. (Photos by KJ Jugar)

A normal day in Dr. Mindy Damon’s Artist Performance II class in the Liberty University School of Music‘s Center for Music and the Worship Arts on Wednesday turned into a special opportunity for her students as they were joined by one of the biggest names in Christian music, Michael W. Smith, for a Q-and-A session before three students performed for the three-time Grammy Award winning artist.

Smith’s classroom session was just a small part of a full day at the Center for Music and the Worship Arts, where the artist also hosted studio time with students and held three workshop sessions on topics ranging from working as a producer, creating piano-driven versus guitar-driven songs, and becoming an artist who can endure the test of time.

From left: Students Crissa Davis, Ben Thompson, and Joshua Biery listen while Michael W. Smith gives advice. The three students had the chance to perform for the artist.

Smith was joined on the visit by Greg Ham, owner of One:Eight Entertainment, an artist management and development company with clients that include Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, and CeCe Winans, among many others.

Smith is the executive director of Liberty’s Michael W. Smith Center for Commercial Music, which began in 2019 with the mission to train competent, proficient, marketplace musicians to serve as commercial music industry practitioners. In his role, he visits campus every semester, seeking to offer advice and counsel from his many years of industry experience. When he is not on campus, Smith often conducts online class sessions with students.

On Wednesday, Smith covered a variety of topics during the Q-and-A session, including how to maintain a stage presence while focusing on vocals, how to produce live albums, the biggest learning curve of being a world-renowned artist, and how to achieve longevity in the music field.

Asked how he tries to marry all of the aspects of a musical performance — vocals, stage presence, and playing the actual music — Smith pointed to the time he has put into his craft over his career.

“If you had looked at me 35 years ago, you would’ve said, ‘Man, he’s got a lot of learning to do,’” Smith said. “But the more you do it, the more you define who you are. You want to get to the point where the vocal thing, it’s almost like you don’t have to think about it.”

“If you have to think about that, you might not be ready to be on the stage. I don’t think you’ll ever be able to be on stage and really engage an audience if you’re sitting there thinking about your vocals,” he added.

Sitting in front of an instrument that has allowed him to proclaim the Gospel to millions, Smith reached back to touch its keys and said, “This piano here, I just feel like it’s a body part of mine. It’s just become a part of who I am, and when I play, I hardly ever look at the piano.”

Smith encouraged students to put in the work to get to where they want to be. But even with hard work, Smith said none of what he’s been able to do would be possible aside from God’s blessings.

Ham also gave students advice on how to pursue their passion and their calling to share their testimonies.

Michael W. Smith (left) and manager Greg Ham (middle) speak to Dr. Mindy Damon’s class in the Center for Music and the Worship Arts.

“If you get to the platform and you don’t have anything to say, I wouldn’t call that success,” Ham said. “Everybody defines it differently. If yours is, ‘Man, I want to get to this big platform and proclaim Jesus to the masses … but when you sacrifice yourself getting to the platform, and now your message isn’t there, you’re losing the reason why you wanted to get to that platform.”

Smith closed with a story from his earliest touring days that demonstrates that advice.

Walking off stage after a show in Seattle, Smith said he heard the adoration of the crowd and people who had gotten backstage, and he got caught up in the fame.

“I was doing the old wave to the crowd, I was feeling puffed up, you know, as this kid from West Virginia,” Smith said. “But all of the sudden, I get this tap on my shoulder, and I turn around and it’s my pastor.

“He said, ‘Give it up, this isn’t about you,’” Smith added. “And he was right. He did it in a friendly way, and that was the beginning moment of me going, ‘It’s never been about me, and it never should be.’ And that pastor has been the catalyst of my life as far as holding my feet to fire and mentoring me for 40 years.”

Following the talk with students on Wednesday, three students had the opportunity to play a song for Smith and listen to his feedback.

Joshua Biery played piano and sang “Dalet,” a song he wrote based on Psalm 119:4.

Biery played and sang while Crissa Davis sang background vocals and Ben Thompson played the cello.

The song, Smith said, “made my day.”

Michael W. Smith listens as students perform during a visit to the Center for Music & Worship Arts on March 6.

“I loved the ebb and flow of you guys singing together,” Smith said. “I think the biggest thing I enjoyed was that it took me on a journey. Maybe I was expecting a simple song … but I didn’t get that. So your song made my day.”

After performing for Smith, the trio was glowing with excitement when talking about the opportunity to play for someone they grew up listening to.

“It was nerve wracking,” Davis said, “but it was also a blessing to realize that yes, while he’s an absolutely amazing singer and he’s so talented, it’s Jesus who is the One we’re singing for, and (Smith) encouraged us to do that.”

Biery said it was a blessing to receive feedback from the contemporary Christian music legend.

“I loved to hear about his process of songwriting and how he writes, but it was so neat to hear his kind comments about our song afterwards,” Biery said. “And we got to talk to him about some of the stuff he’s working on as well.”

Aside from the music, Thompson said he was encouraged to hear that even through his expansive career, Smith still holds close to his circle of faith.

“He talked about his own prayer group and the people he can lean on so he’s not alone,” Thompson said. “I was so excited to hear him talk about how to make God the center of your worship and to see what a genuine guy he is about that.”

At the end of the day, Smith held a special session in Liberty’s studio, recording a voice for a character in an upcoming animated show, The Gospals.

Michael W. Smith offers feedback to students who performed for him during a class visit on March 6, 2024.
Michael W. Smith speaks with students during a visit to the Center for Music & Worship Arts on March 6, 2024.


Michael W. Smith works in the Center for Music & Worship arts recording voicing a character for an upcoming animated show, The Gospals, on March 06, 2024.
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