AMERICAN FORK — The retiring director of the super-size, uber-impressive, award-winning American Fork High School Marching Band — John Miller — says it always has been about the kids, for the kids and because of the kids.
When Miller tried out for the post 30 years ago, he worked with the students in the music program for several days, basically auditioning on the job for the job alongside a pair of other candidates.
Ultimately, the kids chose him, hanging banners all around the band room that announced it was "Miller Time!" in an attempt to persuade administrators and the selection committee that Miller was the leader they wanted.
"Immediately, the students took to him," said Don Peterson, director of bands at Brigham Young University. Peterson was the high school's band director at the time of the transition and hand-picked the potential successors. (Miller was teaching music at Blackfoot High School in Idaho.) "We like Mr. Miller because he's interested in our success, not his," Peterson said the students told him.
"He was obviously an excellent choice. He's had a profound effect on the students and the parents. He really likes people. He really likes music. Those two things combined make him a great band director. He loves to learn. He's always bringing in outside educators and personalities to share their insights. He's an unusually wonderful educator," Peterson said.
Tracy Rogers, who was a senior at the time and who has two daughters currently in the band (one is a drum major), said he remembers that time in 1986 vividly as Peterson left for a sabbatical and the program suffered, after which a new director needed to be chosen.
"Each of the candidates was well-qualified, but Mr. Miller was different," Rogers said. "He spoke primarily about us, our tradition of excellence, our past, and how he wanted to make sure that we would continue what we already had and build the program moving forward. That was the most impressive thing to me. It wasn't about him, but about the students.
"He cares more about the character of his students than about any plastic trophy. He is concerned that his students do their very best and he doesn't settle for mediocrity, on or off the field."
"As a father and Caveman alum, this is what I appreciate in him the most as he works with my children and the rest of the band, that his students come away from the program having done their very best, worked harder than they ever imagined they could, and achieved great things," Rogers continued.
"Mr. Miller builds champions, and not at the expense of character. His students become champions because he builds their character.
"His students aren’t afraid to root for competitors or to mingle and meet with students from other bands, which in today’s hard-core high school competitive environment is completely opposite and intensely refreshing. He himself spends countless hours working with other bands and unselfishly gives of his time and knowledge to anyone who seeks it.
"My children have simultaneously said that the band was the hardest thing they’ve ever done in their lives, but one of the greatest organizations they’ve ever been a part of. And that has led to it being fun while being extremely difficult," Rogers said.
Miller appreciates the kind words, but quickly deflects the praise saying he is just in awe of the students, the families and the community.
"This is the first year where we've actually won everything," Miller said. "Every competition!"
For a "hip dude with longish hair" who played in a rock 'n' roll band and started out teaching choir in a junior high school in Pocatello 40 years ago, he's become a marching band legend, leading the band to state, regional and national places in contests and events that put American Fork on the musical map.
"I ran into a guy in Florida who had heard of the American Fork band," Miller said. "We're well-known."
The band has marched in the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California, several times, was invited twice — an unusual honor — to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City and played for the inauguration of President George W. Bush.
The band made it to the semifinals in the Grand Nationals in Indiana, a competition to which Miller was honored to have even been invited.
The band has consistently swept the caption awards for best percussion, best visual performance, best musicality and best color guard at field show competitions where it competed and won against other 5A marching bands, year after year.
With more than 200 members on the field every year, the band impressed judges and audiences alike. One audience member in the stadium to cheer another team on, said, "All they have to do is come on the field and they've won it."
At several competitions this season, Miller was lauded and honored for his three decades of direction.
"(The retirement event at) Davis (Cup Invitational) surprised me." Miller said. "That was unexpected as they have traditionally been one of our biggest competitors. They gave me a fishing pole!"
At the Red Rocks state competition, Miller's wife was honored with him for her unwavering support.
At both the state competition and the Bands of America regional competition in St. George this year, the crowds gave Miller standing ovations.
Miller reiterates that the credit for the band's record of success goes to those who march on the field, practicing long hours in the heat and the cold, and those who support them financially, physically and emotionally for parades, field show competitions and with music lessons.
Miller said if there's a secret to coming away with the first-place trophies year after year, it's in convincing the kids they matter.
"Music, and particularly music in marching band, trains kids and prepares them for life," he said. "They learn to work as a team. They learn incredible leadership skills. They learn to work hard, to be competitors."
They also learn humility, Miller said, as he has taught his band members to be gracious, to help others, to be friendly and courteous as they compete, win or lose.
Miller is already assembling people to help him choose the next director, looking at people all across the nation, at men and women.
He wants to be sure the legacy and the opportunities live on.
Meanwhile, he plans to keep himself involved in music, perhaps joining the band dads who bring on the percussion instruments and props for field shows or assisting in setting up judging panels. He'll fish a little, travel and offer his expertise to those who ask him for advice.
Peterson said the next director is going to have to care about the students, but ultimately should be allowed to create his own program.
"It's someone else's turn now," Peterson said.
"The new director has to be someone who loves the kids, someone who'll come here and serve the kids, the kind who comes and fires up the kids. It's all about the kids," Miller reiterated.
Miller said a successful program attracts parental, administrative and community support which leads to more success.
"People want to be part of something that works," he said, briefly pausing to nod at the tables and shelves full of shiny, new trophies outside his office. "Look at what the kids did just this year!"
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 35 years' experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.