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A new page in Chris Miller's songbook

Choir is more than music and reading notes on paper; it's about confidence, happiness, relationships and big-picture life lessons. Mitchell High School Vocal Director Chris Miller said he hopes that's something his students of the past nine years...

Chris Miller directs the combined Black and Gold ConcertChoirs, during the Mitchell High School Fall Vocal Concert back in October in the high school auditorium. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Chris Miller directs the combined Black and Gold Concert Choirs, during the Mitchell High School Fall Vocal Concert back in October in the high school auditorium. (Matt Gade/Republic)

Choir is more than music and reading notes on paper; it's about confidence, happiness, relationships and big-picture life lessons.

Mitchell High School Vocal Director Chris Miller said he hopes that's something his students of the past nine years have learned and experienced. Today is Miller's last performance with Mitchell High School's show choir, Friend de Coup. The moment is expectedly bittersweet for Miller, who has directed the choir to new heights and unmatched success. From a national championship in 2011 to record choir enrollment, today's performance and hopeful top finish in South Dakota's first-ever state show choir competition will be a perfect culmination to his career at MHS, he said. At the end of the school year, Miller leaves Mitchell and his home state of South Dakota to take over as the head choir director at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, in Wheaton, Illinois.

Prior to today's competition, The Daily Republic caught up with Miller to discuss the highlights and important lessons of his time at MHS. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Q: Where are you originally from and how did you end up as the vocal director for Mitchell High School?

A: I was born in Yankton and I moved up here to Mitchell the summer before my seventh-grade year and graduated from Mitchell High School. Then I went to the University of South Dakota and graduated from USD with a performance degree in music. I didn't have an education degree. While I was in Yankton, I was doing various jobs ... and, eventually, my wife came up to me one day and said, 'You were supposed to be a music teacher. So you should just go get your education credentials.' So, I went back to school for two semesters to get that. My second semester there, Mitchell had found out that I was going to become a teacher, and they had an opening, so they recruited me. I had it all set in my mind that I was going to go student teach at Yankton Middle School, with their band, and I was going to be a band director. But (Mitchell) had it in mind here that I'd be a good vocal music teacher, and it turns out that they were right.

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Q: In the nine years you've been here, what are some of the ways you've seen and helped the choir program grow?

A: We had 150 kids in choir when I first got here, and by 2011, I had 201, and that was the highest. When I started, there were two choir class periods, now we have four. When I got here, the show choir was obviously a big deal, and so that was a lot of pressure for a first-year teacher. I was a little different than your average first-year teacher, though, because I was 30 when I got started, so I had my own kids and had some life experiences behind me, but nothing could quite prepare me for what was going to happen that first year. We won three grand championships out of the four competitions we went to. I feel like that's what the kids in the program were expecting from there on out was to be incredibly successful, and they knew how hard they had to work based on what that first class of 2008 had done, and it just kind of continued to snowball from there. I think the show choir program always was known to people throughout the country, but when we went down and won that national championship in 2010 in Orlando, Florida, it just really put Mitchell on the map.

Q: Aside from winning a national championship, what are some of the other highlights of your time here?

A: The biggest highlights have been the people I've gotten to work with and gotten to know throughout the years, specifically the kids. And now it's been nine years, so I've sang at those kids' weddings, I've held their babies, you know, and it has just kind of become one gigantic family. It also allowed me to reconnect with a childhood friend, Stephen Todd, who is our choreographer. He and I grew up in the same exact neighborhood, our backyards touched, and now he's become one of the nation's greatest choreographers. He's a pretty big deal and I couldn't have done any of this without all of his help.

Q: On the other side of things, what are the challenges of maintaining such a successful program?

A: I spend a lot of time at Mitchell High School. I spend a lot of time outside of rehearsals even just in my office making sure everything's going to be OK from travel arrangements, to making sure the music is ready to go, to organizing every aspect of the personnel for the program ... The season is incredibly long. We started at the end of September and we're not going to finish until (today). That's most of the school year involved, and I don't think there's another activity that quite has that season. The time put in is because I love it, I absolutely love it, and I love the kids, but it takes its toll on my capacity as a dad and a husband, and I think that has been the biggest challenge. Luckily, my kids and my wife are incredibly supportive of music and my career.

Q: You said relationships have been the highlight, so what's something you've learned from these relationships?

A: I've learned that those relationships are the key to my leadership style. I think leaders all have their own way of going about things. For me, creating the relationship and helping foster ownership in the program is essential, and I've learned how to do that even better throughout the years by getting feedback from the parents and the students I've been working so closely with.

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Q: Is there something you consider most important that you try to teach to your students?

A: I've been having a lot of the kids get reflective with me lately, and one of the recurring themes that I've been able to help them with is confidence. Confidence is key. Sure, we're going to learn the words and the notes to the songs, but we're also going to talk about life. And I'm going to hopefully instill in them belief in themselves, realizing that they're a part of something much bigger than themselves, and that relationships are key to happiness and success in life. Big-picture stuff.

Q: This state competition is your last show with MHS, how does that sit with you?

A: You know, I had to announce that I was leaving really early, and the reason that I did that was because I wanted to make sure that Mitchell had an opportunity to find a highly qualified candidate for this incredibly specialized position here. So, I've already gone through an emotional roller coaster, so to speak. I've bawled several times watching the kids perform, and they've all written me notes or told me in person how much my time with them has meant to them. So that's been kind of the downhill part of the roller coaster, and now we've moved back up again toward a very cool experience, which is the first-ever state show choir championship. I want to make it an amazing moment for all of the show choir and the community and the parents to celebrate, should we come home with a state championship, and I think that's what I'm most excited about.

Q: Tell us about your new adventure in Illinois at Wheaton Warrenville South.

A: A couple of years ago, a different job opened there and the principal contacted me, but I just wasn't in a position at that time to completely shift gears and move. Then, I was notified almost a year ago that the person in the position I really wanted was going to be retiring, and so the phone calls and texts and emails kept coming, and I was hired to be their head choir director. I'll have four chorale ensembles that I teach, regular choirs, I'll teach a history of rock 'n' roll class and my extracurricular duty will be show choir. The school is much larger; Mitchell is about 750 or so, (grades) 9-12, and this school is closer to 2,300, 9-12. Wheaton is a western suburb of the Chicago area, about 30 minutes from downtown Chicago. So, a huge change for my family and I. But something I really enjoy about my wife and kids is that they're definitely risk takers, and they see the reward in trying to take a risk and we also felt very strongly about this position being open and what it could mean for our family. We've been happy in Mitchell-this community has been absolutely 100 percent amazing, top to bottom. We've been incredibly blessed by what's happened here ... And that's what makes it bittersweet is to leave all that behind, but this was just a door that blew open and we all felt compelled to give it a try because it's such a great opportunity for us.

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