Bend music teacher retires after three decades

By Tyler Leeds The Bulletin Published Apr 17, 2014 at 12:01AM

When David Miller retires from Bend-La Pine Schools come summer, it will be nearly impossible to replace the choir teacher, who spent more than three decades with the district. The reason is simple — there just aren’t many hurdy-gurdy players left since the instrument went out of fashion in the 17th century.

Miller, who is now 56, began his career in 1983 at Pilot Butte Middle School after graduating from George Fox University. In 2001, he made the switch to High Desert Middle School, where he still teaches today. Miller said he’s well aware of the demise other arts programs have met across the country, but in Bend-La Pine he never felt the squeeze.

“Over the years, and especially in the ’90s, we music and art teachers have felt on the edge,” Miller said. “We’re the most vulnerable, and the easiest programs for districts to lop off. But this district has been good at preserving our programs, even in lean times, which I count as a blessing.”

Stability allowed Miller to focus on teaching, and for a music teacher, one of the big challenges is student engagement. Miller’s most unusual strategy is to host hurdy-gurdy day, when he brings in his own hurdy-gurdy, crafted in Southern Oregon by one of two manufacturers on the continent.

“It’s the goofiest, quirkiest thing,” Miller said. “Middle school kids love it, their eyes just get big.”

The hurdy-gurdy looks somewhat like a swollen violin that produces sound by using a crank wheel that rubs against strings. High Desert’s principal, Gary DeFrang, said Miller’s love for the peculiar instrument speaks to the kind of person he is.

“That interest was just there inside him, and he made the effort to go out and get one and learn how to play, which is a good example of what he’s all about,” DeFrang said.

Miller has also composed his own work geared toward engaging students. In “Ridin’ Away,” Miller penned a song whose content speaks to his students, while also providing a chorus even a reserved middle schooler would want to sing. The song addresses the question, “Where will I be many years from now?” The chorus highlights the various paths open to students, while supplying imagery meant to excite — “Maybe ridin’ away on a Harley, flyin’ the air like a cloud, sailin’ away on a clipper, who knows now?”

“I wrote it in the fall of 1984 to introduce sixth-grade boys to the class,” Miller said. “It fits their register and is fun to sing. I’ve used it every year since. It still surprises me that students continue to like it.”

DeFrang praised Miller’s work outside the classroom, noting he is a constant presence in the hallway and near the buses, talking to students and making sure everyone gets where they’re going. Over the years, Miller said, the biggest lesson he learned was to focus less on making good music and more on making a community where his students can learn.

“As a musician, I love good music, but that can get in the way of my job,” he said. “You can’t always try to make the best music possible at the expense of other things. The quality of the music matters, but you have to balance it with other things.” Miller said he’s relaxed as a teacher over the decades, and that the last five years of his career have been the best. He admitted he still gets “cranky” sometimes, but that he “burns slower” than when he was a young teacher encountering a troublemaker.

Miller said he’ll miss teaching, but that “it was time.” He mentioned the many stories he had heard of young teachers trying and failing to find music jobs, and is happy his departure will open up a post for someone new.

“But there are a lot of other pieces to my life and things I would like to do,” Miller said. “Plus, I can retire. I’m not rolling around in dough, but I can take care of my obligations. We’ll see how it goes.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com

Andy Tullis / The Bulletin High Desert Middle School choir teacher David Miller, center, leads students through a singing exercise during sixth-grade choir class. Miller is retiring this year after more than three decades teaching in Bend.