The Artist Interviews: David Miller, Tenor
David Miller, born in California in 1973 and raised in Colorado, graduated from Oberlin Conservatory with degrees in Vocal Performance and Opera Theatre. While best known for his current work as the American member of the international quartet Il Divo, created by Simon Cowell, David also sang the role of Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann's 2002 version of Puccini's "La Boheme" on Broadway. He has sung in the most renowned opera houses in the world, including the legendary La Scala, and is internationally regarded as one of the brightest and most talented young American opera singers. We're thrilled to have him share his thoughts about growing as a young artist and arts education here at Stay Out Of School.
Can you start by giving us a description of the work that you do?
Well, I am a singer. I was trained for five years as a classical singer and two years apprenticing as a Young Artist at the Pittsburgh Opera Program. I then spent ten years as an opera singer singing just opera. For the last six years I’ve been with the group Il Divo; we’re four singers from different musical backgrounds. What we do is we bring our different backgrounds together, blending the way the four of us sing all into a single song that we try to give a cross section of techniques. We may start a song is a very pop, raw, emotional way and end with a big operatic finale.
How much of your early music education happened at home and how much happened at school? What was it like being a young musician in a household like yours?
My first experience with music at home was, well, I guess, in the womb. My mom used to play classical music and put the speakers next to her belly! (laughs) But in real life, my first musical experience was the piano— my parents had a piano and they got me a couple piano lessons and I didn’t take to that very well. So they said, “Ok, if you don’t like this, what do you like? Do you like any musical instruments?” And I said I wanted to play trombone. So they found a teacher who was willing to teach a nine year old how to play trombone. My teacher eventually found me a youth orchestra to play with and I excelled very rapidly under my parents’ guidance and discipline… not that they played any instruments, but applying the ideal that if you put your heart and your head to something, you can do anything you want to do. So they said, “if this is what you want to do, fine, but you have to learn the basics and you have to learn the theory and you have to learn what music is so that you can function in it.” That’s what this youth orchestra provided every Saturday and my parents kind of required of me… they said “if you’re going to do this, you have to practice at home at least an hour a day”—whether that was working on music theory work books or actually practicing the trombone. I did that up until about thirteen and then I decided band was entirely too geeky, so I joined choir instead.
That’s like a one-level upgrade from band to chorus…. Like one step up.
Yeah, it’s funny considering everyone’s current opinion about glee club from Glee, which I think is a funny show. I don’t really care for the montages, but I think it’s a fun show and I like that it encourages thinking about how music can function in school. I’ve always been a big purport-er that music is just about music—music is a mindset, a search for deeper understanding that might not be tangible, it might be temporary. But it’s learning how to harmonize, learning how to express yourself, learning so many deep, intangible levels of thinking and feeling that are absolutely applicable to any other discipline.
Ok, so can we talk a little bit more about discipline? You were talking about it earlier but did this discipline fuel your passion? Did you wrestle with being disciplined?
For me, I believe that discipline comes in many different forms. Everyone has a different style of learning. Some people, like myself, are audio learners. I can listen to a conversation and repeat it back almost verbatim when I’m really in the moment and paying attention. Other people can’t do that— other people are visceral learners, for example, if they’re learning language. If I’m learning a language, I just have to listen to it over and over and it's easy for me to repeat back— I’m very parrot-like in that way. Some people need to speak it over and over so as to get it into their muscle memory into the body. Others need to sit down and write it; it really depends on what your predisposition is in your brain. I think that’s a really important thing to understand about yourself when looking at any type of discipline. If you’re following a passion and you’ve been given a set of instructions on how to be disciplined that don’t function with your style of learning, you’re just going to feel like you’re butting your head up against the wall.
So in a lot of ways, your own discipline can actually fuel your understanding of yourself and your understanding of the work provided that it’s the language you sort of inherently speak as a learner and a thinker.
I think “discipline” is really another word for “dedication.” It comes from an internal place: either you want to do something or you don’t want to do it. If you do want to do it, there are certain constructs that you need to be able to integrate into who into you are. Like, if you want to learn mathematics, if you like math, you’re going to figure out a way that you can do mathematics. You can study it from an esoteric standpoint, you can write the equations over and over, whatever is going to work for you, but you have to figure out what’s going to work with your style of learning so you end up putting in the hours.
You can’t learn anything without putting in the time. You have to have the desire to absorb something in order to actually go after it and then absorb it. I think that’s an encapsulation of what discipline really is.
I’m very interested in uncovering those moments where your identity as an artist really got its foothold or moments when you felt empowered to take what felt like “big steps” at the time for your own artistic development. Are there key influential people or events that come to mind? Or maybe these might even be moments where you begin to identify yourself as “an artist” rather than just another kid that sings?
Um, I don’t think I’ve found that yet. (Laughs) I don’t look at it in terms of categories, like “this is art” and “this is science,” because I think there’s a science behind the art and there’s an art behind the science. For me, I’m very left-brained, I’m very scientific about my approach to music. For example, learning about the voice, learning about the physical structure of the voice, learning about how breath pressure interacts with your vocal chords that comes to occlusion at a certain weight that provides you with a balance of not-too-breathy, which can create nodeson your throat and not too much pressure, which can also cause polyps, which is the other side of the coin. It’s about finding your balance in between that. I’m very physically oriented, interested in understanding the physicality—from an imaginary standpoint because I obviously can’t be looking at my chords all the time. But, I study the charts, I know the anatomy, I understand where all the bones are, all the muscles, all the ligaments, all the cartilage in the entire throat, lung, diagram system…. Even the displaced organs when you take the breath: that all is my mindset about the art. It’s very very rare for me to drop into this place of feeling like, “Oh, this is pure creation! I’m expressing emotion through song!” I never really get to that point. I say “OK, here’s the high C coming up, I need to approach it from the E natural, which means I’m going to need a certain amount of openness in the throat so that I can flip it up on the passaggio, which needs some breath pressure and openness and release and my jaw needs to be this far open. "It’s kind of freaky, actually. (Laughs)At this stage in my career, it’s all very scientific and a bit pedantic. It’s really been my crutch for such a long time— it’s been my foundation of understanding that when I get sick I know what the muscles are doing, when I’m too dry from being on a plane, I know what the muscles are doing and how to compensate for it.
That being said, like I said before, I don’t really get to that place where I just let it go and just emote… and that’s not something you can just quantify or break down, or if you can, I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s something that I’m learning to uncover through my scientific understanding. “Yeah, I’ve got that, that’s my foundation. Now I need to uncover the yin of the yan of singing. Singing is a very output, outmode, “doing” kind of activity. But you have to find a yin from which the yan springs. That’s where I am right now. Would I call myself an artist? Mmmmmmm, maybe? (More laughter)
Oh, that’s funny! I totally identify with that— I’m so self-aware whenever I’m making any kind of work, as well. I’m so calculating in the same ways that you are; I really identify with that. I’m never going to let go (or maybe bite the bullet) and say “I’m having a creative moment!” because I’m constantly aware of the technicalities of whatever it is I’m working on. That’s so interesting to me.
That’s what Baz Luhrmann used to call my “Inner Stage Manager.” He said everybody who is a performer has an inner artist and an inner stage manager and they need to find the balance between both. You can’t so far into your art that you forget where all your prompts are and what your staging is. You can’t go so far as the technician, as the Inner Stage Manager, that you don’t connect with the audience through the art. There’s balance to be had. For himit’s 70/30: seventy percent artist, thirty percent stage management and he used to say that I had it the other way around. That was one of the things that he was trying to help me uncover.
Have you had any moments in your career path where you thought, “Forget this; I’m doing what I want to do. In fact, I have to do this….” (e.g. Going against the suggestion of a teacher/parent/mentor/etc)?
Oh yes! Basically my entire life!
Oh great! Well, what I’m really interested in, as you talk about one or two of those, is what it is that empowered you to be the person that was able, at the end of the day, to bite the bullet and do what you felt like you were led to do.
As I said before, my parents gave me an understanding early on that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything… and I find that to be true for all inventors, all artists, all quantum physicists, or Greenpeace! Anything that you want to do, that you put your mind to, that you feel yourself drawn to, is the thing that you’re going to create circumstances by which you find yourself. For me, I spent a lot of time letting the universe guide me— like for example, I did the trombone for a while, I felt drawn towards that, but when I didn’t feel drawn towards it anymore I put it down. And then I found choir in high school and I was very drawn to that and so I followed it. I just sort of let myself be led by the nose, like “what do I feel like doing? Well, I feel like doing this. OK! The go ahead and do it. How far can you go with it?”
In the middle of all that, my choir teacher took an interest in me and started introducing me to opera and listening with me to different tenors that he thought I would sound like if I were to apply myself. I found that quite exciting to listen to those tenor voices. It’s an interesting mix of, well, screaming and… you know, Pavarotti used to say that singing opera was like controlled screaming. There’s something about the way in which the tenor approaches things is very visceral, it’s very energized—and I’m a very energetic person [and] ...in opera you really have to get in there and it has to come from your balls. Being an Aries, being a fire sign, and having a joie-de-vivre, opera just became something that I was personally really drawn to. I got encouragement from my parents and from my choir teacher; I went and found a voice teacher and she said, “Definitely! You’re doing the thing that seems to suit you because you’re really making quick progress with this.” So I went to Oberlin Conservatory and got in with a teacher and that teacher was a little bit more old school, kind of “nobody knows what they’re going to do as a professional singer at age eighteen” and “you can’t know that you’re going to be an opera singer” and “let’s just focus on the exercises, let’s just take it down a notch, you’re getting ahead of yourself.”
And I just said “well, that’s all well and good, the technique is well and good. I know what I’m going to do once this is over, so whatever you think is most appropriate for me to learn right now, but if you happen to be able to gear that towards opera, give me some tips and hints some direction, because the direction I’m pretty sure I want to go…”He and I butted heads for a while about that. Until Junior Year. When I got the lead in the opera. And he said “OK. Soooooo, you were right…. let’s continue.” Really I think that was the only obstacle that reared its ugly head. I really more attribute it the whole “testing of the faith” kind of thing. Like, I feel like the universe puts these “mini tests” in your way, like “you really want to do this? You’re sure you want to do this? OK, you’re sure, right?” And any time anything came up like that it was always “yes, this is what I want to do!” ….and any time I got a response, be it external or internal, like “yes, you’re on the right path,” then it always gave me space to dig in even deeper.
Again, that I have to attribute to learning how to be disciplined. You can’t really “learn discipline.” You can learn what discipline is, but until you embrace being disciplined, you’re not going to have discipline. Whatever that means for you—it’s that thing that’s going to get you to put in the hours.
Right, right, right! Discipline isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something that you become.
It’s a desire to embrace the fullest expression of whatever it is that is your passion.
Finally, I want to talk about this internal cycle that I think constantly revolves inside the creative brain—I think it’s the part that’s most mysterious and foreign, the part that makes art seem mystical and magical to those on the outside.
For me, I think there is a starting point, and the starting point is desire, and it goes in an infinite cycle, but I do believe that the starting point on any adventure is the desire to go on that adventure. Once you find that desire, whatever that may be, from building rocket ships to taking out the garbage, whatever it is, that’s the fuel for making any change of any kind. I was thinking about my high school experience— the content that’s expressed in systematized education is sort of arbitrary. It’s like a general cross section of things one might come across. You know? You expose a child to all these different categories, math, science, french, PE, and at some point in the development of a human being you latch on to one of those areas. Sometimes it’s just wanting to be the pretty kid; we have whole industries devoted to being the pretty kid.
We throw all this under the umbrella of “education.” But I think that real education stems from a desire to be educated, to have a working knowledge and understanding of whatever it is you’re attracted to. I think school does a good job of laying the framework, but I don’t think there’s enough encouragement [or emphasis on] “Does this interest you? Do you enjoy being in English class?[It’s most important to] foster desire in children to want to learn this or that and then, when that desire kicks in, empowering those children to follow that desire.
It sounds like desire is most central to your own internal experience as an artist. Would you say you at this point in your life you are the chief caretaker of your own desire? Are there people who are strategically placed who cultivate it?
I don’t know that I would say that desire is fueled, per se. I think it’s discovered. Look, you don’t know you’re going to want to play the trombone. But when you see it and you hear and go ‘WOAH!’—and it’s that feeling of “WOAH!”—you kind of stumble on it. Once it’s there, you know, [desire] is all a matter of attitude at that point. If you find [the work] enjoyable, then, easy enough.
If it stops being enjoyable, it’s your duty to ask, “Why?” What’s stopped being fun? Has it changed? Have I changed? Have I simply gotten what I needed from this experience and it’s time for a new experience? Is the practice getting to hard? Am I lazy? Why aren’t these things energetically easy enough for this to be fun anymore? [Desire] is something you can go searching for—people spend their whole lives searching for it. It’s like marriages: when the spark leaves the marriage, that doesn’t mean the marriage is over. It just means a new paradigm has occurred and people get to decide….well, this may be controversial, but I believe people get to decide how they feel about things. People have reactions, emotions come up, but you don’t have to compulsively react to those emotions. You get to live with them for a while and decide if you like having that emotion. Do I like being angry? I don’t really like being angry. Well, if I don’t really like being angry then it is kind of my responsibility to figure out why I’m angry so I can release that. It’s the thing with anything: I enjoy this, so let’s figure out how to continue to make this an enjoyable thing by identifying why it’s enjoyable. If you tap into why something is enjoyable, it makes it easier to stay within a framework [of working in ways that bring you joy]. If you like roller coasters because of the adrenaline rush and you stop getting the adrenaline rush when you ride them, you’re going to stop riding roller coasters.
That’s something teachers and other educators might really be able to tap into by understanding what gets young artists of any discipline really excited about their work. It sounds like, since so much of teaching is about helping students discover themselves, that much of this is about helping students discover their own paradigm of learning and desire.Is there anything else you can think of that I may not have touched on regarding cultivating young artists?
I think science and art are the yin and the yan of existence: science, the attention to discovering structures and the art, the attention on stepping back from those structures to see a wider picture. It’s tough to enjoy the smile on the Mona Lisa when you’re examining the flesh-colored paint. But! The paint is still necessary--Bernoulli, the Divine Proportion--it takes study of structures in order to be able to put it together through your heart-center and turn structure intro art. There’s a jumping off point where structure is so delicately put together it becomes art, and when you can recognize the beauty in a structure you can see the art in everything.