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UPCLOSE: VANCE MILLER

Josh Harris • October 2002 • October 1, 2002

It’s a situation that most music students and directors can relate to: waiting backstage and experiencing pre-competition jitters. In this particular scenario, however, there is the added pressure of the television cameras and crew that have been following the director and his students for weeks, capturing all their feats and flaws on film.

The director warms up the orchestra students with one of the pieces they plan to play for the judges a few minutes later. The orchestra’s collective bundle of nerves produces some unfamiliar and unwelcome sounds from their instruments, resulting in cringes and pained expressions on many of the students’ faces. The director, Vance Miller, tells it to them straight: “I haven’t heard you that bad in several months.”

After the final run-through of the piece, Miller tells his orchestra, “I should be grateful for that. That can’t possibly happen [in competition].”

Sure enough, the students rise to the occasion during their performance, putting to rest any doubts that they are anything but talented musicians. Smiles beam from their faces after they finish the piece they had struggled with earlier.

Just another day in the life of the students in the Hamilton Academy (Los Angeles, Calif.) of Music Symphony Orchestra, through the Disney camera lens. While kids just like them can be found in schools across the country, this particular ensemble could be found on the Disney Channel in 10 half-hour episodes throughout the spring on a show called “Totally in Tune.”*

[*The Disney Channel has no immediate plans to re-air the show.]

To create “Totally In Tune,” the first reality TV series of its kind, a camera crew followed members of the Hamilton orchestra through their daily lives as music students. The result: a reflection of music education in a true and positive light, revealing equal parts elation and frustration to present a balanced account of the life of an American music student.

School Band and Orchestra: How did you and your students become involved in the Disney program, “Totally in Tune?”

Miller: Disney was looking for a school orchestra to create a series around. They had done some reality shows – they did a kids’ camp and a girls’ basketball team – and they were looking for an orchestra. Disney has long had an interest in music and music education. They wanted to create this series about an orchestra and focus on the kids and what it’s like to be a musician and show that to the world. So they interviewed something like 600 schools around the country, making phone calls and asking about the different schools’ music offerings. Then they narrowed it down to six schools and they took a crew – I mean a crew of seven or eight people – to each of the schools and spent a week, filming the kids, coming to school, talking to the teachers, talking to kids, following the kids around, looking at the atmosphere.

They went back to Disney and they said, “Well, we don’t really want Los Angeles.” They would rather have things away from L.A. But they looked at the films, and from what I hear, we were the obvious choice. My kids are, number one, ethnically diverse, which they didn’t see at a lot of schools. In a lot of schools the string players are typically white and Asian. Disney wanted to present a more diverse picture to the world as being what music is about.

Also, my students speak well and they’re interesting people. They do other things. They’re in symphony and mariachi and there are kids on the football team and kids who snowboard – all kinds of things. They’re not just what I call “nerdy violin players.” They’re also really normal – they’re silly kids sometimes. You get them in a swimming pool and they’re goofy, but you get them on stage and they’re impressive. They’re very normal kids, but they’re special. And Disney liked the looks of us and we were selected.

Filming began a few months later. They showed up at the beginning of February. In the meantime, they had to paint the rooms. They had to put in special light bulbs that would make the rooms brighter. We had that beige color and they said, “No, no. You’ll look terrible on camera.” So we got a nice lavender room for the orchestra, and the band room is a nice blue. The mariachi room is a nice peach color. People walk in and are surprised and I say, “L.A. Unified didn’t do this.” Then we had meetings with the kids and release forms. They talked with us about how they weren’t going to bother the students. If they filmed anything unpleasant – which they did – they would only show it if it had a happy ending.

In a couple scenes where some kids are arguing or somebody’s arguing with me, or someone’s grades are low – they would only show that if it turned out okay. They promised us they would make us look good. We’re normal people, and I was going to yell at the orchestra if they needed it and kids were going to get mad at me or at each other, and they were going to film it.

SBO: How did Disney select the particular students that were featured in interviews during the show?

Miller: They were looking to talk to the younger kids. Their target audience was 11 and 12. They really didn’t want my 16- and 17-year-olds. They really focused on the younger kids. From the ninth and 10th graders, they pulled this bunch who, as I see it, had the best stories. It’s not that they were the best students, or the best players or were the cutest; they had the most interesting stories to tell. The crew missed some great kids. Some of my wonderful kids are completely left out because they didn’t have problems and they weren’t as interesting story-wise. They found the kids who were having troubles or who did kind of weird things or the kids who were better for television. They picked them; I had no say. They didn’t tell me anything. They could barely talk to us, as a matter of fact. When they went to the kids’ houses, they couldn’t eat – they couldn’t be offered food. They couldn’t laugh at our jokes. They couldn’t show me anything that they filmed. And, for instance, they filmed several concerts and they couldn’t give me tapes. I’m so upset. They filmed Concerto Night and they showed about 40 seconds of it [on the Disney Channel], and they can’t give me the tape.

They really could not get involved in what was going on in any way. The actual interviews were set up, but they didn’t give us the questions ahead of time. They really encouraged us just to talk. I was really embarrassed at what they’d show sometimes. Everything [outside of the interviews] is completely reality. They never once could talk to us. We had meetings with them sometimes to let them know what was coming up. There was one day, one kid was particularly funny and the camera-people were trying so hard not to laugh. The laws are that we could not see them outside of school. They were really strict about us not being involved in what they were filming. They were really just observers.

SBO: What were the students’ reactions to being on a TV show?

Miller: We got very used to it quickly. We ignored them. I mean, you see some of the arguments [in the series] and the kids obviously didn’t care that the cameras were there.

Being on the show has been kind of funny. We were together for the premiere – we went to a Shakey’s – and watched the first two episodes all together. Some of the kids were embarrassed, and some of the kids were mad they weren’t on enough, and some of the kids were thrilled. They’re all very thrilled, I think, to be on. People will come up to us on the street and say, “Hey, you’re on ‘Totally in Tune’!” That’s pretty fun.

I’m really pleased how they made us look, for music education. I think they did a good job showing us at our best, and sometimes at our worst – they showed reality. I think they did a good job making us look like music is a good place to be. I was really pleased.

SBO: How will you look back on the experience?

Miller: Those kids are always going to be kind of special, because we did spend a lot of time together, and they’re still here, so we’re still spending time together. It was a very good experience, and very exciting and we can always pull the tape out and show it to people. My grandkids can see it.

It was a wonderful experience. It was nice filming, and it turned out to be nice watching it, and we’re having a great time.

SBO: How does the Hamilton Academy of Music differ from a traditional public school?

Miller: First, we’re a magnet school. In Los Angeles, these were created to integrate the schools. Kids apply, but there’s no audition to get in. The computer picks them by what ethnicity they are, so the school keeps a balanced ethnicity. We audition students for what groups they belong in. L.A. Unified School District is here to integrate the schools. We have a big waiting list, and we can’t do anything about it because it’s done by the computer. We can only have so many kids, and the computer fills us up based on ethnicity, not by talent. So we could have some fabulous kids down the waiting list and we don’t even know who they are.

We’re kind of special because we have kids from all over the city, from all ethnic groups, all economic groups – and music is the common thing. We don’t have the fights and a lot of the other problems that some schools have. I think it’s because the kids are musicians. They get along better. They have this thing in common.

We have 14 music teachers – drama, dance, instruments, electronic music, technical theater/stagecraft, choral music, piano, music theater. It’s amazing. It’s a pretty exciting place.

To give Hamilton Academy of Music its distinction, the district has given every child an extra class. They have seven classes, as opposed to six, so they always have an extra spot for a music class. Most kids will take two or three music classes in the ninth grade, and then probably two in the tenth and two in the eleventh. Then, when they’re seniors, some of them have four or five music classes because they’ve finished their requirements. Most of them go to summer school to get rid of U.S. history classes and things like that so they can take more music during the year. We have some kids who will graduate from here taking 10 music classes, full-year classes.

SBO: How is music incorporated into the curriculum at each grade level?

Miller: We’re still an L. A. Unified School and we’re still in the state of California, so they have all the L.A. Unified requirements and all the California requirements. The music is in addition to those, but we work with the academic teachers to keep music and the arts a big part of the curriculum in all the areas.

The students choose what we call a major – it’s not official, of course, because the state won’t let us have our graduation requirements be any different. They pick a “major” and follow the requirements. We give a sticker when they graduate that says they’ve completed these requirements. It means something to us.

Almost everybody has to take a piano class and they can have some other options. The instrumentalists have to take five instrument classes, and one piano class and one elective – they can choose anything in the arts. They can sing or they can take another year of piano or they can dance or do electronic music.

SBO: What is the benefit of attending a performing arts high school such as Hamilton?

Miller: One is just the number of classes we offer. Then it’s the high level of students – we get amazing things out of the students. Being a school where the other students are working so hard, they tend to work harder. And we have some really special teachers, specialized teachers, who are very good at what they do. And having each other – just being with these students is a great advantage. They come from all over and, in their neighborhoods, they don’t fit in very well sometimes. Their friends at home don’t know anything about their musical life – they don’t understand. So they come here and they find people like them, just as musical, and it’s fabulous.

SBO: What are the educational goals of Hamilton Academy of Music?

Miller: Primarily we have two: the first one has to be that we’re getting them ready for college and careers. Music, as important as we make it, is still secondary to that. Kids can’t get out of here without fulfilling their high school requirements, and we have a big push toward college, for whatever major. Not a lot of our kids go on to music school – quite a few do, but not as many as people would think. We prepare them well for lots of things. Our primary goal, like every school, is to get them ready for careers and college. Beyond that, we have some musical goals: becoming the best performers they can be and becoming life-long music lovers. If they’re not going to become music majors, they can certainly appreciate music forever, based on what we’ve done here.

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