On Upstate’s campus, most people have no clue Michael Miller plays the bagpipes — much less that he’s good enough to compete internationally.
“You can’t really practice in Geneva Tower, and it doesn’t come up in conversation,” said Michael, a student in the Medical Biotechnology program. “I played at my high school Baccalaureate Mass and people I knew for six years, through middle school and high school, didn’t know.”
Given the volume of the music, bagpipers need a remote place to practice. Michael favors St. Mary’s Cemetery in DeWitt, where he practices twice a week in the warmer months, and pretty much every day during competition season.
“Runners and bikers will frequently stop and listen,” said Michael, who played at the College of Health Professions commencement May 22. He led flag bearers Lou DeMarco and Andrew Brown (CHP students and Marine Corps veterans) in the processional. Their entrance is at the 7:50 mark.
“I played ‘Scotland the Brave’ and the first few notes of ‘Wings,’” Michael said. “It went flawlessly, which is unusual for a ceremony.”
Michael is from Lake Luzerne, near Glens Falls, and attended nearby SUNY Adirondack for two years before coming to Upstate. When he took a microbiology course with a great professor at Adirondack, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in the laboratory.
“It’s so hands-on, and you have the ability to see what you’re working so hard for come to fruition,” he said. “It’s not instantaneous, but you build on it. Even if something doesn’t work, you pass it on.”
Michael will earn his bachelor’s degree in medical biotechnology from Upstate in 2017 and is looking ahead to graduate school. He wants to work in infectious disease control and help develop new vaccines.
As disparate as Michael’s two passions may seem, there are indeed similarities between working in a lab and playing the bagpipes. Both have a steep learning curve and require fine motor skills, dexterity and teamwork.
“You have to play and work well with others,” Michael said.
He started playing the bagpipes at age 10 on a “chanter,” similar to a recorder. His dad, Michael Miller Sr., had always been intrigued by the bagpipes and began taking lessons when Michael Jr. was a toddler.
When Michael was 11, he got his first set of pipes. He’s been playing and competing ever since, including seven times in the world championships in Scotland. The first few years he was with the Albany-area Oran Mor band, which has since been absorbed by the Boston-based Stuart Highlanders pipe band.
The Stuart Highlanders are one of only two Grade 1 bands in the United States – pipe bands are ranked from 5 (the lowest) to 1. Michael is an instructor for his father’s bagpipe band, the Galloway Gaelic.
Michael has also performed at the Scottish Games in Syracuse and the Great American Irish Festival outside Utica, which is coming up at the end of July. “It’s one of our favorite competitions,” he said.
Five things about Michael Miller and bagpipes
* Michael has participated in military burial services through the Veteran Recovery Program, which locates and inters the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans throughout New York. The Veteran Recovery Program contacts funeral homes and takes custody of the remains, usually of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans, who are then given a full military burial service. “I’ve even been present for a World War I veteran,” Michael said.
* His parents, Patty and Michael Sr., own funeral homes in Lake Luzerne and Indian Lake. Older sister Alyssa is an elementary school teacher; younger sister Emily graduated from SUNY Adirondack and will start in the fall at SUNY Cobleskill.
* Playing the bagpipes requires good lung capacity and aerobic conditioning, efficient breathing technique and strong muscles around the mouth to keep an airtight seal around the mouthpiece. Playing on grass is preferable to playing on a concrete surface, as there is more moisture in the air with grassy areas compared to concrete. Having a relatively high amount of humidity in the air allows the pipes to have a more rich and full tone. Scotland can be tricky – weather conditions can change quickly from misty rain to hot sun, creating a challenge in tuning.
* A set of pipes can cost $1,500 and up, and there’s also the cost of the outfit of kilt, hat, tartan and socks – all 100 percent wool, Michael said.
* Michael played the bagpipes at three consecutive commencements for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy when he was a high school student at Saratoga Central Catholic in Saratoga Springs.