Despite his Yale and Juilliard training, Mark Miller opens his choirs to everyone. Being a gay, biracial adoptee and father might have something to do with that.
By Leslie Garisto Pfaff
In choir, Miller can lead “any of the parts and seldom has to look at his music,” remembers one alumna.
It was back in 1993 that Mark Miller and his father found themselves bobbing in a small rowboat on a quiet lake up in the Catskills, fishing for bass that didn’t seem all that interested in biting. So, like fishermen everywhere, they got to shooting the breeze, and as the afternoon waned, the talk turned to the younger Miller’s job prospects. “You know,” his father mentioned casually, “they’re looking for a new music director at the Theological School at Drew.” Mark wasn’t particularly surprised that his father, Charles W. Miller C’55, T’64, had heard about the opening.
But he wasn’t entirely sure why he’d brought it up. Miller was just three years out of Juilliard, and music director at a Roman Catholic church in Harlem. “I’m 25,” he said. “They wouldn’t be interested in what I have to offer.” That’s when his father, a Methodist minister, proved he knew his son better than Miller knew himself. “Actually,” he admitted, “I forged a letter in your name and said you’d be interested in the job.”
Miller was dubious about his prospects. But not long after, he got a call from Robin Lovin, then dean of the school, asking him in for an interview. He went, and says, “It just seemed to be the right fit.”
Fifteen years later, the fit’s still good. He’s teaching two courses (“Seminary Choir” and “History of African-American Church Music”), and directing the Seminary and Pan-African choirs. Eight years ago, he was also appointed Drew’s composer-in-residence. And in October he’ll be a keynote speaker at the esteemed Tipple-Vosburgh Lectures and Alumni Reunion of the Theo School.
Miller’s attachment to the school as well as the school’s deep affection for him were particularly evident one evening during finals week in Drew’s Seminary Chapel. As Miller—presiding over a concert by the Pan-African Choir—introduced Kirk Franklin’s contemporary gospel hymn “My Life Is in Your Hands,” he couldn’t resist ribbing the choir, made up of students of varying ages, ethnicities and musical backgrounds: “Even though I assume Franklin wrote this to a higher power,” he said, “students are singing it to their professors—‘my life is in your hands.’” As laughter flowed from the audience to the stage and back again, you could tell that Miller was having great fun—and wouldn’t have it any other way. In his estimation, if he and the choir—not to mention the congregation—aren’t having fun, something’s gone seriously wrong.
Which isn’t to say that Miller’s not a serious musician. He’s a highly accomplished classical organist, and his choral compositions, many of them collaborations with the lyricist Laurie Zelman T’00, fill 20 collections from Abingdon Press and Hope Publishing. His work is also sought after by other choral groups; last year, for instance, he wrote “Isaiah 40: Canticle of Hope” for an AIDS benefit and composed “Song of the Open Road,” an ambitious extended piece for choir and orchestra based on Walt Whitman’s poem, for the choral society Harmonium in Madison, N.J. That output would likely be enough to fill the days of a musician of lesser energy, but Miller, who only recently stepped down as director of contemporary worship at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, also directs three choirs outside of Drew, and teaches sacred music at Yale. And he does it all with an enthusiasm that’s magnetic.
“To use a very church-y word,” says the Rev. Jeff Markay C’88, T’95, Theo School alumni association president and a friend of Miller’s since the two were teenagers in the early 1980s, “Mark has a charism. He draws people into his sphere of music and spirit and grace.” It’s not unusual for musicians to drive hundreds of miles to play or sing with him. On the day of the Pan-African Choir performance, for example, his percussionists came down from New Haven, Conn. When Miller discovered that their driver played keyboards, he invited him to join in. “Mark has a real spirit of wanting to get to know people, and I think, in turn, people are attracted to that,” says the Rev. Tanya Linn Bennett, director of Seminary Chapel.
That spirit was undoubtedly kindled in a musical family in which Miller was the penultimate of seven children. His parents, both white, have two biological kids and adopted five others: Mark and his sister, who are biracial (Caucasian and African American); two other biracial siblings (Caucasian and Korean); and a child from Korea. Miller’s family life helps explain why inclusiveness is at the center of his worldview, shaping his spiritual life and love of music. Thanks to his father’s vocation, Miller was energized by both the church liturgy and its organ early on. “I was 4 or 5, and at the end of the service I would go running up to the pipe organ,” he remembers. “Those large organ pipes and the sound coming out of them—they always excited me.”
In junior high, he discovered Bach; he’d been taking piano for years and, he says, “it all started making sense for me, musically.” He talks about having a “Helen Keller experience”—a moment when you suddenly grasp something essential about yourself and the universe. For Miller, it was his sense of really being able to play the organ. When other kids were flipping burgers and bagging at the local supermarket, Miller’s first afterschool job was as a church organist. At Yale, he majored in music, then got a master’s degree in organ at Juilliard. Fresh from grad school, flush with confidence in his training and abilities, he was hired as organist at a Baptist church in Harlem—and got the confidence knocked right out of him. It turned out to be one of the most fortuitous events in his life.
“It was genuine culture shock,” he says. “In college, I went to England and Scotland and Wales, and that was nothing compared to driving an hour to Harlem and realizing I didn’t know anything. I’d just gotten my master’s degree, yet I felt like I was playing the music of a whole different community at a third-grade level.” His deficiencies were thrown into stark relief the first time he had to play without the accompaniment of the church’s music minister.
“The hymn was ‘This Little Light of Mine,’” he says. “There’s a thousand people in the church, and I’m playing—I don’t know how to say it—like a white boy. I was playing exactly what was in the book, and the minister stopped me after one verse and said, ‘You know, Mark, we don’t quite do it like that. Can you get the rhythm?’” Miller describes the moment as “humiliating and a great learning experience.” Not only did he begin an arc of musical education, he started to understand a truth about himself—“that I’m not all African American, not all Caucasian; I’m both.” The moment taught him what he tries to pass along to his students today—“let go of the written page and start listening.”
Miller is a gifted listener and an eclectic one as well; the selections he chooses for his choirs and his own compositions reflect his passion for an extraordinary diversity of music—everything from the classical canon to contemporary gospel to four-part Indonesian chant. Patrick Evans, director of music for daily worship at the Yale Divinity School, was instrumental in getting Miller his teaching position at the university. “I wanted my students to be exposed to his music and his spirit,” he says. Evans describes Miller’s work as “wide and harmonically rich, with a great respect for text.”
Anne Matlack, choirmaster at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, N.J., and artistic director of Harmonium, commissioned Miller to write “Song of the Open Road,” which she holds up as emblematic of his approach to composition. “If you listen, you’ll hear all sorts of styles in there,” she says. “There’s the gospel effect at the end, but there’s also folk song and some 21st-century techniques of harmony.” She compares this to his adaptations of classic hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” “He’ll use the actual tune of the old hymn at the beginning or the end or both,” she says, “and in the middle he’ll just split out and do this joyous gospel version.”
Bringing together apparently disparate elements is more than a musical touchstone for Miller; it’s an essential aspect of the way he looks at life and at people.
Three years ago he founded the Good News Community Choir at Covenant United Methodist Church in Plainfield, N.J. While the church provides the performance space, the choir—like all the choral groups Miller directs—is open to anyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, age or musical ability.
A desire for inclusivity drew him to participate in the United Methodist Church’s General Conference as a delegate in 2000 and 2004 and as co-director of music in 2008. The international conference is an assembly to form the governing laws of the church. And as an openly gay Methodist, Miller is dedicated to making the church—which doesn’t recognize gay marriage or allow the ordination of homosexuals—as officially welcoming and open as possible. And while serving as a delegate helped him do that, it was being appointed co-music director that Miller saw as his greatest opportunity to effect change. There was skepticism about his appointment from the more conservative delegates, who felt, he says, “‘Oh, this gay person is going to make some kind of agenda for our conference.’ And the only thing I wanted to do was bring together a lively, full worship service that all people could celebrate in.”
Jeff Markay was there. “Mark infused that convention hall with the same sense of love and acceptance and grace and spirit you experience in seeing him with the Pan-African Choir,” he recalls. One of the songs Miller chose for the conference was his own composition “Draw the Circle Wide,” a hymn that Markay cites as the apotheosis of Miller’s philosophy and politics: “Drawing the circle wide is confrontational, but graciously done. It’s not an in-your-face attack; it’s saying God has a bigger vision than what’s experienced in most of our world.”
It’s clear that, for Miller, that vision involves music, which he calls “a means to an end.” Coming from a classically trained musician, he acknowledges, that statement could raise some hackles. But he’s convinced that “the real miracle is the fact that we’re all together singing.”
Today, Miller is passing on his message of fun and love and inclusiveness (and, yes, music) to a decidedly younger audience: specifically, 7-year-old Alyse and her brother, Keith, 5, the children that he and his partner, Michael Murden, are adopting. Both he and Murden—who plan to make their union official if and when New Jersey legalizes same-sex marriage—come from large families, he says by way of partially explaining their desire to adopt. But as an adoptee himself, Miller also sees adoption as a way of passing along something precious. “Someone, for some reason, gave me love, gave me a chance,” he says. It was his father, after all, who told him when he came out during high school, “Your mom and I love you no matter what; God loves you.” They loved him, he says, not in spite of his differences, but because of them. Doing that for a child of his own, he explains, “just seemed to be the right thing to do.” That’s exactly the response you’d expect from a man whose life is dedicated to drawing the circle wide.
Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a freelance writer in Nutley, N.J.