A MacPhail Story: Claire Miller
Twenty years ago, before Claire Miller was an accomplished violinist, pianist, orchestral performer, and chamber musician; before winning numerous competitions, and earning several academic degrees in music, she was a five-year-old girl whose mom signed her up for violin lessons at the MacPhail Center for Music.
“I broke my arm shortly after I started,” Claire recalls. “And I remember feeling jealous that my sister got to keep on clapping rhythms for the Twinkle variations in Suzuki’s Book 1.” But that was just a small bump on the road to excellence, as Claire would eventually develop into a featured performer in many of MacPhail’s recitals. Today, she serves as MacPhail’s Suzuki Talent Education Faculty and Department Coordinator—and as a violin instructor with her own, blossoming studio.
“Claire is an extremely talented performer with a lot of flair,” says Beth Turco, director of Suzuki’s Talent Education at MacPhail. She was also Claire’s piano instructor during her high school years. “She has a real presence on stage. She’s not timid, she puts herself out there, and she tends to have a connection with the audience listening to her.” Even early on, “she didn’t sound like a student; she sounded like a brilliant musician who loved the music.”
Every child can learn to play an instrument is an oft-repeated mantra of the Suzuki instructional method. Claire believes it because she’s lived it. She was guided by the Suzuki tenets, which involve starting at an early age, learning through both private and group instruction, progressing sequentially at your own speed, ear training before note reading, and parental involvement.
In her case, that last element was especially strong. Her mother, Alice, is an accomplished pianist in her own right. She was taking piano lessons at MacPhail before she enrolled her daughters.
“My mom played all the time, so we heard music a lot,” says Claire, who remembers her mother at her own lessons, taking notes. “She played a significant role.”
“I always saw the value of being in those lessons, because you can reinforce them throughout the week and be a practice partner,” says Alice. “I think it’s a wonderful program, this way of learning music. It’s a combination of visual, audio, and kinetic. It touches all three, so it’s an integrative learning process for the brain.”
And as a parent, Alice experienced a happy side effect of all that shared instruction.
“It’s a great crossover to other things, and a great opportunity to learn how your child works and learns,” she says. “What do they need to stay motivated? What discourages them and what encourages them? Claire responded to praise and encouragement. She had an excellent ear and learned quickly. She was just one of those kids who learned with repetition, and she just kept building confidence.”
In high school, Claire was already considering a music career. “I started taking supplemental lessons with [the violinist] Erin Keefe, [the concertmaster] of the Minnesota Orchestra,” she says. “It was eye-opening for me, how far you can go with it.”
Keefe and Claire’s longtime MacPhail instructor, Margaret Haviland, helped her prepare for college music department auditions. She eventually chose the University of Minnesota, because she loved the teacher, Sally O’Reilly.
“Sally is a great pedagogue,” Claire says. “And she set me up with a piano teacher, too, so I could continue with that.” Claire earned a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance, with a minor in Management. Next, she earned a Master of Music as a Helen DeVitt Jones Fellow at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas. Though most of her graduate degree was earned during the pandemic, she got the opportunity to perform as a section violinist in the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra and as a violinist in the Graduate String Quartet.
“It was a cool professional experience with many opportunities to play,” she says. “And even with the pandemic, there were some smaller, orchestra chamber groups for social distancing. I got to play some different repertoire. It’s not often that you get to play in an all-string orchestra.”
When she graduated in May 2021, her varied options presented a hard choice. “If you get a chemistry degree, your path is clear,” she says. “With music, you can do so many things—education, performance, teaching, recording.”
But with the pandemic continuing, many orchestras were still not auditioning. Claire moved back home and soon after that, she heard about the Suzuki coordinator job at MacPhail. Naturally, her former teacher, Beth, was thrilled at the prospect of working with her former, brilliant student—who was returning with the whole experience of the Suzuki program and a new knowledge base in management.
“She knows the whole Suzuki philosophy and has the perspective of being a student,” Beth says. “And she’s extremely organized and good at communicating.” That’s essential in her current role, which involves placing all new students in a program that already encompasses 600 to 700 young musicians. So far, 10 of them are part of Claire’s own, small but growing studio.
“I have a lot of pre-Twinklers [which is ages 3-8], learning how to play,” she says. “I just had a studio recital. They did so great! The parents were so proud.”
Claire’s own parents attended the recital. “They thought it was so fun to see my students because they used to watch me do that. It’s heartwarming. I know the difference that my teachers made in my life, and I hope that I can do that for a child or at least teach them to enjoy music. My wish is that they continue to study with me as they grow.”
Parents of MacPhail students understand the value of a good “teacher fit,” since this instructive relationship may last until high school graduation.
“Because Claire went through the program, she understands the program,” says Anna of Edina. Her children, William, 10, and Charlotte, 8, have been studying viola and violin (respectively) with Claire for a year.
“I knew she was an amazing violinist with proper technical training,” Anna says. “But I’d also heard that she is a good person. When someone is working with your children so much, that’s important. She’s a big influence, an outside adult forming a relationship with them.”
Anna noticed that Claire’s methods vary based on her children’s differing needs.
“My son doesn’t enjoy his instrument as much,” Anna says. “Claire figured out that he was unhappy and started giving a lot of genuine, positive feedback. And he’s responding to this positivity. She’s very kind. At the same time, she’s also very firm with him. She’ll tell him, ‘We’re going to be here until you do this.’ He’s learned that he must live up to her expectations, or he won’t finish his lesson.”
Claire concedes that she can be firm: “It’s considerably less fun to practice the things that are more difficult,” she says. “But when I’m teaching, we do a lot of repetitions. You don’t pass them—you must do 10 good ones in a row. If you arrive at the ninth repetition, and it doesn’t go well, you return to one.”
Her knack for differentiation among students comes from her family’s experience with MacPhail. She and her sister both received music instruction for over a decade, and they, too, had different learning styles. Different kids need different motivators.
Though her sister did not choose to go into music, Claire says, “it was very meaningful to her to have done it. And it led us to have a unique relationship with our mother. Now, as a teacher watching parents with students and speaking with children, I am reminded that there are so many layers that build a good foundation for students.”
When she was a student, Suzuki’s ear training component was powerful for Claire, and she passes on this insight to her students. “I always listen to my pieces before I learn them,” she says. And so do they.
Claire also continues to perform.
“I play in a symphony in Iowa [as a section violinist with the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra], so I practice a lot,” she says. “I do five or six concerts yearly, which gives me something to work on. And a friend and I recently joined a quartet in the city.”
As for being a performer with a lot of “flair,” Claire laughs at that notion.
“I do love performing,” she says. “I’m always nervous, but I enjoy playing, and maybe you can see that when I play. I like what I’m doing right now—performing and teaching and this administrative role I love. I’m getting to do all the components of being a musician.”
Claire’s photo album:
Claire Miller, a native of Minneapolis, is a violinist and educator in the Twin Cities. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where she earned her Bachelor of Music Degree in Violin Performance studying with Sally O’Reilly and a graduate of Texas Tech University where she earned her Master of Music Degree as a Helen DeVitt Jones Fellow and Head Teaching Assistant to Dr. John H. Gilbert. She has also studied Suzuki Pedagogy with Kathy Wood, James Hutchins, and Teri Einfeldt and earned a minor in Management from the Carlson School of Management.
Claire started teaching violin for MacPhail Suzuki Talent Education in the Fall of 2021, where she is also the Suzuki Department Coordinator. She is a proud alumnus of the MacPhail Suzuki program on both violin and piano and is happy to be back! She has served as a violin teacher with the Suzuki Talent Education of the Lubbock Region (STELR) program and coached students in chamber music at various summer institutes in Minnesota.
She is an active performer, currently as a section violinist with the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and a guest Concertmaster with the Minnetonka Symphony Orchestra. While completing her schooling at Texas Tech University, Claire served as a section violinist in the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra and as a violinist in the Graduate String Quartet. She has performed as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player throughout Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico, and Italy, including educational outreach concerts to local elementary schools in West Texas.