The Legacy of Richard Miller : Remembering a Vocal Giant

Occasionally giants walk this earth who leave footprints so large that, though we try to strike out on our own little path, we eventually look back and find we have been following in their footsteps the entire time. Such is the legacy left by Richard Miller, beloved and well-known singer and vocal pedagogue, who passed away on May 5, 2009, at the age of 83 years old.

Perhaps no one person has had a greater influence on a rising generation of singers. Indeed, Richard Miller has helped to shape our ideas of singing, whether directly or indirectly, and advanced the field of vocal music through his melding of traditional vocal pedagogy and the modern findings of voice science. Though Miller would insist that he rode on the shoulders of the great singers and teachers of the past, his work will continue to loom large over the field of singing for quite some time.

Miller’s wife, Mary, tells about a walk they enjoyed before they were married. It was night and Miller had just finished a rehearsal. They were walking back to their separate apartments when he said to her, “You know what I would like to do? I’d like to do nothing but sing for four years and then I’d like to do something that’s useful for people.” By this, she thought he meant social work but, instead, it was his singing that was his idea of helping people.

“I thought it just off the cuff, and maybe it really was just off the cuff,” Mary recounts. “It was useful to people, though, what he did. I don’t think he ever thought about what he said that night again, but it struck me. He just wanted to do something that would help mankind.”

A Wonderful Husband and Father

Richard Miller demonstrated an early talent for music and singing as he grew up in Canton, Ohio, in the 1920s and ’30s as the youngest of five children. After graduating from high school, he entered the United States Army in 1944 and was stationed near Marseille, France, as the war ended. He began taking voice lessons from baritone Edouard Tyrand at the Marseille Conservatory and then continued his studies at Westminster Choir College after returning home. There he met young Mary Dagger, and the two eventually married in 1950 in Washington, D.C. They had five children.

“I feel so immensely blessed because we jived so well,” Mary says. “I once said I married him because he made me laugh so much, and he married me because I did laugh at his jokes.”

“The only thing that was more important [than teaching] was his family,” explains Dr. Tom Abelson, an otolaryngologist with the Cleveland Clinic and friend of Miller. “But his family, especially his wife, was 100 percent behind what he did. He would tell you that Mary played a 50-50 role in his success because of her support.”

Remarkably, despite his busy schedule, Miller’s children insist that they never felt like they lost any time with their father. They speak of the many interests they shared with him, including stamp collecting, gardening, rocks, history, travel, and many others. His wife remembers that Miller was never one to say, “I don’t have anything to do.”

‘A Clear and Flexible Voice’

After two years at Westminster, Miller transferred to the University of Michigan where he earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in musicology. It was here that Miller first began teaching voice as a graduate student and the director of a local church choir, and he found that he enjoyed teaching very much. However, he still had a desire to perform and pursued that goal to gain a greater knowledge of languages and opera. A year after Richard and Mary married, they left for Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship where Miller earned an artist diploma at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

“Italy was still very poor after the war, and they were experiencing a rise of communism,” relates Mary. “Sometimes we received treatment that was not very kind. It was just an interesting time to be there. We lived on the fifth floor without an elevator with an old lady whose husband was a composer. We had a wonderful time. We really did. They had so many religious holidays that there were times that we could go away, take a train or a bus, and see parts of Italy that we hadn’t seen. It was wonderful.”

Near the end of their year in Italy, the couple traveled to Geneva where Miller competed in a prestigious competition and won the silver medal.

“We came back from that and we were going through Zurich and stopped there,” tells Mary. “A friend of ours was singing Azucena in Trovatore. We went in the back door and met with her. The director happened to come by and she introduced us. We’d just been eating sugared nuts and you don’t do that before singing. That’s just a no-no. The director said, ‘Let me hear you sing.’ He wanted him to sing the Bohème aria and, well, the sugared nuts didn’t hurt.

“They said to take the German score of Bohème and come back and audition—an official audition. So he did, and he was given a contract. He called and said, ‘Bring our things and come to Zurich. We’re going to live in Zurich now.’ He had to mail me our passport because we were on the same passport. I don’t think you would do that these days.”

Miller sang most of the major roles of the lyric tenor repertoire for four years at the Zurich Opera. “He was always very proud of the fact that he was a performer first and that he was teaching performing,” says Salvatore Champagne, director of the Vocal Studies division at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, stressing how important those four years were to Miller.

Dr. Ingo Titze, director of the National Center for Voice and Speech, agrees that Miller’s performing experience informed his teaching and writing throughout the remainder of his career.

“I don’t think anyone can really write about the singing voice without being a singer themselves,” offers Titze. “That doesn’t mean you have to be a professional singer at the highest level—but if you don’t ever practice the concepts yourself, it’s probably not going to be helpful to someone else.”

By the end of their four years in Zurich, the Millers had two little children and they realized that a performing career might mean constant relocation. They returned to the United States where Miller agreed to teach at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Five years later he joined the faculty at Oberlin, where he remained until his retirement in 2006.

The First Two Books

Many have spoken about the fact that Richard Miller showed great curiosity toward many things, most especially about the function of the human voice during singing. While performing in Zurich, he was fascinated to see why one person would sound better in a role than a substitute who was called in, or vice versa.

“He was a very astute observer of what goes on when somebody sings and he had a sharp talent for it,” remembers Mary.

He suddenly became aware that people who had studied singing in different places sang with a different technique. The idea of national styles of singing was a ridiculous notion to some, but Miller was sure that he could prove the concept. He set aside six months of sabbatical and observed lessons from voice teachers in England, France, Germany, and Italy. He then formed his findings into a book outlining the vast differences in vocal technique between the national styles. From that study came his first book, National Schools of Singing (1977).

His curiosity thoroughly piqued, in 1978 Miller dedicated two months to study with Dr. Harm Schutte at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, determined to further understand the physiology and acoustics of the voice when used in different ways. Around this time, he also began attending the symposia of the Voice Foundation as well as meetings that brought together voice scientists and voice teachers.

“I would say that he was incredibly eager to bring together what is known scientifically about the voice with what is known pedagogically about the voice,” Titze explains. “He was an incredibly good reader and listener. He spent the time going to conferences and was regularly at meetings and panel discussions. He would listen to what people would present and think it through thoroughly, and then put it into his own words. He was the integrator, taking the science and making it palpable to those who don’t usually read scientific literature. He couched it in a language that was good for the consumer, and we need more people like that. Richard truly was a pioneer in that.”

“He was just a very, very curious man,” says David Adam Moore, a baritone at La Scala and former student of Richard Miller, “and he pursued his curiosity about how the human voice functions to an extent that I don’t think many other people have. He went all over the world collaborating with scientists and people who were not necessarily in the music world and vocal world to get the answers he wanted. This is something I really admired about him.”

Miller took on a new responsibility in 1980, when he was named the editor of The NATS Journal, a position he held for the next eight years. Even as an editor, he continued to push the boundaries of established vocal pedagogy and sought to expand his own knowledge to fields where he was not necessarily comfortable. For example, Miller put forth an article focusing on nonclassical styles, something that many questioned at the time. However, he qualified that “If ‘nonclassical’ voice training is to become a part of general vocal pedagogy, it will do so only from those sources who treat it logically and rationally.”1

He also began working on a new book, Structure of Singing, which was first published in 1986 and now serves as a guide and textbook for students of singing and pedagogy throughout the world. Miller considered this book as his effort to integrate the vocal pedagogy of the past 400 years with the latest discoveries of voice science and, consequently, develop a systematic vocal technique that would benefit not only the voice performance and pedagogy community but also voice health professionals.

Those who were Miller’s students, however, stress that he was not just a technician.

“What’s really important is that even with his vast knowledge of vocal science, he always approached singing from the standpoint of a performing artist,” insists Champagne. “He always prided himself that he was an artist, a performer, a musician, and that we were obtaining all of this information from vocal science so that we could become better performers, better communicators. Some of my favorite memories are not discussing vocal science or technique, but discussing German poetry and Lieder, and discussing his love of music and poetry. He was a musicologist first, so to speak about the repertoire from the artistic side and to still be able to talk about acoustics and the balancing of the relationships of the formants in the sound was remarkable.”

The Master Teacher

In 1981, Miller established the annual Institute of Voice Performance Pedagogy, attended by thousands of singers and teachers each summer at Oberlin. He also began working with singing teachers in France to correct some of the old misconceptions of voice teaching in that country.

“What I liked about Richard was that he did a lot of observations and he talked about real things,” relays Dr. Donald Miller, the developer of VoceVista and associate of the Groningen Voice Research Lab. “Back then, there wasn’t a lot of that from the singing side. He made some real progress that way, directing people towards what was real.”

As Miller himself said, “You must know the physiology behind the art. All the ‘pink clouds’ in the world won’t help you move through the passaggio.”2

Around this time, he also began to teach masterclasses around the country and throughout the world, and continued to do so until just before he passed away.

“He was a good clinician and good at the masterclass situation,” continues Donald Miller. “When I met him in 1978, I asked him to come to Syracuse and do a workshop, and he came for a week and worked with about a dozen students. I thought he did an excellent job. He was good psychologically. He was good at estimating what they might learn, what they really needed. Last June, he still had his charm and a sense of humor, which is important too. He loved teaching and he liked the singers, and that’s one reason it worked so well. But, he knew the stuff. He wasn’t making it up.”

“I would watch him do a masterclass, and I’m not a singer, but I could qualitatively hear a difference before and after he told them to do a few things,” Abelson recalls, speaking to Miller’s effectiveness as a teacher.

Unlike many masterclass teachers, Miller did not hesitate to give technical instruction to the student. “He was very against the idea of teaching young singers interpretation independently of technique,” adds Moore. “That was something he definitely did not support and saw a lot of spectacularly bad performances of people trying to be flashy and artistic without the technique to back it up.”

Mary, recalling why she believed her husband was such an effective teacher, says, “He was very outgoing and loved to be with people. One of the things that so many people have said from his masterclasses is that he always treated everybody as a real person. He never thought, ‘Oh, can I get this one off my neck?’ If he could help anybody, no matter how they sang, if he could help them improve a little bit or make it more fun or easier to sing, he would. It didn’t matter. He loved helping.”

The Otto B. Schoepfle Vocal Arts Center

In 1989, Miller obtained funding and established the OBSVAC, the first voice lab of its kind to be integrated into a music school. Students at Oberlin were able to take a recording of their lesson and bring it to the lab where they could see a spectral analysis and track the changes they made during the lesson. This project grew from his frequent collaborations with the Cleveland Clinic in the 1980s where he became a staff member and formed a mutually beneficial relationship. Paul Kiesgen, professor of music at Indiana University, describes Miller as “a person who can help scientists and practitioners to understand each other.”3

Dr. Robert Sataloff, president of Voice Foundation, enjoyed working with Miller for over 30 years and praises his exemplary life. “Richard was not only an outstanding and open-minded teacher, but he was also one of the first teachers to embrace voice science and integrate it practically into teaching. He not only taught musicians to add science to voice teaching, but he also helped to educate voice health professionals as to the needs and language of singers and voice teachers.”

“In the future, I think he’ll be looked on as a pioneer,” offers Abelson about Miller’s work at the Center. “His interest was really to integrate objective measurement into voice study, and that’s what he did. He was curious and careful, and he kept checking himself. He said, ‘Did I say that right? Did I get that right?’ And he was very open if I corrected him, and he would fix it. There was never anything defensive or closed in his relationship with me. He made every moment a learning moment, every experience a learning experience.”

“He founded the lab and spent hours and days in the lab,” confirms Champagne. “He was very dedicated to it, but one should not get the impression that he was just a voice scientist or technician. He used the equipment as a tool, but he did not use it in his studio. Still, he very much felt that we were dealing with physical and acoustical laws and, if we have that information, why don’t we use it? Why don’t we speak in those terms rather than using imagery that is much less specific?”

“He had multiple mirrors set up so you could stand in one area and see yourself from the front, from the side, and from the back,” shares Moore about his lessons with Miller. “Then, he had video set up that caught all the reflections from these areas at the same time. He always encouraged us to go and look at our videos in the lab so we could hear what we were doing, we could see what we were doing, and we could also see how that reads on the spectrogram. It was visual and sensory reinforcement in many different ways.”

Due largely in part to Miller’s initiative and example, voice labs are now being instituted in music schools and vocal studios around the world, and real-time biofeedback is giving singers a more objective way to measure vocal progress. His goal in all of this, however, was always to enrich the artistry and musicality of performance. He believed that singers who are more technically accomplished and aware have a greater capacity for beauty and expression in their art.

Miller’s Legacy

“I believe that Richard Miller has had more influence on the direction of voice teaching than any person in history,” Paul Kiesgen stated boldly in 2007.4

“I think he would like to be remembered,” Titze adds, “as someone who took the nonsense out of teaching singing and brought basic principles of physiology into it, taking a lot of the voodoo away from it.”

His teaching has also influenced the instruction of the current young generation of singers. “I came to Oberlin and left Oberlin thinking that a voice teacher was a fabulous musician, a fabulous linguist, a musicologist, knew the repertoire backwards and forwards, and also then had all of the technical know-how to teach,” Champagne expounds. “He set the bar very, very high with regard to what a voice teacher is. Of course, later, when I continued my studies, I found out that’s not necessarily what every voice teacher is. He contradicted the pernicious notion of a dumb singer. He is the best example, for me, of the antithesis of a dumb singer, and I have taken that as a model in all of my teaching.”

Mary Miller believes her husband’s students will be his legacy. “He gave his all to his students and received all from them, too.”

“He made such a huge impression on me that in every performance I do and in every rehearsal, Mr. Miller is almost like this little Yoda,” Moore relates. “At just the right moment, Yoda would appear over Luke Skywalker’s shoulder and would tell him something really wise. Various things [Miller] has told me through the years, they always pop in my head at the right times. Of all the people I have known, he is the one I would count as the biggest influence in my life.”

Richard Miller began his career wanting to do something that would be useful for people and, in the end, he positively impacted an entire discipline of the arts. He bridged the gaps between the elements of history, singing, and science—and, in doing so, he reshaped the landscape of voice pedagogy. In looking back over the path we have walked as vocalists, we can see how much we owe to Richard Miller, whose great footsteps we will continue to follow.

Endnotes

1. Robert Erwin. “Popular Song and Music Theater: What Richard Miller Hath Wrought.” Journal of Singing 63, no. 3 (Jan/Feb 2007): 326.

2. Christine Thomas. “‘A National Treasure:’ The Richard Miller Workshop Experience.” Classical Singer 12, no. 10 (Oct 1999): 10.

3. Paul Kiesgen. “How Richard Miller Changed the Way We Think About Singing.” Journal of Singing 63, no. 3 (Jan/Feb 2007): 261.

4. Ibid, 264.

Jason Vest

As a soloist, tenor Jason Vest has been featured with Amarillo Opera, the Stara Zagora and Plovdiv opera houses in Bulgaria, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Vest has worked with composers to premiere their works in roles he originated or debuted, such as Douglas Pew’s “The Good Shepherd” and Bradley Ellingboe’s “Star Song.” As a recitalist, Vest has performed for the Mexico Liederfest in Monterrey and the Vocal Artistry Art Song Festival in Albuquerque. He is a member of the Grammy award-winning choral group Conspirare, under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson, and the Vocal Arts Ensemble in Cincinnati. Vest is assistant provost and associate professor of voice at Northern Kentucky University.