Back in 2001, 1/4 of a Staples High School music octet was named Justin.
Justin Miller — a senior — went on to a storied career as a music director. He led the Westminster Chorus of Los Angeles to the 2009 “Choir of the World” Pavarotti Trophy, and Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus gold medals in 2007, ’10 and ’15.
A few days ago he did it again. Westminster recaptured the world title, in Salt Lake City.
Miller’s chorus did it decisively, setting a new record for the highest score ever: 97.9%.
But there’s more to the story.
The 100-man chorus paired the tender ballad “I’ll Be Here” from Broadway’s “The Wild Party” with “From Now On.”
That’s the tune from “The Greatest Showman,” written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
The same Justin Paul who, as a junior in 2001, sang in that famed octet with Justin Miller.
The director is proud of his friend’s work. He wanted to showcase it on his choir’s biggest stage.
So now — in addition to Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards — Justin Paul can say he’s “won” a Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus gold medal too.
(For the full story on the competition, click here.)
Justin Miller has a storied career as a music director. The 2001 Staples High School graduate — and noted Orphenian — graduated with degrees in music education (vocal) and performance (conducting) from Chapman University. In his 1st job, he led the Westminster Chorus to a Choir of the World championship in 2010.
In 2010 he succeeded his own teacher, Alice Lipson, as choral director at Staples. Simultaneously, he directed the Big Apple Chorus. He left both in 2012.
Miller’s roots were always in barbershop. His father, John Miller, won 2 international championships, singing with Grandma’s Boys in 1979, and New Tradition in ’85.
Justin attended his 1st Barbershop Harmony Society convention at the age of 2 (with his dad, duh).
At 18, Miller joined the Masters of Harmony. As a singer, he won gold medals at BHS international competitions, in 2002, ’05 and ’08.
Now Miller — whose full-time gig is director of choral music at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, California — is back with the Masters of Harmony.
Not as a singer. In 2012 he was named chorus director.
Two years later he led them to a 2nd-place finish at the international convention in Las Vegas.
This year, Miller’s men — 140 strong — won it all. Click the video below, and you’ll see why.
In another great testimony to the barbershop world, Justin’s father traveled back and forth between Connecticut and California so he could sing with Masters of Harmony, under his son’s tutelage.
In an emotional coda to the competition, Justin was able to hand a gold medal to his father and fellow international barbershop champion, John Miller.
The entire chorus erupted in — not song, but applause.
Justin Miller gives his gold medal to his father, John. And the barbershop crowd goes wild.
Every year since 1940, the Staples High School music department has offered the Candlelight Concert to the town.
This weekend, several hundred teenagers — and instructors Adele Cutrali-Valovich, Nick Mariconda and Justin Miller — provided the gift of music to 3 wildly appreciative audiences.
The program included solemn hymns, classical music, a rousing African number, whimsical tunes — and of course, a production number.
In everyone’s thoughts were Nava Zeevi, the longtime accompanist whose husband Kuti was killed in a robbery Thursday night. Todd Simmons, assistant director of the Westport School of Music, stepped in to take her place.
Solomon Sloat (top) and Will Bitsky in the traditional "Sing We Noel" processional. (Photos by Lynn U. Miller)
Senior Mike Ljungberg provides the beat for the lovely African song "Ogo ni fun Oluwa!" (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Sophomore chorale member Rick Daily gives it his all. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Mrs. Claus and her dancers (top), and her husband Santa Claus and the Staples choir, in the traditional production number. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
(From bottom left) Michael Sixsmith, Mikell Washington and Santa Claus singing the rousing finale, the Hallelujah Chorus. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
The 70th annual Candlelight Concert debuted at Staples last night. The “gift to the town” continues this afternoon (2 p.m.) and evening (8 p.m.). Tickets are all gone — though some seats may be available close to showtime, at the door.
Here are some scenes from last night’s performance:
Staples grad Justin Miller made his debut as choral director. He received a warm welcome -- and his singers were in fine form. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Michael Findley belts out "I'll Be Home For Christmas" during the production number. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
The production number -- "Merry Christmas and Goodnight" -- was a clever and fitting climax to the Candlelight Concert. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Coming back here to live is something else entirely.
That was the consensus, a couple of weeks ago, at a Green Village Initiative event attended filled with students from Staples’ Advanced Placement Environmental Science classes.
They were skeptical — if not downright incredulous — that anyone could ever return to Westport without first making incredible amounts of money in the materialistic world.
So GVI organized a meeting with Westporters who had done just that — that is, came back home without a pit stop on Wall Street.
One of the panelists was Justin Miller. The 2001 Staples graduate described why he left Westport after college — and why it was important to return.
It’s tough to make a career as a choral music performer, he said. He got his start as a choral director in California. And while he knew that teaching music was the way to go, the Golden State was not the place to do it.
He also knew he wanted to eventually raise a family here. When the Staples choral directing job opened up last spring, he went through the rigorous application process — and got it.
“You should go away,” Justin told the students. “Get a grasp on the rest of the world.
“I was excited to leave. As I went, I learned and appreciated what Westport has to offer.”
When GVI leader Dan Levinson opened the floor to questions, the discussion veered to money. Because the classes had been discussing sustainable local economies, the issue of mom-and-pop shops arose.
Justin pointed out that many small businesses exist — but are often overlooked.
And Mitchells — the high-end clothing store — is actually a grandma-and-grandpa business.
Driving home later, Justin said, he realized that the town is filled with places like Fortuna’s, Angelina’s and Westport Pizzeria. Even Planet Pizza and Bertucci’s are small chains.
In any other town, he noted, the equivalent of the Post Road would be lined with Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters.
“The world has changed,” he said. “In some respects, Westport has had slower change — in terms of a close-knit community aspect — than many other places.”
He was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students’ questions.
One of the harshest young critics of the ability to return to — and sustain — your hometown came from a boy who recited statistics about average incomes and tax structures. He said he’d love to come back after college, but knows he must go elsewhere first, to acquire wealth.
“We talked about different kinds of finances,” Justin said. “It can be done. I’m a music guy.”
Another student declared that he’d go somewhere else, learn about the world — and maybe not want to return.
“When I went away,” Justin replied, “that’s when I realized how special Westport was.
Next month Justin Miller leaves the Westminster Chorus he founded, to begin his new job as Staples choral director.
He’s going out with a bang.
This past weekend in Philadelphia, Westminster defended its International Barbershop Convention championship. Nearly 30 choruses from North America and the UK competed, but in the end it was a 2-barbershop battle: Westminster versus the mighty, 11-time champs, Vocal Majority from Dallas.
Justin Miller with some of his plaques.
Vocal Majority was 137 men strong — most of them highly experienced in both barbershopping and competing. Westminster was young — Miller created a Southern California powerhouse with just 67 singers (average age: mid-20s).
Vocal Majority sang 4th. The Texans earned the best score in their 30-year history: 2913 points out of a possible 3000, an almost unfathomable 97.1 average per judge per song. Any other year, they’d have run away with the trophy.
Westminster sang 23rd — deep in the competition. Dressed in black vested suits, with crisp white shirts, bold gold ties and handkerchiefs, they looked ready for the challenge.
They mesmerized the crowd with their 1st ballad, “It Only Takes a Moment.” Their 2nd tune — a very contemporary version of the barbershop standard “Mardi Gras March” — featured dancing, flipping, flags, beads, and of course fine singing.
With 2932 points — a 97.7 average — Westminster retained the title. And they did it with the highest score ever recorded for an international chorus competition.
Miller made barbershop history, directing the only chorus ever to win both the Choir of the World and International Barbershop Chorus competitions in the same year.
For 21 years — always seen from behind — Alice Lipson’s flowing, braided hair has been the “face” of Staples choral music.
Next fall, the director’s hair will be much shorter. And male.
Justin Miller has verbally accepted an offer to succeed Lipson — retiring after 35 years in the Westport school system — as director of Staples’ choruses, choirs and Orphenians.
He is only the 3rd choral director in the past 51 years. From 1959 to 1989, George Weigle held the post.
It is a position of great tradition — as Miller well knows. A Westporter from 1st grade on, he sang for Lipson between 1998 and 2001.
Justin Miller holds up the "Choir of the World" trophy last year in Wales.
It is a position of great importance t00 — and Miller is up to the task. Not yet 30, he is a founder, past president and current musical director of the Westminster Chorus. Last year they were crowned international champs — winning the “Choir of the World” Pavarotti Trophy in Wales — while in 2007 they earned an international chorus gold medal.
In Wales they beat out choirs from major American universities, and accomplished European choirs. One judge called them “musical butter — soft, inviting and delicious.”
The chance to return to Staples — where he acted in “Chorus Line” as a freshman, toured Scotland with “Pippin,” and led the now-legendary barbershop group the Testostertones — lured Miller east from California, where he now teaches.
“Westport is a really special community,” he says.
“As a student teacher, and through festivals I’ve been a part of, I’ve learned it’s hard to find an entire town that is as involved in the success of its high school as Westport is.
“There are strong programs in other places, but there’s something special about Westport. It’s why I wanted to come back.”
He double majored in choral directing and music education at Chapman University, then began work on his master’s.
Miller has found success out West. In addition to Westminster, he was part of 3 international chorus championships with the Masters of Harmony.
Though young, he has held choral leadership positions for years — directing, as well as handling budgets and preparing for competitions.
Miller traveled to Westport over his spring break from Tesoro High School in Orange County to interview with teachers and administrators, and teach a freshman chorus class. Fortuitously, superintendent Elliott Landon was in Los Angeles during our own spring break, and interviewed Miller there.
How does he feel about replacing Lipson, a legend?
“I can’t replace her,” Miller says. “She’s been there so long, and so much of the program is representative of her.
“There are things I’ll do differently, because we’re different people. But luckily I was in choir and Orphenians. I know her style. Hopefully I can make it a smooth transition.”
One difference: He hopes to introduce “modern composers, who are rock stars in the choral world,” into the repertoire.
He would like to enter more festivals and contests, and sing for other schools and choral directors. “Their feedback on what we’re doing is important,” Miller says.
He may also incorporate his Testostertones experience into the curriculum, organizing small ensembles with contemporary music.
And he might reintroduce Fine Arts Nights — a Lipson innovation — with evenings of musical theater, pops and classical music.
“Alice had the benefit of coming from a middle school,” Miller says. “I don’t know many people at Staples any more.
“I look forward to getting to know the juniors and seniors. The more a choir feels like a family, the more quality work we’ll be able to do.”
As Alice Lipson passes her choir family on to Justin Miller — the next leader, and young enough to be her son — she knows the next Staples chorus generation is in good hands.
(Click here for the Westminster Chorus in action in Wales last year — and here for a great YouTube video of Miller’s reaction at the international championship presentation.)
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Or Zelle: email@example.com. Thanks!)