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New director has music department playing high notes

Miller

The picture of James Patrick Miller on the University of Massachusetts music department’s website is misleading.  In the picture, Miller’s haircut makes him look younger and his demeanor is casual. The broad smile across his face is much like the permanent kind that might be seen on a politician – except this one doesn’t have a rehearsed feel to it, instead, a touch of naïveté is present.

Miller is different than his portrait indicates.  When engaging in a conversation, Miller is energetic and speaks with emotion – albeit that emotion is well controlled and directed. When he is in front of his ensembles, his intensity peaks, his emotions roll with the music and he can be both intimidating and astute through instructing those he is coaching.

Miller started as wind ensemble director at UMass this past fall and he has taken many of the department’s initiatives of dedication, student recruitment and individual improvement to host in an attempt to reinvigorate the wind ensembles. He has taken over the job after a number of years where the spot was occupied by an interim conductor that, according to students and alumni, was not particularly effective.

Previous to this year, Laura Rexroth instructed the wind ensembles. During her tenure, students had a problem concentrating and dedicating themselves to their performance.

Nicholas Gleason, a 2007 UMass music alumnus, was a part of the ensemble before Miller took over.

“People who talk to me say ‘they actually work, they actually try hard,’ which hadn’t happened for a long time,” said Gleason of the ensemble’s new look.

Less than stellar dedication of the players, small crowds at ensemble concerts and a lack of enthusiasm were persistent issues before Miller’s arrival.  After a number of years, the department was finally able to conduct a tenure track search for the position, attracting a variety of candidates.

The department hired Miller, who received his masters’ degree from Ithaca College, before earning a doctorate of musical arts in conducting from the University of Minnesota.

“The success of any program is measured based upon who is participating in it and those who are observing,” said Miller. “Right now, being the four-month veteran that I am, the people that are participating in [the ensembles] are seeing great success.”

From interviews with Miller, much of the way he teaches appears to be through long hours taken up by, intermittently, attending various concerts, studying music scores and getting to know the individuals in his ensembles.

“I call [the students’] section teachers on the phone and we talk about what might be best for each individual so that everybody is getting the experience they need.”

There are two ensembles under Miller’s jurisdiction.  The wind ensemble – which is only open to music majors and is more selective – and symphony band, which is open to the general public. Music students are required to participate in ensembles as a part of their major. Along with the wind ensembles, there is an orchestra and two main choirs that students can be a part of, in addition to the marching band and the jazz groups.

One of Miller’s more ambitious plans involves traveling with his students to areas outside the Pioneer Valley. There are two main reasons Miller wants to do this: one is to recruit potential applicants and the other is to give his musicians the opportunity to teach K-12 students in public schools. Music education is one of the most popular majors in the department, and allowing students to interact with pupils in public schools provides them with a better understanding of what teaching will be like after they graduate and enter the work force.

“[Miller] hopes to one day get us to play in Russia and Italy and all these amazing places,” said Jill Gilfoil, a UMass clarinet player and music education major. “The first steps are playing in local places and getting UMass’ name out there, the fact that we have a music department,” she continued.

The outreach has helped the UMass ensembles gain visibility in the region. For Miller to show off UMass’ ensembles, however, he must first get them to a level that will allow them to garner a stronger reputation for the school’s music program.

“You can tell there is a difference in the way we play,” said Gilfoil. “He pushes us harder and holds us accountable, he brings to both ensembles education aspects, he talks about why you work certain pieces a certain way,” she went on. “Anytime he messes up, he says he owes us a beat, he holds himself accountable as well,” Gilfoil said.

The day before the wind ensemble was set to hold their end of the semester concert, Miller’s method of holding students accountable was on display. The ensemble was practicing a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach entitled Mein Jesu, was fur Seelenweh.

When conducting, Miller’s face becomes intense and a vein often throbs on the right side of his neck.  His usually friendly demeanor turns businesslike and intense.

“This needs every ounce of everything you’ve got,” he said before swaying with the ensemble to the beginning measures of Bach.

Quickly it became clear that the rehearsal of Bach was not up to Miller’s standards. After restarting the piece, Miller told his ensemble that “they don’t pay me to coddle you.” As the band began playing for a second time, he called for the ensemble to “sacrifice everything to be sharp.”     

Apparently, they were not successful; as Miller cut the band off again. To an untrained ear, there was nothing wrong with the piece. Everything sounded together, in tune and moving. Miller’s ear told him something different.

“It’s just not together and it’s not my fault,” he said. The blame he placed at the feet of his ensemble was in sharp contrast to a previous piece in which he admitted that he had “failed the music” at a particular section. The feel inside the practice room was that of a child who had just been told by a favorite relative that he had done something disappointing and that he was going to have to shape up in order to redeem himself.

The ensemble restarted and the result was still not up to Miller’s liking. After dissecting the way a particular section played a sub-division of note patterns, he talked to the flutes about being out of tune and how the band wasn’t living up the standard of Bach.

After only a few minutes of rehearsing the Bach piece, Miller concluded that it just wasn’t worth “wounding the music” any longer.  “I’m not mad, sometimes you don’t earn the right to play Bach,” he concluded.    

Miller’s ability to pick music apart coupled with his intense countenance and acknowledgement of his own mistakes allowed the band to move onto the next piece without allowing the not-quite-there Bach rehearsal to bother them.

When the concert came the next evening, Miller acted much of the way he had in rehearsal. His face taught with emotion while his baton repeatedly struck the front tip of his hair, Miller gave the distinct impression of being heavily emotionally involved in the moment and the music.

“We are playing in a different way,” said Gilfoil.  “We are coming prepared; he holds you accountable, he holds himself accountable.”

Later estimates put the number of people at the wind ensemble’s performance that evening at about 400.  According to Gilfoil, the crowd was another indication of rising attendance of the performances put on by the department.

Erin Laman is a music major in Miller’s ensemble.

“The first concert [with Miller], there were so many more people there than there have been in the past, it was nice,” said Laman.

According to Miller, he and his wife moved to town with the intention to stay and develop the ensembles.  He is the product of a number of new faces in the department as a result of retirements and an effort by Jeff Cox, the chair of the music and dance departments to hire new tenure track faculty.

This year, Cox hopes a search for a piano performer, a choral conductor and a member of the jazz faculty will bring even more enthusiasm to the department.

Michael Phillis can be reached at mphillis@student.umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “New director has music department playing high notes”
  1. Michael Phillis says:

    Correction:

    Miller’s quote in this story, “sacrifice everything to be sharp” is incorrect.

    The quote should read, “sacrifice everything to not be sharp.”

    I apologize for the mistake.

    -Michael Phillis

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