John Miller – My Teacher

I remember first seeing John Miller on the television in 1996 while I was watching the Eurovision Young Musician competition. It is strange looking back. I remember there was a judge on the panel from every country which was represented and John was the British judge.

I met John a few times as the years cruised by. He was on various panels when I was auditioning for music colleges and youth orchestras, and I saw him playing the trumpet again on television a few times. When I was looking for some extra supplementary tuition as a 17-year old, I was given his number by someone at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and he helped me find someone really good.

He wrote a book with a blue cover called ‘The Baroque Trumpet’  from which I’ve sourced some beautiful Baroque content for my new album of solo trumpet and brass music. Here are the two pieces which my team and I decided to include on the album:

I was very pleased on my first week as a student at the Royal Northern College (RNCM) of Music, in 1999, to discover that John would be my principal study tutor for my first two years. We had our first proper chat in the Lord Rhodes Room, which was often used for chamber recitals. On this occasion, freshers like me were being welcomed into the college and filled with as much wine as anyone could ever want to drink. As I tucked into a glass of delicious red, John advised me to make the most of the free drink as the college would not be giving us any more of that stuff, for free at least! Needless to say, this advice was colourfully adhered to by a number of aspiring professional musicians. In the words of Monty Python, ‘there was much rejoicing’.

At this time, John was in his first year as the Head of Brass at the RNCM. He was always and continues to be an inspiring teacher. Points were made by him in lessons using all sorts of sideways thinking and engaging stories. I’ll give you some examples:

There is a book by J. R. Arban which is well-known by many brass musicians, simply entitled ‘Cornet Method’. Arban was a brilliant master of the cornet. He used to play in the Paris Opera, where he would hear the operatic stars of his day expressing themselves on the stage. In particular, the arias he listened to from his seat in the orchestra pit left an impression on him, and he turned many of them into exercises which are in his book. This book has since been transcribed and transposed so that it can be used by players of other brass instruments. I pulled my well-used and rather beaten-up copy of the Arban out in one of my first lessons with John. “I used to have a pair of shoes that looked like that” he commented.

There were so many similar anecdotes brought by John into my lessons and those of my contemporaries. These always make me smile when I think back. He let me have a go on a Schilke trumpet of his once or twice, which he played in the orchestra at Charles and Diana’s wedding. John knew Mr Schilke who was a fantastic character, and word on the street was that Schilke often had some very fine punch at the back of his shop.

John has always been very caring and supportive. I remember feeling a bit lost on one of my summer holidays. John very kindly invited me to come up and stay with him and his lovely partner, June in Lancaster. We had a brilliant few days going to museums and sites of interest around Lancaster, where he spends much of his free time. Having spoken to fellow students over the years, it has become apparent to me that this was one of many occasions when John Miller has shown genuine compassion and insight into the welfare of his students and friends.

The Royal Northern College of Music - Music Conservatoire
Above: The Royal Northern College of Music

I arranged for John to visit Ireland back in 2019 to do some teaching at the TU Dublin Conservatoire and the Royal Irish Academy of Music. To advertise his visit, I wrote a basic blog. But for some time I’ve wanted to write something with a little more depth about him. So we had a video call back on April 30 last year.

John was seven when he first took up the cornet in his local brass band. He took up music because his older brother was in a band and he says there wasn’t much else to do where he grew up, in Fife, in Scotland. His early banding friends included James Gourlay and John Wallace CBE. James (Jim) is a very gifted tuba player and teacher who now conducts the world-renowned River City Brass Band, a British-style brass band based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Jim was also the head of the School of Wind, Brass and Percussion while I was at the RNCM. I learned a lot from him, for which I am grateful, and he and John Miller worked very well together.

John Wallace is a very well-known trumpet virtuoso who is the retired Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He and John Miller have collaborated on many occasions during their  long careers. A key figure in John Miller’s early musical life was his uncle, George Miller, who played the euphonium in Munn and Feltons and Fairey Aviation when it was in its heyday with Harry Mortimer.

It was with these brass musicians young and old, along with friends and families in the local community, that John Miller joined the Tullis Russell Mills Band in Fife. At this time he was playing third cornet, but he regrets that he was later poached to play soprano cornet with another band in the Championship Section. He feels he was very unworldly as a teenager. Brass bands in the UK are organised into sections which is a bit like a football league. Bands are put into different the sections based on their ability and the Championship Section is the for the bands with the most advanced ability.

Another early inspiration was the famous trumpeter Ernest Hall, a fantastic professional, who coached the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) and stamped all the members with great core skills of good sound and breathing with the conductor’s stick! A televised concert brought him to the attention of one of Hall’s star pupils, Philip Jones (1928-2000). Philip Jones was an English trumpeter whose many achievements included his Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. This trailblazing brass group changed the world’s understanding and appreciation of symphonic brass chamber music, and John played in it as an undergraduate.   

John elaborated on his early start to his playing career. “The profession was such that you could actually start a lot younger,” he told me. “There were fantastic and highly developed players around then, but fewer than there are now.”

Around the time John was teaching me in Manchester, I was going through a phase of climbing trees and buildings, which I rather enjoyed. John advised me not to do this, as he was concerned for my safety, but he did tell me of an occasion while he was studying at Cambridge when he was locked out by the landlady and used a drainpipe to gain entry to his College room. John had decided to study at King’s College Cambridge rather than attending a College of Music – this really stemmed from the National Youth Orchestra – he wanted to stick with his many chums who went to Cambridge, and where concerts were a-plenty.

After Cambridge, John went to study in New York. During our video interview, I asked him:

Did you always want to be a member of an established symphony orchestra? Was it hard work getting into the Philharmonia or did you find it easy?

“I used to listen to a lot of the Mahler symphonies, recorded by Sir John Barbirolli (1899–1970) and the Philharmonia Orchestra. These recordings were very famous, and I knew the sound of that orchestra. I think I ended up in that orchestra because I had a recommendation from Philip Jones to the first trumpet in the Philharmonia Orchestra, David Mason. It was all a surprise; I was invited to go along and play a school’s concert on a Saturday morning in Croydon. There were all sorts of pieces put up – Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Britten’s ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ and more. I sat as third trumpet, and they just passed scores down the line and asked, “Can you play that one?” They saw what my reading was like, and what my playing was like, and I worked with them from then onwards. I was a member till 1994 – 20 years. From the time that I first started listening to the Philharmonia to when I started working with them regularly it was about six or seven years.”

Are there any memories or friendships you particularly cherish from the days when you were doing more playing than teaching?

“I used to play morning, noon and night, and really my playing was my occupation; work was plentiful. In 1980 I was invited to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, to teach the natural trumpet (an old fashioned trumpet with no valves). My first student there was David Staff (one of the worlds best natural trumpet players) and David Staff played the natural trumpet better than I could dream of! So in a sense my employment there, it was a funny one. “Staffy” was a one-off. He didn’t need any teaching, but I was able to help him with his normal (valved) trumpet playing. And that’s what I did, because there was plenty of demand for me to teach the valved trumpet at the Guildhall. At that time, the other trumpet staff were excellent – particularly Bernard Brown, but they were approaching retirement age, just like I’m doing now myself. I stayed there for almost twenty years, and they were happy times. In 1999 I moved from the Guildhall to the RNCM.”

Are there any friendships you cherish from your playing days in particular?

Hundreds of them. In an orchestra or in an ensemble, and in freelancing, you make many friends personally, socially and musically. John Wallace, who had come like me from the band in Scotland was a close colleague. James Watson, a fantastic player who sadly died in 2011 was in the same ‘cohort’. When I joined the Philharmonia, James Watson joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (also in London). Nigel Boddice, another player from Leicestershire, joined the BBC Scottish Orchestra and moved up to Glasgow. The senior members in the profession, David Mason, Philip Jones, Elgar (Gary) Howarth and others were welcoming and helpful. Raymond Premru, the American bass trombonist in the Philharmonia, had an incredible influence on me. He was a phenomenally talented player and composer and kind individual.”

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Above: John Miller

At what point did you find that you had a flare for teaching?

“I started it quite young, and I would say that my own development was not typical because I didn’t go to a music conservatory, so the teaching I received from a few individuals was a little bit sporadic. It wasn’t very prescriptive, like a College course today. I was encouraged to go to the USA as a postgraduate by Jones and Howart, and I had a full year there. The first six months were with William Vacchiano. He was an old-timer ­– when I met him he was about 63 years old and he’d just retired from the New York Philharmonic. He was a mouthpiece wizard – an expert on embouchures and mouthpieces. Six months later I moved on to Chicago and had lessons with Vincent Cichowicz, a famous teacher who was still the second trumpet in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, alongside Adolf Herseth. Cichowicz was the more patient one, though. They were both very inspiring. In Chicago, you learnt loads through going every week to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts in the Symphony Hall. That was your motivation, and you wanted to know how they did it. The style of playing there was quite different to the style in New York or London. It was a different sort of breathing, even, and a different sort of sound. By the time I came back to London, I had a lot of ideas, some of which were a little conflicting and unformed. But overall I was very influenced by  Vacchiano’s methods, and Cichowicz’s holistic approach. It influenced what you might call my philosophy.”

 What would you say are the main differences between the style in Chicago and the style in the UK?

“I think concert-goers would recognise that the type of playing in Chicago is definitely good. In the 1960s, the Chicago brass sound was quite individual. It was bright, it was quite virtuosic, and I think that in Britain, by and large, the brass style was a bit more understated. It was a slightly different approach and there were differences in the way it was achieved. Those differences, wouldn’t be obvious to the audience, but they’d be obvious to somebody who’d studied in these places. I think the core teaching there is captured in a 1996 book by Brian Frederiksen called ‘Song and Wind’. It’s about a tuba player called Arnold Jacobs, from whom I had a few lessons while I was in Chicago. He was inspirational. If you look into the ‘Song and Wind’ approach to playing, you’ll find it simple but very advanced. In this respect, the Americans probably used to lead the pack. Many of the ideas used today worldwide, come from America, from the time of the Second World War, the time of Aaron Copland and the ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ (1942). That was very forward writing and very brassy, and inspired a lot of the world. Also Jazz, which came from the United States, came to Europe in 1919 with the James Reese Europe band. So a lot of the very influential ideas in music have come from the USA.”

 What happened after you left the Philharmonia?

“In 1994 I made a decision to come to the North of England much more frequently. I met my partner June in 1993. From 1994 until about 2002, I was very active playing brass chamber music. I played in the ‘Wallace Collection’ brass ensemble and other freelance groups. I was a freelance trumpet player until 1999, when I got a full time job at the RNCM. Even then, I was still very busy as a player, until I couldn’t sustain the business, and began to focus more exclusively on my teaching.”

Do you find it easy to balance your family life with your work?

“Sometimes that’s a very big challenge. I found that when I was head of the School of Wind and Percussion in Manchester, it was quite difficult, because it was a very absorbing job. Running a department of a school or college, or conducting an orchestra, is a very absorbing thing. It’s a difficult thing to balance, but these days, my life is probably more balanced.”  

“Can you name some of your former students and what they are up to now?

“There are many of them and they’re all over the place, really. For example, there’s Pasi Pirinen, long-serving Principal in the Helsinki Philharmonic; Duoglas Waterstone the second trumpet in the Hong Kong Philharmonic; Robin Totterdell, who plays frequently with the London Symphony Orchestra. There’s Alison Balsom (world renowned soloist) and another player of her generation, Chris Deacon, who is an excellent orchestral player. Jamie Prophet, who went to the BBC Philharmonic. More recently there are people like Pat Hoff in Los Angeles – the stream of players continue, and interesting to see the ones who make it … Hard work is an important factor.”

What do you love most about being a brass player?

I think if you’re a brass player, you need quite a lot of bravado in your personality. Brass without bravado is not usually very interesting. You need a lot of hot blood flowing round the body to play a brass instrument well. You need the hot blood and you need the sensitivity, that’s a lot of it. That’s a big part of being a musician. But I have found that this ‘mix’ needs handling, from my own experiences.

I asked John what books he has written and he directed me to the following list, which can be found on his profile on the RNCM Website :

Authored Books

  • Trumpet Basics, (London: Faber Music, 2002).
  • The Good Brass Guide, ( Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 1999).

Edited Books

  • Third Book of Trumpet Solos, ed. by John Wallace and John Miller, (The Music Company (UK) Ltd, 2020).
  • Fourth Book of Trumpet Solos, ed. by John Wallace and John Miller, (The Music Company (UK) Ltd, 2020).
  • First Book of Trumpet Solos, ed. by John Miller and John Wallace, (London: Faber Music, 1994).
  • Second Book of Trumpet Solos, ed. by John Miller and John Wallace, (London: Faber Music, 1994).

Journal Articles

  • ‘The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, 1951–1986’, Historical Brass Society Journal, 31 (2019), 51–76. 10.2153/0120190011003
  • ‘Two Northern Bands’, Transactions of Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 110 (2017), 62 – 74.

I’d like to extend an enormous thank you to John Miller for his time and help with this blog and also for being an inspirational teacher to me and many, many musicians over the years. I’m very much looking forward to reading his book ‘The modern brass ensemble: brass art-music and Britain’s part in its evolution’ that has been years in the making, and is scheduled for publication by Boydell and Brewer in 2022-23.