We’ve all heard the saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” But what happens when hard work and talent combine, determination joins drive, passion meets productivity, goals unite with greatness, and creativity meets career to form one of the top music production schools? The answer is success! In a one-on-one interview with Donney Smith, founder and owner of F.I.R.S.T. Institute (Florida Institute of Recording, Sound and Technology) we discuss the importance of affordable education, the unique team and staff, and the history and future of F.I.R.S.T. Institute.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?
I got started in the music industry my senior year in high school, when I visited a friend and he was sequencing a Mary J. Blige song. I thought it was the coolest thing ever! So, the next day I traded in my saxophone (which my mother was not happy about) and I went out and bought a keyboard. I began learning and fiddling around with the keyboard and started making really horrible music. Maybe a year or two later I met a gentleman with similar interests and he wanted me to mix some tracks for him. He was a singer as well and we ultimately formed a group. I started really getting serious about it and decided to attend a technical school in 1997. While attending, I caught my first break in the music industry, which was an offer to produce a local boy band “Nu Ground” that were supposed to rival the Backstreet Boys. I ended up producing their entire album (one of the members was Andrew Seeley who has worked on High School Musical, One Tree Hill, The Closer and countless Disney projects), we went on a national tour together and they went on to sell over 100,000 units.
ON MEETING HIS BUSINESS PARTNER, ALAN FORBES, AND BECOMING A TEACHER…
In that time frame, I had a gentleman come to me that wanted to record. He was an artist, producer, rapper and singer—his name was Alan Forbes. While working and producing for Alan I convinced him to attend the same technical school I did. A week before I graduated, the school’s director offered me a job teaching MIDI, which is basic sequencing. I wasn’t really big in education at the time but I decided to take it because every opportunity can lead to something bigger. I took the part-time teaching gig that started out as 8 – 10 hours a week and I wounded up teaching there from 1998-2004. I expanded my teaching skills from a MIDI instructor to teaching everything they had to offer at the school. I began giving private lessons and workshops on the side and Alan started his own recording studio called Pro Point Studios. One day in my apartment he had this crazy idea that with his location and my teaching ability he said, “Why don’t we see if we can start up a school?” I was skeptical of it at first but Alan is very adamant when it comes to business so I said, “Alright, I’m down, let’s do it!” We did the application process, we were approved, and we opened the school in 2004. We started at Alan’s Pro Point Studios on the side of Discount Music Center, which was probably only 800 square ft. and we converted it into the Florida Institute of Recording, Sound and Technology. Our school now is over 6,000 square ft.!
F.I.R.S.T INSTITUTE STARTED AS AN AUDIO ENGINEERING SCHOOL AND HAS TRANSITIONED INTO A FILM AND VIDEO SCHOOL AS WELL. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE GROWTH PERIOD, EXPANSION, AND WHY PERSONAL EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT?
As we started enrolling students—and we didn’t enroll that many the first year or so—we realized that we had something that people are really interested in. We wanted to be different; we wanted to offer education that was affordable but still relative to the industry. I felt like there was something missing that we could provide that was different than what other schools were providing. We wanted to come in more affordable and offer a more personal, one-on-one education. That’s how we took it from the first year to where we are now.
Honestly, when I went to a traditional college I wasn’t really good at it because I was timid in big class environments. When I went to a college with small classes I excelled because the classes were small. I realized there was probably a lot of people out there just like me that could excel in programs with one-on-one education. In a classroom of 6 – 8 students, you’re forced to pay attention in class, you’re more comfortable asking questions, and those collective group of individuals are going to become “one” by the time they finish the program. We started as audio because of our mutual backgrounds and ventured into video because we felt the two industries crossed paths. When we were introduced to the video production side we thought, “Wow, this might be of interest to our students!” and we put together the video program.
WHAT IS THE SUCCESS RATE OF GRADUATES?
The success of our graduates has been great. We have graduated well over 500 students and we’re very happy about our placement rate. Many of our students are self-employed and motivated to be their own bosses. I think that’s special and I can appreciate that because I don’t feel like we have enough people out there trying to create businesses. We’ve had graduates that work in audio/visual, churches, live sound, touring, radio, and producing music for major artists. We have a wide variety of success stories from our graduates. There is no one particular field. Some of the things they are doing are things I never could imagine so it’s cool to see what each student is doing after graduation.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE FACULTY HERE AT F.I.R.S.T.INSTITUTE ?
I feel like we have a really great group of teachers. All of our teachers that are employed here are still currently working in the industry, which I feel is very important. We are excited about them still being relevant in the industry and being able to pass their knowledge back into the classroom. Teachers are working in live sound, recording studios and audio/visual. On the film side it’s the same way. Some are doing video editing, working at film studios, working as P.A.s, and for Disney. One of our film instructors is an actor and he is able to bring his talents of acting and scriptwriting into the classroom.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE DETAILS OF THE TWO PROGRAMS?
Our programs are really intense 8-month programs and they’re very relevant to the industry and career driven. It is a top priority at F.I.R.S.T. that each student attains the skills to go out and gain entry-level employment, both audio engineering careers and Film and Video production, students complete many industry-related projects and develop a portfolio of those projects. Everybody can’t start at the top and we all must crawl before we walk. Even when I graduated, I was offered a part-time job and that led to me owning a school.
YOU’RE STILL ACTIVE IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY AND OWN A AUDIO ENGINEERING SCHOOL, HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE TWO?
I never thought I would be in the education business but I love it and it’s a passion of mine now. I did have a back-up plan. My wanting to be a big-time producer and singer didn’t go as planned but it wasn’t an absolute failure. I still do music and work with many different people and now I do it as a passion because I love it. It’s even more fun for me now because I don’t rely on it as a source of income. I can get in the studio and relax and not have to worry about the other things. What I also do now is find artists that I can help and mentor.
CAN YOU ELABORATE ON BECOMING ACCREDITED AND OFFERING FINANCIAL AID TO STUDENTS?
In 2012 we added financial aid where students can now receive federal aid and have alternative options for attending school. We offer unsubsidized and subsidized direct loans and we also do in-house payment plans. We also became accredited. The ACCET accreditation is a standard of excellence stating that we meet and/or exceed all the expectations as far as excellence in classrooms, administrative staffs and the way we handle admittance and financial aid.
WHAT’S IN THE FUTURE FOR F.I.R.S.T.?
We are expanding our facility and plan on taking the school to maximum capacity. Every year since we have opened we have managed to grow, and that speaks volumes about our staff as well as our programs. If we didn’t have good programs and staff there is no way we could continue to grow! In the year 2013 we rebranded the name F.I.R.S.T Institute, and rebuilt and launched a new website, new colors, and new logo. Growth and expansion are always in our plans. We want to add more programs in the future, possibly just programs for live sound and web/graphic design. We are just beginning and we’re nowhere near done. Alan and myself, we eat, sleep and breathe F.I.R.S.T. No matter how big we get we will continue to make education affordable for students and continue to make F.I.R.S.T an institution of excellence.
Learn from Digital Filmmaking and Video industry and Recording Arts industry professionals at F.I.R.S.T. Institute. Our admissions representatives are ready to help get you all of the information you need to enroll in classes and begin on your path to an exciting career in the Digital Filmmaking and Video Production industry or Recording Arts and Show Production industries!