Mary Hogan’s Chuck Miller playing final refrain as music teacher
MIDDLEBURY — Chuck Miller, then a young graduate of the Berklee College of Music, found his professional life at a crossroads in 1968 — one of the most tumultuous years in this nation’s history. Assassins had taken the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The U.S. was escalating its military involvement in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam.
Miller could have plunged into composing, performing or teaching.
Global events helped him make his decision.
“I got a teaching job and a (draft) deferment,” Miller recounted during an interview on Tuesday. “It was an unlikely career.”
But it was also a long and rewarding one that Miller will cap this spring after more than four decades in the teaching profession, the last 26 years spent holding court with budding musicians and singers at Mary Hogan Elementary School.
“Kids have always been able to come through with the music I feed them,” Miller said above a colorful bow tie, his gray mane neatly tucked in a ponytail.
One immediately gets a sense that this is a guy who has marched to the beat of his own drum.
Miller’s first teaching gig was at an elementary school in Winchendon, Mass., where he spent four years before becoming music instructor to middle- and high school students in Millis, also in Massachusetts.
He and his family decided to move out of the Bay State in 1990. It didn’t take them long to plot a course for the Green Mountain State.
“We had also enjoyed vacationing in Vermont,” Miller said.
He applied for a music teacher vacancy in UD-3, which includes Middlebury Union Middle and High schools. He interviewed for the job and got an offer.
But another Middlebury school suddenly jumped into the Chuck Miller sweepstakes.
Officials at Mary Hogan Elementary got wind of Miller’s application and invited him to apply for a vacancy there. He was impressed to see around nine people at the interview table, including administrators, school board members and parents.
“It was an incredible interview,” Miller said. “They had an impressive set-up here. I said to myself, ‘That’s the job I want.’”
And that’s the job he has kept and enjoyed ever since. It’s not only been the school; it’s been the demographic of children and their enthusiasm about music and learning in general, according to Miller.
“The elementary kids seem more motivated,” Miller said. “You need to drive the upper-level kids a little more.”
That youthful enthusiasm was on full display in the Mary Hogan Elementary School music room just before Miller’s interview with the Independent. As Miller expertly played the piano, around 10 of his students sang, with youthful abandon, a series of songs they had recently learned under their maestro’s tutelage.
Miller believes in giving his students a solid musical foundation in addition to making sure they have some fun. He teaches them how to write music, which they can instantly play through a computer program.
Things have certainly changed since Miller’s days at Berklee.
“At the time, (Berklee) was the only jazz school in the country,” he said, citing jazz as his favorite genre of music. “I had the advantage of being able to write music and get it played instantly.”
With today’s computer programs, all students can get that same instant gratification, he marveled.
“We are state-of-the-art here,” Miller said of the music equipment and technology at the Mary Hogan School. “We have two mobile computer labs. I project lessons on the screen, (the students) use their headphones. They do a lot of sharing.”
But it’s not all about computers.
He teaches students to play instruments, and he has just the skills to do it. Miller is most accomplished at the piano, and is also proficient in all the band instruments, including trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, saxophone and percussion.
“When I started studying music in high school, I knew I wanted to write music, so I figured I’d better learn how to play the instruments,” Miller said.
His students also exercise their vocal chords. They sing 25 to 30 songs per year, in each grade level.
“The kids really like it,” he said of music classes.
Of course some students are more musically inclined than others. Some would rather be kicking a ball or reading a book. Others have gone off to prestigious music schools. He has helped some of his students form their own pop, rock and jazz bands.
Jer Coons, an up-and-coming musician, songwriter and musical producer in Vermont, was one of Miller’s students.
“Music is an instinct everybody has, and these kids go for it, for sure,” Miller said. “Anyone can learn music, if they strive to do it.”
Outside of class, Miller continues to be a prolific music writer and performer, particularly in the jazz realm. He’s partnered with such musicians as Rick Redington, Sandra Wright, James Mee and Jenni Johnson. He regularly performs in jazz services at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury.
Writing, teaching and performing make for a full agenda, and Miller concedes his energy isn’t what it once was. That’s a major reason he’s decided to retire from his job at Mary Hogan School.
“I just can’t keep up the energy anymore,” he said ruefully, “and I see myself as an energetic teacher. By the end of the week, I’m exhausted.”
Miller vowed to enjoy an active retirement, however.
He’ll continue to write music and perform. He might even resume teaching on a part-time basis. He’ll have more time for hobbies, which will include cutting firewood and dusting off some old model trains that have been sitting around the house for many years.
Asked what he’ll miss most about his job at Mary Hogan School, he immediately replied, “The kids — when they get to the performances and see how much they are able to excel.”
Miller will certainly be missed by the ID-4 community.
“Chuck Miller’s commitment and instruction here at the Mary Hogan School has enriched the lives of so many student musicians over the years,” said Mary Hogan Elementary Principal Tom Buzzell. “He has helped launch the musical experiences of many of our students. Chuck has encouraged choral and band participation for all our students, gifted and reluctant. It has always been a pleasure to attend concerts where our students are well instructed and warmly recognized.
“He leaves a legacy of commitment and service to our school community,” Buzzell added. “He will be fondly remembered and the current program has benefited from his tireless professionalism.”
ID-4 Chairwoman Ruth Hardy also had kind words for Miller.
“As a parent and school board member, I am incredibly grateful for the many years of service Chuck has put into teaching hundreds of Middlebury children,” she said. “Chuck goes out of his way to ensure that every child who wants to make music is included and celebrated no matter her ability or choice of instrument, genre, or ensemble. He nurtures every child’s inherent love of music, and is exceedingly patient and gracious through all of the squeaks and bangs of elementary music. The Mary Hogan School community will miss Chuck, and we wish him well during his next phase of music-making.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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