Miller revives talent from younger days to beomce the Piano Man
by Clarke Davis
Matt Miller is at home on the ivories. He’s a piano playing man just waiting for his next gig.
From classical Beethoven to rock ‘n’ roll and ragtime, Miller can be just as diverse as his audience.
A Valley Falls native now living in Oskaloosa, Miller began devoting more time to music a little over a year ago and since then he has had some remarkable experiences.
He’s peformed for nearly a dozen organizations usually in Lawrence or Topeka’s Downtown Ramada Inn or the Capitol Plaza Hotel. These have ranged from entertaining Ft. Riley Rangers during a deployment ceremony to the Topeka Active 20/30 Club. For the latter he had to purchase a tuxedo.
His neatest experience has been working out arrangements with Tommie Thomas, a retired night club singer and Broadway performer, who came home to Topeka from New York to honor her mother with a 90th birthday celebration.
Thomas, also known as Gwen Marks, wanted to sing “Over the Rainbow” and since the two lacked time to rehearse, they worked out most of the arrangements over the telephone.
“I had to come up with special arrangements for her. This was so exciting for me, as I have never collaborated with a peformer of her caliber,” he said. “It was an experience I will never forget.”
Miller, who is 29, grew up on a farm feeding cattle in the winter and tossing hay bales in the summer. His parents are Steve and Debbie Miller. His grandparents, Chuck and Jo Miller, Oskaloosa, had the band known locally as “Honey Creek.”
From Matt’s earliest days there was an old upright piano in the house.
“It was one of those big huge things,” he said. “We banged around on it and I learned to play ‘Chopsticks.’ ” His mother knew how to play it and the family later upgraded.
He began piano lessons at the age of 8 or 9 and credits two teachers for grounding him with musical knowledge, Mary Ann Hunt and Alyse Stewart.
High school choir and band provided him with a further outlet for his talent. He accompanied the choir on the piano at times and was given opportunities and encouragement by Beverly Reichart, Paula Rothe and Ben Dehner.
He went to state at Wichita his senior year and was awarded a II rating for a classical piece he was required to memorize. He graduated in 1999 and headed for Washburn University.
His degree is in mass communication and for the next decade his music took a backseat to other endeavors. He worked in radio and television and for the Kansas Art Commission. He is now employed in court service work in the 3rd Judicial District.
A return to his music and the launching of an after hours piano-playing business was sparked a year ago July when Devan Strickler (nee Tucking), also from Valley Falls, asked him to play for an event at the Ramada Inn. Lana Johnson, the events coordinator at the Ramada, was impressed and asked him to be the “hotel’s pianist” when one is needed.
“The rest is history,” he said.
Miller is unique in his versatility. He likes all music from classical to country, but doesn’t play jazz, a genre he is not experienced with. While he reads music, he can also play by ear.
“I can listen to a song on the radio and sit down and play it and make it my own,” he said.
Miller can sing but so far has not added vocals to his performance. He practices at home on a Roland keyboard and said he has an understanding neighbor.
For now, he’s keeping his day job and is happy having found an outlet for his talent.
“I am living my dream. Music is my passion. It is in my blood. This experience has been so encouraging and inspirational,” he said.
“Perhaps most importantly, dreams and success do happen in small towns. Most believe, at least in my opinion, that dreams and success can only be accomplished by living in a large city, and that those living in small towns and rural areas never do. I, and so many others in this area, are proof that anything is possible, regardless of where you live, big or small!” he said.
But he did say that if one of those cruise lines hears his audition tape and calls, he might be gone for awhile.
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