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Vern Miller Interview. Bassist & Music Educator

Part 1
Last time, we visited with journeyman bassist and brass instrument virtuoso Vern Miller, of the legendary Boston ‘60’s band, The Remains, and heard his account of how the band got together, their brief run at the big time, and the bond between all four original members that’s kept them together to this day. Vern also spoke of his theories on music education, a subject he is well familiar with, after spending over thirty years teaching middle school level instrumental music in the South Orange/Maplewood, New Jersey school system. He still teaches privately.

Were there challenges for you teaching in the public school system?
This could be the subject of an article unto itself. Schools have an extremely tough job; they’re handed a large group of adolescents, unique in his/her own way, each with some common needs, some with individual needs, and the school is told to “educate” them. There’s a global umbrella of expectations and goals that every student must accomplish at the end of each grade in order to pass to the next grade. The achievement of these
objectives is usually evaluated by some kind of testing, which in turn becomes a reflection as to whether the teacher is doing his or her job well.  So, a lot of teachers feel compelled to simply teach to the tests. Unfortunately, this causes a lot of kids to be poured down the same funnel and rubber stamped with the same information.
Another huge challenge is that knowledge and information is doubling at such a rapid rate, that it’s very easy to end up with a system that educates people for the past, not the present or the future.
Also, with schools scrambling to keep up with federal and state mandates, the arts often suffer. Arts programs are sometimes eliminated, cut back or relegated to extra-curricular status and scheduled outside of the parameters of the normal school day. There are kids who only experience success in music or art. Some of my best young musicians were labelled as “bad” kids, challenged, or learning disabled. They didn’t fit the mold. Some of these kids proved to be the most trustworthy, sincere and compassionate people I know. My two biggest challenges were to devise creative scheduling options to gain access to students, and to do my best to give them as much as I could, both personally and musically during whatever time I had with them.

Was it a rewarding experience for you overall? How so?
Teaching is extremely rewarding, to see students achieve success doing something for which they have a passion, to see that twinkle in a kid’s eye when they “get it,” to have someone contact you years later to say “thank you,” to know that you might have helped someone find their passion, are just a few of the rewards. I’ve had several students go on to become professional musicians, like singer/songwriter Lauryn Hill, as well as music educators. I’ve also made lifelong friends with former students as well as their parents.

In your private teaching practice, can you characterize your students in some way?
Students come to a teacher because they have a desire to learn. Maybe a teenage girl wants to play Taylor Swift, or a teenage boy just heard Eric Clapton, or an adult who’s been playing by ear for a while has realized he or she wants to learn to read music. Each has their unique personal needs, but they make a personal choice to study music.

What motivates your guitar students?
Hearing themselves making progress is the best motivator. Music gives immediate feedback. A student feeling good about his or her progress inspires motivation to keep getting better.

What do they ask of you as their teacher?
This is an interesting question. Some walk in the door with a very specific agenda, and my job is to try to help them accomplish that. But, I think the unspoken, underlying thing they’re asking of me is to help them find what they’ve been looking for and help carve out a road for them to pursue it. I’ve had students study guitar with me, only switch over to studying songwriting, or film/classical composition, or audio engineering and production, or even all of the above. I’ve had trumpet students become great trombonists. I have a guitar student who has blossomed into an amazing young film composer. Other guitar students have
become great bass players. As a teacher, it’s extremely important to listen to and read your students. It unfolds over time as you expose them to all the different aspects of musical possibilities that they might be interested in and wish to pursue.
This also pertains to genres of music. I’ve had die hard heavy metal students develop a passion for classical guitar. You can’t force any of this on a student. You just have to open the doors and be perceptive as to which one(s) the student walks through comfortably.

How do you use modern technology in your teaching practice?
Because I teach theory, composition, songwriting and audio production, I use a lot of technology. I have a studio in my home, and use Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Finale, Sibelius, Masterwriter, Practica Musica and Band In A Box, among others, as teaching tools. I teach students how to use these programs and today’s audio technology in the hopes of preparing them for the musical environment of today and tomorrow.

What is the future of guitar-based education?
I don’t really know. The guitar replaced the accordion years ago as the most popular instrument, and has thrived as the most popular instrument in our culture for a long time, but guitar sales are supposedly down. It used to be that nearly every kid needed a guitar to express himself. The instrument became an icon of our popular culture, especially where young people are concerned. Of course, many of us old teenage guitar slingers grew up to become grey-haired guitar slingers, hanging onto those 6-strings for dear life. With today’s technology, young people can make their own music on an iPhone or iPad. They can assemble music from samples and pre-recorded fragments, riffs and patterns.
There will always be people of all ages who will want to play guitar, which will constantly create the need for some form or forms of guitar-based education. Again, modern technology is also changing the face of learning how to play guitar with online instruction and teaching software. There’s some really good stuff out there, but to me, there’s nothing quite like sitting down in a room one on one with a student and playing some tunes together.

 By Bob Cianci


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