He manages to do so without ever leaving his studio in Barrington, Ill., where he teaches piano long distance. Miller still teaches a handful of students in person, but he is one of the first in a growing cadre of music teachers who instruct their students remotely. He teaches the vast majority of his students either via phone or Skype. (He has even taught lessons while driving.)
Moving at the speed of his students, Miller modifies the lessons as he goes, applying a personally tailored approach that differs from traditional method book instruction.
“I see it as teaching someone to fish by comparison to giving someone a fish,” he says. Focusing first on chords and chord structure, his students begin learning the fundamental structures of the songs they want to play. This takes the emphasis off memorization and encourages playing by ear and finding new ways to play well-known songs, as well as offering the foundation with which to create new songs.
“This is how the approach to teaching jazz and classical differ, and why guitar is so popular,” he says, to explain his theory-driven, chord-focused teaching style.
A typical lesson begins with three-note chord drills, then moves on to a familiar standard such as “Misty” or “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Miller’s mother, Patricia, was his first musical inspiration. One of the first in the country to receive a bachelor’s degree in music therapy from the School Sisters of St. Francis’s Alverno College in Milwaukee, she found employment as a music therapist at two mental hospitals in Indiana in the early 1950s.
For years she played classical works such as “Liebestraum” by Franz Liszt, “Fantasie Impromptu” by Chopin, and “Bach 2 and 3 Part Inventions” just before the young Miller’s bedtime.
“I can remember saying/shouting from my room toward my mother, ‘Keep playing!’ ” he says, “To which she would often say, ‘You are supposed to be sleeping!’ ”
He eventually asked her to teach him. So Patricia Miller began teaching classical piano to him and two other neighborhood children and would continue to teach him off and on between the ages of 6 and 16. Although he loved the music, he didn’t take well to the traditional style of teaching and quit his study several times over the years.
“There was always lots of music lying around at home [though], so I would try and play everything I could get my hands on,” says Miller, “In turn, I became a very good sight reader.”
Then inspiration struck again. In early 1979, Miller went to hear the famed jazz pianist Bill Evans play at Rick’s Cafe in Chicago.
“My best friend’s dad was in the Army with Bill Evans, and when he came to town to perform, my friend’s dad said, ‘You really have to go hear this guy play.’ ”
The 19-year-old Miller was part of a full house that night to see Evans. He had never heard a professional jazz pianist play before. There in the dimly lit room, he sat closely enough to have a great view of Evan’s hands as he played.