Courtesy of Alimah Boyd

Mark Miller ’89, organist and professor of church music at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, made his television debut as the lead soloist in a televised special by the Discovery Orchestra on April 22. 

The interactive special, which premiered on The WNET Group’s ALL ARTS channel, explored the work of 19th-century French composer and organist Camille Saint-Saëns, particularly highlighting his third symphony. Known for its mission to make classical music more easily digestible, the Discovery Orchestra is a New Jersey-based group that focuses on interactive education during its concerts. 

Miller spoke to the News about his experience working with the orchestra, his training as an organist and his goals as an educator. 

“Professor Miller is a valued and versatile member of our faculty, and I am proud that his diverse talents will be showcased in this broadcast,” Martin Jean, director of Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, wrote in an email to the News. “Not only is Prof. Miller an exquisite organist, he is a composer, pianist, conductor, and church musician with command of a wide range of musical styles. This program will feature him in only one of his many guises.”

The Discovery Orchestra’s mission is to teach the critical skills that help listeners thoroughly understand and connect with classical music, said founder and artistic director George Marriner Maull.

The orchestra produced its first televised concert in 2002, according to Maull, and has since sought to promote classical music education in an entertaining way. Maull said he uses methods like interactive conversations with the audience and brief histories of composers and instruments to make pieces more understandable to the average listener.

“We help people get inside of pieces of classical music in ways they might not have otherwise been able to,” Maull said. “It’s much like going into an art museum and getting close to a famous painting, trying to learn and understand things that weren’t noticed at first glance.”

 This weekend’s special focused on Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 3 in C Minor,” which Maull explained uniquely featured the organ as a core part of the orchestra.

With the prominence of the organ in the piece, Maull wanted to find a skilled organist to headline the Discovery Orchestra’s special. He landed on Miller, a fellow New Jersey local who Maull said has earned much acclaim for his work as an organist and composer.

Miller told the News that he was honored to perform in the special. The Saint-Saëns symphony, he said, allowed him to apply his skills as an organist in unique and empowering ways.

“You don’t have to be a virtuoso to play the organ in this piece,” Miller said. “I’ve certainly played a lot more difficult pieces, but this one really just showcases the power of the organ in an orchestra. The organ is really exposed in this piece, it has a higher profile.”

Miller started playing the piano at age seven, and said he developed a passion for the pipe organ as a teenager. Growing up, he played as an organist for his local church.

He said he credits much of his career success to his musical training as an undergraduate at Yale. He pointed specifically to organ concerts at Woolsey Hall and annual appearances at the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween Special.

“I practiced for so many hours a day when I was at Yale, and that skill was definitely a huge part of my training for this performance,” Miller said. “You know, just learning how to train and get that technical proficiency and play on the highest level I can.

After earning his masters in organ performance at The Juilliard School, Miller returned to the University in 2006 as a professor of church music at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music. He currently teaches a class to aspiring organists called “Liturgical Keyboard Skills.”

One of his main goals as an educator, Miller said, is to encourage his students to approach music with an open mind. 

He described focusing on assigning his students pieces from a variety of traditions, at varying levels of difficulty. He is especially interested, he said, in helping his organ students learn about gospel music.

“Even though I am Black, I grew up in a mostly white environment, and I was always taught in Western musical traditions,” Miller said. “It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I even learned about gospel music. As a teacher, I am really focused on helping other organists learn how to play in diverse styles, like church style.”

Miller emphasized the eagerness and high skill level of his students. He spoke about how he enjoys assigning them challenging pieces and watching them struggle with styles they are unfamiliar with. 

The challenges he faced as an undergraduate, he said, were important parts of his own musical journey.

“It’s kind of amazing to think from my perspective as an 18 year old coming to Yale that as a 56 year old I’m still doing exactly what I love to do and what I learned when I was here,” Miller said. “My music and this performance is deeply meaningful, and it’s integrated and connective work for me and my life. So I have a lot of gratitude for Yale and for my career.”

Invented in the 3rd century B.C.E, the organ is the oldest keyboard instrument.

Molly Reinmann covers Admissions, Financial Aid & Alumni for the News. Originally from Westchester, New York, she is a sophomore in Berkeley College majoring in American Studies.