Michael Milam began his tenure as assistant minister of music at St. John’s in 2000. He is stepping into the interim position before we begin a search for a new minister of music later this year. We talk with Mike for the March 2019 issue of The Record.
Talk a little bit about your work at St. John’s.
I have worked in church music since I was in high school, but when I came to St. John’s in the summer of 2000, I knew I had found something special I would want to be a part of for a long time. I had never even attended an Episcopal service until my first Sunday here, and after that first service – which involved singing in the choir, covering a small solo, some keyboard work and filling in for a missing handbell ringer – I remember feeling not only musically fulfilled but also spiritually fulfilled. In the midst of all of that on-the-spot work and trying to quickly grasp all the liturgical details of the service, I still knew I had worshipped. The energy was incredible. It’s an energy that I still feel each week, whether I’m singing, teaching/conducting, playing the organ or planning rehearsals.
What has it been like watching the St. John’s Music Academy and St. John’s Singers grow? What do you love in particular about working with those ensembles?
I am so proud of what we have worked together to build in our youth and children’s music ministry. Our families give so much of themselves to support this work week after week. It is wonderful to watch our children grow and progress through the program, discovering what role music and the church play in their lives. I love seeing the older kids help and support the younger members.
Could you talk a little bit about the curriculum of each of those programs, and about the Orff program?
Both Music Academy and St. John’s Singers fit not only under the umbrella of music ministry but also Christian education. Our primary goal is to help children learn about God and the church through music, using it to help build community, develop lifelong learners and guide our young people toward Christ’s vision for them. As far as specific curriculum, children participate in a four-level training program which includes learning targets related to both musical skills/knowledge and Christian formation. Music Academy offers vocal/choral experiences, instrumental exploration, movement activities, music theory instruction and many creative opportunities. St. John’s Singers builds on this foundation in a choral setting for middle school and high school students. In both groups, we teach the seasons of the church year and study musical settings of Bible stories, prayers and creeds. We explore liturgy and the different parts of our worship services.
Orff-Schulwerk is an approach to teaching music to children which is based on the work of German composer Carl Orff. It is one of the approaches that informs our work in Music Academy. It is very hands-on and creative, using the music that is already a part of the child’s world as the basis for work with the elements of music – rhythm, melody, harmony, form and expression. The most visible feature for many folks is the Orff instruments – the smaller-scale xylophones and other mallet percussion. Our instrumentarium contains 14 mallet instruments and was purchased with memorials funds during the five-year period we were without a pipe organ. They provided a new and different tone quality to our work and worship and have remained an integral part of the work we do with children. Gretchen Jensen and I both use this approach in our school music classrooms, and it has been a natural fit for our children at St. John’s as well. Gretchen is a fabulous musician and educator and a true blessing and asset to our program.
During the day, you teach public school music in Botetourt County. What are the challenges and joys there?
I have taught music in Botetourt County Schools for 23 years. Our biggest challenge (and I dare say I speak for most of us who work in elementary music) is time. Music is such an important part of a child’s education, and it doesn’t get the time it deserves. The joy comes in seeing what students can accomplish in that brief time.
How does your work in public schools and in church inform or inspire each other?
The interplay between these two environments has always been one of my favorite parts of my work. Working in the schools has allowed me to approach my church work with a sense of how children learn and what is developmentally appropriate for different ages. Working in the church has helped me approach my school work with a stronger sense of compassion and an awareness that music is a means to an end, not the end in itself. It is a vehicle through which we experience God’s beauty and create our own.
What is important to you, in this day and time, in teaching music – and in particular classical music and church music – to young people?
Central to my work is the idea of empowering people to experience and create beauty in a world where there is far too little of it. Not every young person will be a performer, but every person can be moved by music.
David-Charles’ retirement is a big change for the church. What are your hopes for this interim time as we move toward finding a new minister of music?
My goal is to continue the long-standing tradition of fine music in our parish and to honor and sustain the level of musical excellence that David-Charles and his predecessors developed here.
What are the unique strengths of St. John’s music program?
While we have many strengths to offer the person who will eventually accept a call to be our next minister of music (a strong and dedicated choir, a magnificent pipe organ, a most capable handbell ensemble, a graded youth and children's music program, the well-respected Music On the Corner concert series), I think the most important, by far, is the sense of community that exists in all areas of our music ministry. Building community is one of the hallmarks of David-Charles’ work here. It is evident in every rehearsal, every service, and every social event in which our parish musicians participate. May it always be so!
What would you like to share about your life besides teaching, conducting, singing, playing instruments or practicing music?
Some of my faves are reading, cooking, and traveling.