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Irene Britton Smith


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Irene Britton Smith was born on December 22, 1907, in Chicago, Illinois as the youngest of four siblings. She was of African-American, Crow, and Cherokee descent. Smith attended Ferron Grammar School, Doolittle Grammar School, and Wendell Phillips High School.

Smith wanted to study music at Northwestern University but her family could not afford to send her there. Instead, she attended Chicago Normal School from 1924–1926 to train as a teacher. In 1930 she began teaching primary grades in Chicago public schools. She married Herbert E. Smith (d. December 28, 1975) on August 8, 1931. Smith was an advocate of the phono-visual method of teaching reading and Chicago University Press published her monograph on the topic, Methods and Materials for Teaching Word Perception in Kindergarten Through Grade Three, in 1960. She retired from teaching in June 1978 and became a docent for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at elementary schools. In 1994 Smith moved to Montgomery Place Retirement Home in Chicago. She died in Chicago on February 15, 1999.

As a child Smith studied piano with V. Emanuel Johnson and took violin lessons. She was active as a violinist in the all-black Harrison Farrell Orchestra from 1930–1931. From 1932–1943 she was a part-time student at the American Conservatory of Music, where she studied music theory with Stella Roberts and composition with Leo Sowerby. She received a Bachelor of Music degree from the American Conservatory of Music in 1943.

From 1946–1947 Smith took a sabbatical from teaching to complete graduate work at the Juilliard School of Music, where she studied composition with Vittorio Giannini. In the summer of 1948, Smith studied composition at the Eastman School of Music with Wayne Barlow. The following summer she studied composition with Irving Fine while attending the Tanglewood Music Festival. In 1956 Smith completed her Master of Music degree at DePaul University, where she studied composition with Leon Stein. In the summer of 1958, she studied composition with Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau Summer School in France. Smith ceased composing in 1962, but her works continued to be performed during her lifetime.

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