John Miller MUS ’07, a trombonist and the manager of community programs at the School of Music, died Thursday morning after falling from the fourth story of Hendrie Hall. He was 29.
Colleagues and friends from around New Haven and Yale called Miller’s death a huge loss for both communities. Miller led the Music in Schools initiative, a program that sends School of Music graduate students to New Haven public schools to provide music lessons for children. Those who knew Miller well praised his ability to inspire a genuine love of music in his students.
“He was so compelling and passionate about music education,” said William Purvis, director of the Yale collection of musical instruments. “[For him,] the point was not training musicians, but training human beings.”
Miller joined the staff of the School of Music immediately after earning a master’s degree in trombone performance from the school four years ago. Around that time, Miller also started the middle school music program at the John C. Daniels School of International Communication and served as its band director. To help fund the band program, Miller secured a grant from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which provides money to help schools establish music programs.
Gina Wells, principal of the John C. Daniels School, said Miller was personally invested in his students’ success. Miller often drove his students to auditions, she said, and would counsel them as they considered which high school was best for them. Even after his students left the John C. Daniels School, Miller kept in touch with them.
“He became the heart and soul of the music program [at the John C. Daniels School] that is now widely acclaimed,” Wells said.
Miller used creative tactics to engage students, said Vincent Oneppo MUS ’73, a retired spokesperson for the School of Music who came to campus Thursday after learning of Miller’s death. Though music was his passion, Miller blended multiple disciplines in his lessons, Oneppo said, and even asked his School of Music tutors to compose music based on stories that the New Haven students had written in English class, and on illustrations they had drawn in art class. The tutors and students would play the resulting score together, Oneppo said.
Relationships with students and colleagues were a priority for Miller, who made a genuine effort to get to know those encountered in the course of his work.
When the School of Music hosted a symposium for about 50 music teachers from around the country last spring, Miller seemed to know the name, face and hometown of each one, said Michael Yaffe, associate dean of the School of Music. Miller even called the teachers before they arrived on campus and spoke to each for about an hour, Yaffe said.
Yaffe described Miller as a “workaholic” who would log 18-hour days, only to arrive at the office again the next day at 6 a.m, and said that Miller formed most of his friendships through his involvement in the New Haven education system.
“There is nobody like this man,” Yaffe said. “This was a young man that I saw as a future leader of our field.”
Last fall, Miller officially stepped down from his post as band director at the John C. Daniels School to focus on Yale outreach projects at other New Haven public schools, Wells said.
Ellen Maust, facilitator of music for New Haven Public Schools, said that before Miller took over the School of Music’s tutoring programs, few New Haven students earned spots in selective music festivals. But she said over 40 city students qualified for the most recent Connecticut Music Educators Association Southern Regional Middle School Concert Festival — more than ever before.
Dean of the School of Music Robert Blocker, who knew Miller both as a student and a staff member, said he is confident that Miller’s work will continue to benefit New Haven youth even after his death.
“John gave us a strong foundation for our music program in the New Haven schools, and we will build on that foundation,” Blocker said. “We will build on it, first of all, because children in New Haven schools deserve music in their lives.”
Alon Harish contributed reporting.