By Lola Duffort
Rutland City Public Schools Superintendent Mary Moran — then second in command — remembers what she told her boss 17 years ago when Peter Miller’s application came in over the fax machine.
“I said to Mr. Wolk: Stop the presses. He’s the man,” she said.
But after four decades building and directing string and orchestral programs in public and private education, the man who built Vermont’s largest student orchestral program retires from Rutland City schools at the end of the year.
“It just feels like it’s time to pursue other focuses at this point in my life,” Miller, 61, said recently.
Between his duties at city schools as orchestra teacher and fine-arts director, teaching at Castleton University, conducting at the Lakes Region Youth Orchestra, and his private music teaching, Miller said his workday frequently stretches across 14 hours.
“I’d like to see where I could get it down to about half of that,” he said — and perhaps pursue some writing.
The decision was “bittersweet,” he said. “It’s been very gratifying to see something spring and build and come to fruition over the years.”
Asked about career highlights, Miller said he was happy to have built a “program that reaches all different types of students, of all different types of backgrounds.”
There’s an expectation that good student orchestral programs can only exist in “fancy suburbs of a big city,” Miller said. Rutland’s program showed everybody that that’s not the case.
“If you can stay with the student — every student — at least sometimes, you can make a difference in their lives,” he said.
RHS choir teacher Dan Graves called Miller, with whom he frequently collaborates, “a marvelous musician and person.”
“He’s just a very decent, very kind, very honest person,” he said — and one that can take students from learning “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to full-blown orchestral pieces, as challenging as Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”
“We’re going to miss him terribly,” he said.
Nova Wang, a junior at Rutland High and a star violinist — he performed at the National Association for Music Education’s All-National Honor Ensemble symphony orchestra in Nashville earlier this fall — called Miller “a third parent” and “someone I aspire to be.”
“He’s taught me everything I know about music,” said Wang, a pupil of Miller’s for nine years.
In his experience, teachers who exact great feats from their students are not particularly well-liked, Wang said. And those teachers who are universally liked usually don’t push their students very hard. But that’s not the case for Miller, according to Wang.
“I’m just mesmerized by the fact that he could be such a nice guy and such a great teacher,” Wang said.
“He always wants us to never say that that’s good enough,” Wang said. But students push themselves willingly, Wang said, because their teacher works hard to instill “a mutual respect between him and the student.”
Wang credits Miller for shepherding him to Nashville.
Preparing for the audition, “I went through a lot trying to make things perfect,” Wang said.
Miller took him aside and reminded him: “Music has to be fun, or else there’s no point in doing it,” Wang recalled. “I think that’s the thing that got me in.”
Loren Henderson, a junior at RHS and a cellist in the orchestra, echoed Wang in praising a teacher she called patient, compassionate, and dedicated.
“I always have so much fun,” she said.
RHS principal Bill Olsen said Miller “creates a real community of students who care about each other and the art that they produce.”
He remembered stopping to peek in on an orchestra practice just a few weeks ago while on his way to the cafeteria.
He watched as Miller stopped the song and made his students practice an adjustment. The audience probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, Olsen said he remembered Miller telling the students.
“He challenged them nevertheless to strive for perfection, simply because that’s what they should be aiming for; that they had the ability to reach the ideal through practice, patience and commitment,” Olsen said. “He taught them the concept of being the consummate professional, the idea of ‘it’s what you do when people aren’t watching.’
“Those students are so fortunate to have him as their mentor,” he said.