Meet the Millers: Drumming up communal strength
'We're just there to help deepen the experience and get feedback from everyone attending'
Stephanie Miller doesn’t only march to her own drum, but she helps others beat theirs as well.
Miller and her husband, Robert Miller, own Music for Life of Pittsburgh, a company that facilitates drum circles, provides vibroacoustic harp therapy and performs music for special events.
Since 2011, Stephanie Miller has worked as a music specialist at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Along with providing age-appropriate musical experiences for children at the JCC’s Early Childhood Development Center, she helps members welcome Shabbat by playing music on Fridays in the Palm Court of the Squirrel Hill branch.
These engagements have given her a greater connection to the Jewish community — a bond strengthened after Oct. 27, 2018.
Following the heinous attack at the Tree of Life building, the newly created 10.27 Healing Partnership approached the musical duo.
“They reached out to us to provide services to help with processing the trauma,” Stephanie Miller said. “Our services fit really well with the mission of 10.27.”
For more than a year, the Millers have facilitated free drum circles, which are open to the public.
“We just create a space where people can come and express how they’re feeling in the moment,” Stephanie Miller said.
“As trained drum circle facilitators, both Bob and I are there to help, guide and facilitate, but really we’re not telling people what to do,” she continued. “We’re just there to help deepen the experience and get feedback from everyone attending what they want to get out of it. Sometimes people are more in a meditative relaxing state. Other times [people] need to just let off some steam.”
By relying on rhythms created with the use of drums, shakers and squeaky toys, “we try to meet everybody’s needs, and we can do that, which is pretty neat, and support each other,” she added. “It’s been really nice to see how the community has evolved and grown, and we keep growing, so it’s been a lovely experience of community and support.”
Ranisa Davidson, program manager at the 10.27 Healing Partnership, called the Millers the “most empathetic nonjudgmental people” she has ever encountered. “They have a warmth about them that invites you to step out of your comfort zone that may feel very new or scary.”
The drum circle has been “such an incredible service for anyone who has been brave enough to try it,” Davidson continued. “Stephanie and Bob welcome you in, make you feel safe and give you a platform to express yourself without using any words.”
Neither Stephanie Miller nor Robert Miller is new to the music scene. As a child, Stephanie Miller played piano and flute. Robert Miller played piano and percussion. During their undergraduate years at West Chester University, the Millers pursued related passions. Robert Miller studied voice and graduated with a B.S. in music education. Stephanie Miller graduated with a B.S. in early childhood and elementary education and minored in music.
In refining their craft, both Stephanie Miller and Robert Miller pursued further education. Stephanie Miller enrolled in the Music for Healing and Transition Program and graduated as a Certified Music Practitioner. After a two-year stint teaching elementary school music, Robert Miller studied music therapy at Radford University and wrote his master’s thesis on “The effects of toning on perceived and physiological measures of stress in college students.”
The work aligns with a growing field of research.
Several studies suggest that physiological changes occur during music therapy sessions. University of Wisconsin health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain noted, “Music helps reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and cortisol in the body. It eases anxiety and can help improve mood.”
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine found that “group singing improved quality of life and voice strength and clarity in patients with Parkinson’s disease.”
Davidson said she’s amazed by the healing that occurs during a drum circle session: “You don’t realize it, but you end up walking into this healing cathartic space.”
Along with facilitating sessions at the 10.27 Healing Partnership, the Millers provide additional musical therapies throughout the region. Robert Miller is certified in The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music and uses “music and spontaneous imagery as a tool for personal growth and exploration.”
Stephanie Miller performs live harp music during restorative yoga sessions and offers vibroacoustic harp therapy, which requires “using a mat and vibration of the instrument to help people relax and feel better,” she said.
Stephanie Miller started playing the harp after taking an elective with professional harpist Gloria Galante in college.
“The arts are important — I hope that gets out there — because here was an elective that really essentially became my career,” she said. “If I hadn’t had that experience, I don’t know where I would be. This is a unique life path and I recognize that and without it, I may not have met all the people from not only the Jewish community but other communities that we’ve had the honor and pleasure to serve throughout Pittsburgh, and wherever we practice our musical services.”
Stephanie Miller said she remains forever grateful for her education and the opportunities it afforded.
“It’s nice to be able to give back and have relationships with people I may not have known,” she said.
“I’m not Jewish, and it’s been wonderful to learn more about Judaism and get more involved in the community,” she said. “I’ve been so welcomed, probably more than anywhere else. And I just can’t imagine not being a part of the community. I am just very thankful that I’m able to help those I work with, and am friends with, and support them in the community with whatever’s going on and, in particular, with the terrible tragedy that took so many away from us. It’s just been wonderful, really.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].