10 Questions: An Interview with Joe Miller

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November 13th, 2015

As the director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College, Joe Miller helps shape the next generation of choral conductors and leaders. Here he reflects on his own training as a conductor and on the future of the choral field. Click on the questions below to view his answers.

Who were your mentors and role models as a young conductor?

JM: One of the people that had the greatest influence on me was Dr. Marvelene Moore, the head of music education at the University of Tennessee, where I earned my bachelor’s in music education and voice. She really taught me how to teach. She was a Dalcroze specialist, so she engaged my love of movement in rehearsal and how kinesthesia builds long-term memory.

At Cincinnati Conservatory, where I received my master’s degree and doctorate, I had three really amazing mentors. One was Dr. Elmer Thomas who opened my world to what music really meant. I always felt it, but before I met him, I never knew someone who could verbalize and help me get to that place of knowing the real meaning of music. Then I met Dr. Earl Rivers. To this day when I'm working on a score, I often think, "I just remember learning that from you and this has made my life so much easier."

The way I approach the teaching of conducting is really based on Dr. John Leman. John was diagnosed with M.S., and when I was at Cincinnati he was still conducting, but mostly with his left hand. He was an athlete—a basketball player—and through the loss of his own muscles he became very attuned to the physical elements of conducting.

The other great mentor that changed everything about me at Cincinnati was my voice teacher Dr. David Adams. I always wanted to bridge the gap between the voice studio and the choir rehearsal, and he gave me the tools—vocal pedagogy tools—to begin to understand how to make that happen with my own voice.

What were the most important skills and lessons you learned in your development as a choral conductor?

JM: Early on in Knoxville, I sang a lot of what we would have called pop choral music, but it was really jazz. I was engaged in the contemporary Christian scene as a young man and had good reading skills, so I was hired to do demos and jingles and things like that. I learned to be absolutely keen on learning pitch and rhythm. I was a trombone player and a pianist, and those skills became an important foundation for me. I'm so thankful for my piano teachers. I still play every day. I appreciate that keen awareness of being an orchestral musician and how that translates into singing.

Conducting my first church choir and my first high school choir were also big learning experiences. My first church choir taught me the skills of working with people. I knew absolutely nothing, but I had these few piece of music that I loved, and I tried to say, "We should do this"—but that choir couldn't do them. I had to learn how to meet people where they were. My church choir was wonderfully patient with me.

There are many correlations between my high school teaching and my professional life today. If I wasted any time or was unfocused about what I wanted and how we were going to execute it, I would lose the singers. I was teaching in the inner city and I had to be engaging. I had to be able to lead them to an understanding of why we were working so hard to understand the soul of the music, music that my students could not always understand at first glance. I had to pace my rehearsal to keep them engaged. I had to know how to instill discipline and how to build respect. That had to do with my skills as a human being as well as my skills as a conductor.

What are your expectations for the singers you work with and how do you hold them accountable for meeting your expectations?

JM: I would say that the main tenet is I don't expect anything of them that I don't expect of myself. If I teach something I try to live what I teach. If I can't do something, I will do everything that I can to try to build my skills and get better. I expect my students to keep trying, to keep giving, and I try to do that with them.

I often think about myself as a young musician. The first big score that I ever had to prepare was Ariadne auf Naxos by Strauss and I didn't even know where to begin. I had wonderful teachers who said, "Let's think about the tools that you're going to need to learn this." I try to lay those tools out for my students so they can then apply them. I really believe that teaching and learning is a collaborative, cyclic process.

What criteria do you use for choosing repertoire?

JM: The criteria are no different than when I teach score analysis. Is there an artistic goal? As I study the work can I begin to uncover the depth of a text, or the artistic design of a form, or a process that the composer is using?

One of the most difficult works that I've ever performed is the Christopher Rouse Requiem that the Westminster Symphonic Choir did with the New York Philharmonic last year. I certainly had never seen a score like it. There was no recording. I couldn't tell if at first look if it was a good piece. I could only tell that it had artistic merit as I began to study and uncover the depth of the layers.

When I'm teaching young conductors, I don’t want them to base their opinions on their likes and dislikes. I want them to base their opinions on whether a piece has value. Does it have meaning? Does it have integrity and depth?

How do you go about building a concert program?

JM: I'm on this mission to never give a boring choral concert. We're living in a different world, the 21st century. I don't know that our society is going to connect with a group of people who sit in a chair and perform their music without any engagement. Anyone who teaches knows that, because students today are not like the students when I was in school. There are so many more stimuli and opportunities. Things are moving in a different way.

I use Bach's St. Matthew Passion as an example. If we had heard Bach’s St Matthew Passion as an 18th century or 19th century audience, we probably would have had this deep understanding of the text. People in the Lutheran church at that time would have studied and known the text deeply.

Many of today’s concert audiences can't say that. The culture is very different. We're currently engaged in a production of the St. Matthew Passion with the Philadelphia Orchestra that includes staging by John Alexander and has subtitles. We're repeating it from two years ago because it was so wildly popular. Even someone who didn't know the story could follow and let Bach’s music speak to them.

These direct attempts to break down the barriers between us and the audience can have striking results. I'm so amazingly on fire about our future in choral music because we don't have a music stand in front of us. We're breaking down that wall.

What are you focusing on right now in your work?

JM: The Westminster Choir does a lot of staged work because of our involvement with the Spoleto Festival USA. We're often called to be an opera chorus or to create projects that might involve dance. The festival has been a great influence on me. We are engaged in the choral equivalent of the creation of multidisciplinary works—the German concept of the gesamtkunstwerk.

My interest right now is to use the concert hall more like we might use a liturgical space. I love to program for space. To take the acoustic and to let the music combine with the acoustic to create an experience for the audience. Of course the Westminster Choir tours, so I have to devise programs that will work in different spaces. I'm still trying to let the audience experience the music and sound in a different way.

One of the things we can make use of is a processional. When you hear a great choir do a processional, and the singing, all of a sudden, passes right by where you are sitting, it's powerful. It is so life-changing, especially if you're a non-musician, to have human sound close to you. I like to program the Nystedt Immortal Bach and surround the audience with it, so that they feel like they're a part of it.

Another focus is more philosophical. People talk to me a lot about “sound” because “in the day” the Westminster Choir, much like the St. Olaf Choir, had a “sound.” The sound that is created by 18- to 25-year old trained singers was the basic sound of the choir. I believe that music has sound, and the choir has to make the sound of the music. Bach’s German motets sound different from Herbert Howells’ Requiem. We strive to have a large palette so the singers are changing their sounds to elicit color and texture for the audience.

How have changes in technology affected your work in the past twenty years?

JM: The biggest thing is the influence of media. As many negative things as there are about online streaming, the positive thing is that if you record a piece people are able to hear it. Our ability to easily hear choirs from all over the world is really, really changing us. It’s given us the desire and the ability to engage with music from different continents and different cultures. I can pull up a choir from South Africa singing, or a troop of 19th century dancers dancing Brahms’ Liebeslieder and ask “What do you see? What can we talk about?"

Developments in science and technology and the growth of vocal pedagogy also influence how we talk to singers and how voice teachers and choral conductors talk to each other. What used to be totally based on opinion now begins to have some scientific research behind it. I think that it's an incredibly positive step forward in how we build better choirs, better solo singers, and a more flexible community of singers which reflects our marketplace today.

What changes in the choral art in the past twenty years do you consider important?

JM: I think the demands on a conductor today are more multifaceted. In this market, there has to be a great understanding of many different things to build a professional or a community choir. It could be an understanding of business, an understanding of how to work with a board of directors. There has to be an understanding of vocal pedagogy and how to build sound and work with sound. We’ve always seen a great connection between scholarship and performance, but with the incredible growth of musicology and printed material in media in the last twenty years, our education as conductors is much stronger.

Personally, many of these things have been fostered by our professional organizations. ACDA was such an important part of my upbringing because it's the first time that I heard the Swedish Radio Choir. It's the first time that I heard the King's Singers. The first time that I heard the Westminster Choir was at an ACDA convention, and that opened my world. Those opportunities that we have to hear this incredible breadth of choirs and pedagogues are important.

When I was developing my community chorus in Stockton, California, I didn't know how to make it work. To be able to go to a Chorus America conference and hear the things that people in similar situations were doing was lifesaving. Now, of course, we have even newer things. The National Collegiate Choral Organization is coming along, and so is the International Federation for Choral Music, which I think broadens our community even more.

When I think of being a conductor, I think back to being a high school teacher. It can be very lonely. You can really feel like you're fighting the fight by yourself. I think the available communities and networks are becoming stronger, and I think there's more of an effort to bring people in and be helpful. It's my dream for Westminster Choir College to be able to be a support system for anyone that loves choral music.

What trends and challenges do you anticipate for the choral art in the next twenty years?

JM: The real challenge is going to be how do we engage our world in art on a global level? We live in a quickly moving society where it’s becoming easier and easier to create things in short, entertaining bites. The challenge will be to show the other side. People’s lives must have meaning, and we need to figure out how we're going to remind people that a great society needs great depth and not just surface. It's not just about browsing the web. It’s about deepening your knowledge of something.

I also think that our relationship with spiritual communities, whether they be religious communities or something else, will become increasingly important. I think that we as artists have to find that common ground with potential partners who are also interested in speaking to our world in a way that reminds people that there is beauty, that there is meaning.

What one piece of advice would you offer to a young conductor?

JM: One of the things that Elmer Thomas used to say to us all the time was, "Buy that score, it will never be cheaper than it is today." Buy it now because it's not going to get less in price. I think my advice to a young conductor would be to go explore, don't be scared, take the risk now. Travel, figure it out, go overseas, learn something you don't know. Don't worry about being the perfect conductor or the perfect anything right now.

An artistic life requires you to keep filling your soul and your eyes and your ears. When you're young it's important to build that curiosity about art and music and poetry as deeply as you possibly can. That's the time to do it when you're young. Do not be afraid to be curious. People will help you out. Someone will let you sleep on their floor. Do it now.

The “Ten Questions” Project
This interview with Joe Miller is part of Steven Zopfi’s “Ten Questions” project, which asks choral conductors today about their career development and the future of the choral field. The project was inspired by Carole Glenn’s book In Quest of Answers: Interviews with American Choral Conductors, published by Hinshaw Music in 1991. In Quest of Answers contains interviews with 34 notable conductors, responding to questions about auditions, repertoire, vocal technique, and more. Zopfi’s fascination with Glenn’s book began in graduate school. “Reading about what these leading conductors thought about our art was revelatory to me. So when asking some of the leaders of a new generation of conductors to reflect on their development as conductors and the future of the choral art it was natural that I turn to Glenn's work as a starting point for my questions,” he said. 

Read Zopfi’s additional interviews with Ragnar Bohlin, Grant Gershon, and Craig Hella Johnson.

Steven Zopfi is artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir in Portland, Oregon and director of choral activities at the University of Puget Sound.

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