‘Express what’s 

Last modified: 3/31/2014 11:09:28 PM
Antrim fiddle player Rodney Miller, 62, has played on Garrison Keillor’s National Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” performed live at the Lincoln Center in New York, and recorded music for the National Geographic Society. He has traveled across the country and the world playing fiddle and learning to make violins. This year, the state recognized Miller’s lifelong dedication — his passion for the arts — by naming him New Hampshire Artist Laureate.

The honorary position lasts two years and is appointed by the Governor and Executive Council.

Miller said he feels encouraged, honored and humbled. “I am proud that the state of New Hampshire has such a position that really puts the focuses on the arts in an official way,” he said.

When asked what the agenda for his tenure as Artist Laureate might be, Miller reflected on his own childhood. “I feel fortunate that my parents were both very supportive of my path,” he said. “I would like to see more arts in the schools. A lot of people are born to, or drawn to, becoming artists and that should be fostered as a valid career.”

Miller’s father was a minister for a church and played the fiddle in Syracuse, New York. His mother was a pianist and organist. Miller grew up playing fiddle on his grandfather’s instrument. Miller said he was always drawn to the expressiveness of the violin. It allows the you to “express what’s inside,” he said.

While he was in high school developing his ability to play violin, Miller said began to develop his other passion — making things. “We had a woodworking shop in the basement and I would experiment.” Miller made a dulcimer and a hurdy gurdy for credit at school.

After graduating from high school, Miller attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he began playing at local folk dances.

Miller said playing fiddle for dances is a unique opportunity to connect people with music. Instead of remaining static and playing on a stage, playing at dances is dynamic and social, he said.

“People have been participating in social dances in our region for over 200 years.” Participating in dances — through playing or dancing — is an opportunities for citizens of New Hampshire to connect with that rich heritage, he said.

“Fiddle,” Miller added, “has always been the backbone of that.”

Miller graduated from Oberlin in 1972. That same year, he married his wife, Jane Miller. Urged to travel by his professors, Miller and Jane journeyed to Oblarn, Austria. The newlyweds ended up spending a year in Europe, where Miller apprenticed in violin making with master instrument maker Jacob Doriath.

After returning to the U.S., Miller and his wife both enrolled at the University of New Hampshire. Miller earned his degree in civil engineering in 1976. But, he never stopped playing fiddle or studying the art of making violins.

In 1975, UNH started the UNH Summer Violin Making Institute. Through the institute, Miller spent the next five consecutive summers continuing his training in violin making with Karl Roy, director of Mittenwald, a German school of violin making.

In 1977, Miller and his wife bought the house where they still live in Antrim. Miller’s two children attended ConVal high school and both play musical instruments.

Although music was played and discussed daily in the house throughout their childhood, Miller said he believes that 7 or 8 years old is the best time to start teaching children to play.

“That’s an age where things come together. They are physically able to pick the instrument up and play it, and they have the ability to commit to practicing,” he said.

For three years after graduating from UNH, Miller worked as a civil engineer in Keene. But, his heart was always with the violin. From 1980 to 1990, Miller became a professional, a luthier, making and selling violins on his own from his home in Antrim. Then in 1990, he began working for Stamell Stringed Instruments, a violin shop in Amherst, Mass., where he continues to work today.

Playing fiddle has taken Miller around the world and the country, from Canada to Denmark, Ireland and Scotland to Seattle. Today, Miller said, contra dancing is going through a resurgence and he is being asked to travel more than ever. Next month, for example Miller and his band the StringRays will travel to California, where they will play for a contra dance weekend, and then at the end of April they will travel to North Carolina to play again.

In 1999, Miller represented New Hampshire, playing traditional fiddle music at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

In addition to playing fiddle and making instruments Miller writes music for New England style fiddling, a unique blend of French Canadian and Celtic influences.

“I’ve chosen to do two things that present lifelong learning experiences,” he said. “You can never learn all there is to know about [making fiddles or playing music].”

In January, Miller and the StringRays released a new CD: “StringRays.” The CD, coupled with the honor of being named Artist Laureate, has made for a big year already, Miller said. “It’s exciting. I just plan on doing what I’ve always done and to just keep fiddling away.”


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