“Interested” is a word that Jo Miller keeps returning to when describing herself. The areas which have interested her have varied hugely: community music, folklore, formal music education, academia and performing. She’s achieved remarkable things within these areas of interest over the years.
Born in Lanarkshire, and growing up in Dumfries and Galloway, she was brought up in a musical environment. Her mum sang folksongs, classical, jazz, and played on the piano. Her grandfather was also a pianist. In school, the situation was similarly musical: she took fiddle lessons, her art teacher taught her guitar, and her English teacher introduced her to ballads. Within the small community, there was all sorts of music making going on, so local concerts were a variety affair- she recalls: “You could go up and play James Scott Skinner, sing folksongs or hymns. It really didn’t matter!”
It’s no wonder that she elected to continue her musical studies. She ended up at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in the first ever cohort for their music education course. Here she was quick to identify others with a hidden “folkie” musical identity.
Via a stimulating year at Glasgow University she became a postgraduate at the School of Scottish Studies. And it was there she felt she’d “come home”. These years really were formative for what would follow. Under the guidance of her mentor Peter Cooke her ideas about the relationship between music and community started to form. She says:
“My work has been about starting where people are. There is this view of music learning, and possibly trad music learning, that somehow you start at the bottom, and there’s this broad base of opportunity. And from there some people will move on, and move on still, and at the top of this pyramid you’ve got the virtuosi and the soloists and all the rest of it. And that’s a path that some people take. But to me that paints a picture that this broad base is only worth looking at as a feeder for the next stage. I like to turn that pyramid on its head and say, you know this is open to all of us, because we’re designed for it. We’re programmed to be musical whether we like it or not; it’s in our brains. We’re all part of this common musical life. For me that makes sense of what I’ve done. It comes from my experience of coming from a supportive community where it was all accepted; it was who you were, musically”.
She graduated from the School at a time when a discussion was beginning about whether Scottish culture should form a bigger part of the school curriculum. So she stared working to create the resources to support the new curriculum. In 1988, the first year that Scottish music was included in the secondary education curriculum, Miller created resources and delivered workshops that spurred this on.
This wasn’t enough though. Music teachers needed to be better educated in Scottish music before they could comfortably teach it themselves. So the then-director of the music department of the RSAMD, Rita McAllister, asked Miller to teach elective courses in Scottish music to the music education students, enabling those with an interest to gain some further knowledge. The most important thing about these courses was to give an insight in to a hugely significant performance tradition, with skills and a history that should be respected and understood.
This wasn’t enough either, the wider scene was changing: a growth in uptake amongst young people, inspired by the burgeoning scene, and the subsequent growth of the Fèis movement, created the scope and need for a dedicated course, to recognise the tradition as worthy of a place in its own right within an institution such as the RSAMD.
So Miller’s focus became the founding of the BA traditional music degree. She was key in designing a course and assembling a team of staff that struck a balance between sympathy to a tradition that thrives in an environment very different to a university setting, whilst meeting the academic requirements of a degree. Her view of what she hoped the end product would be remained clear: a place where learning and sharing between students with very different traditional backgrounds could take place, with inspirational tutors and a folio of supporting studies. It needed to be a place where students could delay the demands of having to work hard to make a living within traditional music, where they could ask questions, reflect on the music, discover new repertoire and ideas, and practice performing and teaching in different settings.
And what an effect the course has had. At the time it started, it was the only dedicated folk music degree at any of the UK’s performing arts institutions. Between then and now, hundreds of students have benefited, indeed some of the earliest cohorts are now working as tutors and lecturers for current students. It has, and continues to be a space for artists to broaden and deepen their knowledge before going out to enrich the folk scene.
It has also changed the institution, traditional music now taken perfectly seriously by students and staff from other departments in a way quite unimaginable 30 years ago. As well as the undergraduate and masters courses in traditional music on offer at the now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, principal study traditional musicians can train as school music teachers.
Upon leaving her post as course leader, Miller’s focus shifted back towards grassroots work inspired by her youth: teaching in Stirling and establishing Riverside Music Project there, with a focus on empowering learners, demystifying the learning process and creating a project that is sustainable and intergenerational.
And now she’s gone back to research too, recently completing a PhD with the University of Sheffield, examining the intricacies of teaching and learning in community settings such as Glasgow Fiddle Workshop, which Jo herself initiated in 1989. Her passion is to understand how the experience impacts participants’ wider lives, as well as exploring what traditional music learning and teaching can offer to wider worlds of education.
She says: “For me, community is the context. There’s a wonderful by poem Tessa Ransford, who founded the Scottish Poetry Library. In it there’s a line:
While sharing in the hardest task – community.
It’s a poem about religion, but I think living together with other people, in community is a constantly challenging and enriching thing”.
“Now if you think of that musically, how are we together, musically? For me a lot of my experience has been looking at personalities, potential and ability, and thinking how can we shape some sort of collective music making. I suppose that for me this is the crucible for so many other things. And ultimately music has a way of bringing us together. It’s just so good for us”.