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Amazing Kids! Interview with Sammy Miller, Amazing Young Jazz Drummer
Sean Traynor, Assistant Editor

All That Jazz!
Sammy Miller, 12th grade musician, jazzes it up and drums his way to 1st place at the Spotlight Awards. Photo courtesy of the Spotlight Awards.
Sammy Miller is the first place winner in the jazz instrumental category at the Music Center Spotlight Awards. He began his musical career at the age of 5 in a family band as a drummer and singer. He won the Peninsula High School jazz combo at the Reno Jazz Festival in 2007. He has played for the Colburn Jazz Workshop and the Southern California Jazz Honor Band. He has played with jazz legends Bobby Watson, Lisa Henry and David Benoit. He just recently was chosen for the 2009 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It is an internationally known high school all-star band. He has been a member of several bands and at this young age has already set himself apart from his competitors with his talent and experience.

AK: What piece of music did you chose for the Spotlight Awards competition and why?
SM: For the spotlight awards, I choose to perform an original composition of mine entitled Elijah. I choose this piece because, for one, I wanted to use the opportunity of the Spotlight Awards to play original music that I feel strongly about. And also, since the piece switches in and out of time signatures, there is constant tension and release within the song, which is great for a drum feature.

AK: What qualities does your music have that makes you stand out and be named a winner?
SM: All the music I play or write revolves around the sole premise that music is enjoyment. When I am playing a tune of another person, I prefer to always play songs which I love to listen to, making the music as pleasurable as possible. Similarly, when I play original compositions, I only write melodies and harmony I can sing in my head. Without a memorable melody, I canít feel a deep connection to the music.

AK: Do you play other instruments or sing? How did you pick the drums as your primary instrument?
SM: Yes, I do play piano; at least, well enough to compose on it, and I also sing, but have come to do so less and less, as I have taken my drumming studies more seriously. As far as choosing the drums, they chose me as much as I chose them. When I was in kindergarten, my older siblings all had taken up instruments (piano, guitar, and bass), and so it was only logical that I play the drums to complete a band. It was in our family band, Underage, that I started to sing and begin to really take the drums seriously.

AK: How many hours a week do you play or practice your instrument? You are very active in competitions and bands. How do you balance this involvement with your schoolwork?
SM: I am very fortunate because I attend an arts high school. Each day at school, while in morning I do my normal academic studies (Math, Science, English) I spend my afternoons, from 1pm to 4pm, doing various music classes, most of which include playing drums. When I get home I try to practice at least 2 hours a day, but on some days it isnít possible with the amount of schoolwork I get. I try to finish all my schoolwork early in the night, and early in the school week, so that I have more time to play music. Also, I donít spend much time watching television or on the computer, so at home the only things I do at night are work on schoolwork, music, and of course eat some dinner.

AK: Do you prefer to play as a soloist or as part of a band?
SM: always prefer to play in a band. Music, especially jazz music, is about interaction, and as a drummer there isnít nearly as much music I can create alone as with a group of other musicians.

AK: I understand that other members of your family are also musical. How has this influenced your musical development?
SM: The influence of my siblings has been extremely important in my development in music. Starting with the family band we formed when I was five years old through now, I have always played and learned from my older siblings. When my older brother Nate, an upright bass player, was in high school he exposed me to different jazz records: Miles Davis Kind of Blue, John Coltrane Blue Train, and Hank Mobley Soul Station. He also would let me jam with him and his friends even though I was much younger, and not nearly as good. My older sister Molly, who is a guitar player and only two years older, has always been an important part of my musical development as well. When I was a freshman in high school, we decided to start our own jazz combo, which started to play gigs around Los Angeles, and compete in various jazz festivals; ultimately, we won the Reno Jazz Festival before she went off to college. It was my siblings who got me interested in playing music, and onto jazz music, which I plan to study in college, and pursue as a career.

AK: You have played in many different bands in the past. What qualities do you look for in band members that you play with?
SM: The most important thing in music is playing with people who enjoy playing music. The worst thing in the world to me is looking over at a piano player who has an emotionally detached look on their face while we are playing. Iíve had the pleasure to play with some great musicians in the past including David Benoit, Bobby Watson, and Josh Nelson and the one common ground of these musicians is the excitement they have for music. I like to play with people who are open to trying to stretch musical boundaries, and do so with the enjoyment that music should be approached with. My own group, which I call the Sammy Miller Congregation Band, is all about enjoying music. Everyone in the band writes originals, and everyone in the band is a close friend, so when we play it is no different than the enjoyment we share off the bandstand.

AK: How has music affected your life?
SM: Music has affected my life more than I could have imagined. Itís been as influential as anything else I have ever done. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I hear is the music of the Ahmad Jamal Trio on my alarm clock; on my way to school I listen to different records, and throughout the rest of the day and night I play music. Music has the great power of changing any moment in life. If I am down and want to be uplifted, there is certain music that will do so every time. Music has also given me a community that extends far beyond any border. I can go anywhere in the world and play and share music with others, who feel the same passion I do for music.

AK: Why was this accomplishment important to you and where do you intend to use your scholarship money?
SM: The Spotlight Awards were very important for many reason, most of all because it allowed me the opportunity to showcase my music in a amazing space, with world class musicians. For the first time ever, I was able to play an original piece of music for over three thousand people. Throughout the Spotlight process, I never felt like it was a competition, but rather great musical opportunities that were all learning experiences of their own. After the first round, the judges sent me notes of what I can work on for future performances. And after the semi-final, I was able to work with award winning arranger, Lenny Stack, to arrange my original piece for the finals. Through Spotlight I got to meet him, and learn about the music business from someone who has really been through it. For the scholarship money, I plan to use almost all of it to help pay for my college; however, I will take a portion of it to purchase a ride cymbal that I have wanted for years now that now I can finally buy on my own.

AK: What piece of advice would you give a young person who wants to begin an instrument?
SM: I would say two things. First, try to find other kids to learn music with. When I was learning at first, I was able to be immersed in a musical environment where I had other kids to play and learn with all the time. Also, I would tell young people to learn music by trying to listen to music and even better go and see it live. Some of the most beneficial learning experience in my music has been from going to see great concerts. Music is not like Math, in that it canít be learned in a book. Youíve got to go find the art form because it is all around.

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