James Miltenberger and his wife arrived in Morgantown in 1962, with the ink barely dry on his Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music, figuring they would stay just a couple of years before moving on to the next gig.
Instead, “I found a place I grew to love very much,” he says now as he prepares in his 50th year of teaching at West Virginia University for a concert with the WVU Symphony Orchestra on Thursday (Nov. 17).
“It was a combination of location, a very vibrant dean in Richard Duncan and having met some of the faculty before the interview that brought me here,” he said. “I had offers at other places at the time, but this seemed like the best choice.”
Miltenberger said that his plans to move on changed after seeing what WVU and Morgantown had to offer.
“You could probably find a lot more cities that would have this situation, but it just fit for us,” he said. “We liked the people a lot, and the people were very friendly. The quality of the faculty is extraordinary, and that’s why we stayed ? It is a pleasure to work with them.”
Miltenberger has felt a strong pull to music since childhood.
“My mother was a piano teacher, and I have this memory – it may be because I’ve been told the story so many times – that I was around 3 years old and would sit on our balcony on the stairs to watch my mother give piano lessons down a floor,” he said. “After they were done, I’d come out and pick out the lesson they were just playing.
“So basically, I’m 3 years old and I’m already trying to figure out how to play the piano.”
A native of Sydney, Ohio, Miltenberger graduated with his master’s and doctorate degrees from the Eastman School at the University of Rochester. Thereafter, with some consideration of suggestions he’d received from former WVU music theory professor Frank Lawrence, Miltenberger and his wife moved to Morgantown.
The most marked change during those 50 years, Miltenberger says, is the talent of the students at the College of Creative Arts.
“Obviously the biggest change in the University from 1962 is that there are now 30,000 students compared to the 8,000,” he said. “But, the main difference is in the talent, and my students have gotten better and better each year.”
Miltenberger’s accomplishments include being the first-elected chairperson of the Faculty Senate, and one among the first group to be named a WVU Foundation Outstanding Teacher. He is a Music Teachers National Association adjudicator at the state, regional and national levels.
He has performed extensively as a soloist nationally as well as in Europe and Japan, and other solo appearances with various orchestras include performances at Carnegie Hall and with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Miltenberger has appeared on nationwide television on PBS and the NBC Today Show.
Miltenberger created the arrangement of John Denver’s Country Roads that the Pride of West Virginia Mountaineer Marching Band performs at football and basketball games.
“The song is so significant to the state, and that piece has become really important to me, because it’s my arrangement that they do and it’s a very different arrangement,” he said.
Among all these honors, however, Miltenberger says that the highlight of his 50 years is the opportunity to observe the success of his students.
“That’s what you thrive on as a teacher – to try to motivate young people to want to do their very best, and to see them accomplish what they’re capable of. It’s fantastic,” he said. “I still love my teaching.”
Miltenberger has learned to become a better teacher from his students over the years.
“In West Virginia, you have a wide variety of students – we’ve had a lot of students come from the state that had very little good training on their instrument. You take students who have a lot of innate ability and desire to succeed and they become outstanding,” he said.
“That’s one of the differences here rather than teaching in a major city where there are a lot of good teachers at the high school level. A lot of my students have come from small towns where their piano teacher had very little training, so they come in with very little solid training but because they’re extremely hard-working, some have become extremely successful.”
Another change in Miltenberger’s 50 years with the School of Music is the addition of international students, and he now teaches as many international students as he does national. Students come from Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Korea and Brazil, among others.
Miltenberger’s celebration concert with the University’s symphony orchestra will be on Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the Lyell B. Clay Theatre at the Creative Arts Center. He will be playing “George Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F.”
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