R.I.P. Donald G. Miller

I sang a recital in Montreal in 2005. After the recital, a dear colleague at McGill University, Winston Purdy, who attended the recital at L’Université de Québec à Montréal, invited me to his house the next day to experience something fascinating. It would change my life. In Winston’s living room I discovered the lanky man with a deep resonant voice next to a laptop and a strange contraption. That contraption was VoceVista, a vocal diagnostic tool including acoustic analysis and electroglottography (EGG) was as its name suggests: The Voice Seen! Donald Miller and his colleagues Harm K.Schutte and the late Prof. Janwillem van den Berg produced this magnificent instrument, which has become an industry standard in the field of Vocology.

Following that meeting (we were like three nerdy teenagers with a new toy), Don invited me to Fredonia University in Upstate New York to be a participant at a VoceVista symposium, where I met several colleagues who would become lifelong friends. Later on, Don visited my studios in New York and Berlin, where we presented “wired masterclasses,” in which we had access to real-time glottal and acoustic information for the singers in performance. Having already had a passion for vocal acoustics, I found a real friend and mentor in Don Miller. He later invited me to his home in Groningen, Holland, where we exchanged voice lessons, listened to an impressive performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, which he had sung during his professional career in Germany, years before. We also took in a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Boris Godunov at the local cinema.

Don Miller was a very generous colleague and passionate about getting the word out about VoceVista. I regularly received his newsletters as well as emails to his VoceVista group, the Fryers (vocal fry is used to isolate formant resonances in vocal acoustics). We met frequently over the years and encountered each other often at voice and vocal science symposia around the world.

Just a few days ago, after a few months of silence between us, I received an email from him, wondering how I was doing with the isolation imposed by the Covid-19 crisis. I was happy to receive his email and responded immediately. I had no idea he was ill (I don’t suspect it was Covid-19-related).

Don was in his 90s and lived a very full life and contributed to our art form first as a wonderful bass and later as a remarkable scientist.

In my mind, Donald G. Miller was a pioneer.

In 2000, when I began teaching at East Carolina University, one of my colleagues who was responsible for vocal pedagogy was very proud to introduce me to his new toy, a special computer system with a particular fast processor that made real-time acoustic analysis possible for singers. The Kay Elemetrics Computerized Speech Labs back then cost the University over $15,000 and was the standard tool for the analysis of speech pathology and disorders.

That year I received a faculty laptop that included a processor of enough speed to make real-time acoustic analysis possible. I found some free software online and began my love affair with acoustic analysis. Obviously, those tools were not optimized for singing analysis and my knowledge was pretty superficial. Less than five years later, there I was in Winston Purdy’s living room with Donald Miller, making a quantum leap in knowledge acquisition with the guidance of a leader in the field. Don was a pioneer!

The cost effective nature of the VoceVista software and Electro Glottograph machine turned my studio into a lab. I was able to observe thousands of singers over some 15 years, learning a great deal about vocal acoustics. I could not have done this without VoceVista and more importantly I would not have been able to do this without Don’s generous instruction. The low cost of VoceVista and the constant tweaking of the equipment (leading to VoceVista Video) has turned it into the industry standard ubiquitous in studios and voice labs all over the world.

Beyond the software itself, Don also produced a wonderful, short book, Resonance In Singing, written specifically for the beginner in vocal acoustics, which I reviewed here on the blog, on August 5 2008:

Because of Don’s instructions, I was able to make my own observations about the acoustics and glottal dynamics of the voice. We were not always in agreement in our conclusions but we were always able to discuss and I certainly learned a great deal from Don’s observations and he encouraged my own conclusions as well. He was a real teacher!

After our latest email exchange, I was looking forward to reconnect with Don and we wrote about seeing each other after the quarantine. I’m very saddened at his passing.

The new generation of Vocologists would not have taken their quantum leap without Donald G. Miller’s contributions. We are grateful to him and we will miss him very much.

I often quote this poem, Fear no more the heat o’ the sun… from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for those dear to me who have departed:

…Thou, thy earthly task hast done, Home art gone and taken thy wages…

…Quiet consummation have, and renowned be thy grave.

Requiestcat In Pacem!

© 22 April 2020


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