Running Start Spotlights

Sarah Miller

October Interview

Sarah Miller, BM & BA (1983), MM Piano(1987), PhD Composition (1996)

Sarah Miller offers insight into the path less travelled with a PhD in Music Theory and Composition. Topics range from establishing yourself in a new city to keeping yourself relevant to grant writing! Check out one of her compositions in the video below. 


How would you describe your professional identity in a sentence?

I am a composer, educator and performer who brings passion and creativity to everything I do.

How have your career and composition projects been growing and developing since you graduated? Since last year? What are your next steps as you go forward?

Since I graduated, I have established myself in the Twin Cities as a professional musician mostly through the contacts I have made at MacPhail Center for Music. When I was hired at MacPhail, shortly after receiving my Ph.D., there was very little going on at the school in composition. I was hired as a keyboard instructor, and started making things happen by reaching out to colleagues who were composers and to the administration. I developed a beginning composition class for youth & adults which helped me to recruit one-on-one students for my studio which now has 2 dozen composition students! From that growth, I developed a summer composition camp for youth that has been running for 15 years. MacPhail also programs 2 composition recitals a year, which are available to students, faculty & staff who are composers. Concurrently with developing programs for students, I was also instrumental in developing a commissioning program for MacPhail composers that is still running, and is now funded by the McKnight Foundation.

In terms of my own composition, being part of MacPhail has enabled me to make connections with teaching artists who are exceptional performers and who are excited and willing to perform my music. At first I would simply write pieces because I wanted to, and look for volunteers to perform them, and I was able to make that happen, but at this point I try to find grants so that I am able to pay the performers as well as myself for creating the piece. Some of these grants are from MacPhail, and some have been from the Minnesota State Arts Board. I have also managed to secure numerous commissions from various performing ensembles.

In the past year, I experienced tremendous growth as a composer. My son has reached an age where he is more independent, so I have been able to devote much more time to composing. In previous years, I was happy to compose 10 – 15 minutes of music a year, but last year I composed more than 90 minutes of music.  That included 8 Bagatelles for clarinet trios supported by a Minnesota State Arts Board Individual Artist grant, One-Dog Sleigh, a piece for youth symphony commissioned by the Great Twin Cities Youth Orchestras, A State(ment) of Grace, a piece for 3 dancers, 4 singers & 1 cellist that I conducted that was supported by a MacPhail Artist Grant, Carnival of the Invasive Species, a piece for percussion trio and clarinet the was supported by a MacPhail Commissioning Grant, “Ikh hob a schwalb gezen,” a piece for soprano, clarinet, piano & string quartet setting a Yiddish poem that was commissioned by the local Jewish Vinkl and Just So Stories, a piece for narrator, oboe and double bass that I wrote simply because I wanted to!  

Moving forward this year, I am writing an orchestra piece to submit to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute. I am willing to write a large ensemble piece because I am confident that even if I am not chosen for this opportunity, I will find some local orchestra to perform the piece. I have also been commissioned by South High School to write a wind symphony for their top band. In the winter, I will apply for another MacPhail commissioning grant, and in the spring, I will apply for the McKnight Composer Fellowship. If I do not get that, I will apply for another State Arts Board grant in May.

What kinds of entrepreneurial projects have you taken on recently?

Both the State Arts Board Individual Artist Grant and the MacPhail Artist Grant were entrepreneurial projects. I wrote the grants to receive funding, and then sought out performers for the pieces and venues for their performances, including the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. I find this type of project immensely rewarding because I get to totally follow my own creative desires from inception to completion. Thus, the cycle continues as I continue to come up with new ideas for pieces.

With a PhD, it’s usually expected that a composition/theory teacher might go into academia. What have you had to do to forge your own path? How have you had to adapt

The greatest difficulty I have had was in establishing myself in the musical community in the Twin Cities, since I did not attend college here. I have had to reach out to people here, and create new paths not just for myself, but for other composers.  Being in a community music school is very different from a university. If I create new courses or opportunities, there has to be enough excitement to get things off the ground. I am not on salary, but am paid by the contact hour, so I must be effective at what I do or people will not sign up!  I have tremendous freedom in setting my own hours, and in participating only on the committees I choose. Also, with a faculty of over 150 teaching artists, I have access to many talented and committed performers. But I have had to make those connections deliberately.

In these interviews, we hear of successes but not the failures. Have you ever had any bumps on the road to success?

Of course! When I first moved to the Twin Cities, I had no connections except to my family, and it took some time to forge meaningful ones and to find MacPhail. I was lucky enough to get hired on the spot when I walked in, but that would not be the case at the present. When I arrived at MacPhail, there were very few teachers with a Ph.D., so that and my many years of teaching experience got me a position right away. Now, the school has grown, as has the applicant pool, so that there is a rigorous application process and a lot of competition for every position that is posted.  

I also had a difficulty getting funding for my 8 Bagatelles for Clarinet Trio. I first applied for a MacPhail Artist Grant for $2500, and did not receive that. Then I refined the project and applied for a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Grant for $5000, and did not receive that. Finally, I applied for the State Arts Board Individual Artist Grant for $10,000, and I did receive that! In many ways, I was lucky to not receive either of the first two grants, but it was frustrating along the way.

I will also say that it can be difficult to get pieces performed beyond the premiere. I have written many pieces that have been well-received but never performed again. However, that is now changing, as well. The 8 Bagatelles for Clarinet Trio have already had a performance I did not arrange, and the Carnival of the Invasive Species has had two more performances, and will have another this spring. We will see what the future holds, but regardless I will continue writing because I have to.

What do you think are the most important skills to have as a 21st century musician/composer? As an entrepreneur?

The most important skills to have are the ability to network with people, and to listen to them. Also, to always present yourself & your music in as professional a manner as possible. As an entrepreneur, you need to imagine pieces that go beyond new places. If you can incorporate something beyond the traditional concert going experience, such as dance, videos, narration or even an art gallery, you will be able to reach more people and entice them to engage with your music.

How did the College of Music prepare you to embark on your career?

I began both networking and grant-writing while at MSU.  I worked with Dixie Durr in the dance department, first as an accompanist and later as a composer. I wrote a grant with a horn player outside of MSU, and managed to get funding from MSU as well as several organizations outside MSU, including the Capitol Area Music Teachers Association. Jim Forger, Jere Hutcheson and Mark Sullivan were very supportive of these activities.  

I also received invaluable experience as a Graduate Assistant at the College of Music, both in teaching composition and theory, and in organizing composition concerts, both of which I do to this day. Combined with a willingness to step in and do whatever is needed or imagined, I have forged a career in music where I am able to pursue my dreams and receive recognition.