Bringing home the brass: John Miller8:00, 14th December 2017
At 65, trumpet teacher John Miller has retired as the Royal Northern College of Music’s head of wind, brass and percussion. Rhian Morgan asks him: what’s next?
It’s many moons since John Miller was seven years old. When his second teeth had just come through, he was allowed to pick up a cornet for the first time in a Fife brass band, and he was fascinated by the sound of the instrument, tantalised to find out how it worked.
It was a bug which bit and after four years in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (where he is still a tutor) and study at King’s College Cambridge, he joined the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, where he played for almost 20 years. This was the very orchestra he had idolised as an undergraduate, listening to Barbirolli LPs in his student room. This and a teaching career culminating in a professorship at the Royal Northern College of Music, has given Miller has a lifetime of memories to mull over.
As he moves on after 18 years in the Manchester job, at 65 he is looking to the future, continuing for a day-and-a-half every week at the RNCM for one-to-one teaching, chamber ensemble coaching, and some strategic work. He now plans to devote more time to his research love: the development of the brass ensemble from the mid-19th century to the present day.
It’s an area he has long enjoyed, inspired by his early performances with the Tullis Russell Mills Band in Fife, which was formed in 1919 as a social outlet for mill workers. As the band comes up to celebrating its centenary, Miller still plays with it occasionally and has strong feelings about the role of such ensembles, and that of the music services, in helping children to get started on an instrument.
‘By the time you get to a conservatoire or a university, the standard of teaching is generally excellent. Teaching and performance standards over the years I’ve been working have most certainly improved – probably, I think, because systematic methods have evolved,’ he says.
‘Today’s musicians have endless information at their fingertips and lots of opportunities in an ever-expanding music business. But the area of musical performance itself is certainly a tougher call now than when I was starting out.
‘There are so many excellent players coming through the system and the competition is very fierce. If 100 players apply for one orchestral job, 99 of them are going to be disappointed,’ he says. But that doesn’t mean, in his view, that we are training too many musicians for jobs they may never get.
‘Looking at last year’s survey of RNCM graduates, amazingly, 100% of them were in full-time employment or education a year after graduating. That doesn’t mean they’ve all got full-time orchestral jobs, but it does mean that employers value the key skills that music graduates can offer – the transferable skills of discipline, self-confidence, initiative and communication are all factors that will help young people make their way in the world.’
Miller’s journey has included an enviable list of positions, including postgraduate study with leading players in America, a very young member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Equale Brass and as a founding member of the Wallace Collection. His interest in contemporary music has led to performances with the likes of Berio, Henze, Maxwell Davies and Stockhausen, and with conductors from Bernstein, Boulez and Boult to Simon Rattle, Sinopoli and Stokowski.
As a teacher, he has enjoyed many proud moments through the achievement of his students, including professional access schemes with Opera North and the Hallé, as well as the Netherlands Wind Ensemble and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
His work at the RNCM since 1999 has been stamped by both creative instrumental teaching and artistic innovation, for which he was awarded a FGSM in 1993, a FRNCM in 2006 and a Professorship in 2010, with the position of head of the School of Wind, Brass and Percussion at the RNCM. Work with pre-college brass players includes a particular commitment to the NYO Inspire programme, which allows participants from all backgrounds and experience to have pivotal opportunities.
‘The brass band world and the Fife Music Service started me off on a path of happy destiny,’ he reflects. ‘Appreciation of music and its performance are big things in my life and I have simply wanted to pass it on. I feel so sad when I hear about music services shutting.’
I attempt to extract a few extra-musical activities from him for his retirement. He enjoys family life in Lancaster with June Wilkinson, his partner of 25 years. He sounds proud of their 1792 Georgian home together: ‘It was built at around the time the Haydn Trumpet Concerto was written, so there are always things to fix,’ he says: and it seems certain that music is going to remain at centre-stage for the rest of his life.