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Mr. Band Man: Rock-n-roller turned American Fork band teacher retires after 30 years

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When the principal of American Fork High School interviewed John for the band director position in 1986, he barely asked about music or qualifications. “I was heavily involved in Boy Scouts and was wearing my Wood Badge pin on my lapel. Little did I know the principal was on the Wood Badge district council, so we talked about scouting and barely brought up band. I left the interview thinking there was no way I got the job. But he wanted me there because he knew about Boy Scouts and leadership. The teachers and the kids all wanted me there, too, but I like to say scouting got me the job.” (Photo by Alisha Gallagher)

When the principal of American Fork High School interviewed John for the band director position in 1986, he barely asked about music or qualifications. “I was heavily involved in Boy Scouts and was wearing my Wood Badge pin on my lapel. Little did I know the principal was on the Wood Badge district council, so we talked about scouting and barely brought up band. I left the interview thinking there was no way I got the job. But he wanted me there because he knew about Boy Scouts and leadership. The teachers and the kids all wanted me there, too, but I like to say scouting got me the job.” (Photo by Alisha Gallagher)

Fresh off a stint as a trumpeter for a rock-n-roll band, John Miller went back to school for his music degree, graduated and found a job as a choir teacher — a position vacated because the junior high students drove out the last teacher. John knew he’d have to work at building trust between himself and his rough new students. But after seeing the foosball table in the choir room on his first day, he knew what to do.

“I said, ‘If you really sing for me, we’ll take a half period on Fridays and play foosball,’” John says. “’And if any of you can beat me, I’ll give the entire class an A.’”

John didn’t know the first thing about choir — he was a hopeful band teacher. But that didn’t matter. He was a teacher first, a music director second — and he brought that mindset, along with his winning foosball record, to his career as the American Fork High School band director.

Thirty years later, John’s band room overflows with trophies and plaques awarded to the marching, concert and jazz bands. Over his career at the high school, his marching band has reigned as state champions in every caption for 25 years straight, and has also marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Rose Parade, the 2005 President’s Inaugural Parade and made it to the finals of the National Marching Band Championship. John himself is recognized nationally as a leader in music education, so it’s no wonder he leaves parents, students and music educators wondering how he does it. The secret?

Mix it Up

SONG ON REPEAT: “For Good” from “Wicked” the musical
FAVORITE MUSIC GENRE: Concert band and orchestral musical hero “Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser. He helped me fall in love with marching band.”
HOBBIES: “My wife and I take off on our ATVs as often as we can.”

(Sing it, Aretha.) “Respect,” John says.

“I have always respected the students, but it changed when my own kids were in the band,” he says. “I used to yell a little or be sarcastic, but then over dinner my kids would say, ‘I can’t believe you said that.’ I changed then and have tried to be kinder. Kids hear enough yelling without me adding to it.”

Throughout his career students have sent him letters showing he is changing and saving lives.

“I recently received an anonymous letter from a kid who said he didn’t want to be in marching band, but he signed up anyway and fell in love with it,” John says. “He wrote about how close he was to committing suicide, but through me and the friends he made in band, suicide is the furthest thing from his mind. That alone is worth 20 paychecks.”

John is retiring at the end of this school year, which leaves him reflecting on his early years with the band. He remembers starting with 96 students but without a single tuba player. He remembers his friends saying the job would ruin his career because the school would need to cycle through a few band directors before they found “the one.” Thankfully, John ignored them and became “the one” himself. He grew the band to 280 members at its peak — tuba players included —  and brought national acclaim to the band and the high school. He’s not excited for retirement, but he’s ready.

“I’m at peace with it,” John says. “There’s no higher calling than that of a teacher. We may not get rich, but we affect lives.”

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