Miller’s music students top 1,000

pat miller 3 col cmyk
While piano is the musical instrument of choice for Patricia Miller, formerly of Elgin, strumming the ukulele puts a smile on her face.

NOTEWORTHY – a perfectly-pitched word to describe Patricia “Pat” Miller, formerly of Elgin. She is worthy of a standing ovation because of how notes, specifically music, frame her life and touch so many.  

Miller, who now lives in Lincoln with her husband David Shipley of two-plus years, estimates she’s taught music to more than a thousand students. “I love teaching,” she shared from her home surrounded by two pianos, a harp, ukuleles, and music quotes on one placard or another. 

“I didn’t want to be a star. It’s about the kids doing their best,” she said. An accomplished pianist, along with singing and dabbling with the ukulele, Miller said accompanying was really her forte – “I love to make people sound better.” 

Her music story started while growing up on a farm west of Tilden, the oldest of four, the rest brothers, acclaimed music directors and vocalists amongst them. “My dad loved music, played piano by ear, and sang all the time. Mom, too, though not as much,” she recalled with a glint of joy in her eye. “Now, about Dad, choir practice and singing in church was a priority. He did not miss.” 

The church of which she speaks is Peace United Church of Christ in Tilden where she retains membership. Her great-grandparents helped found the church in the early 1900s, which always had a strong music program. Having taken piano lessons since age six, Miller accompanied the junior choir there by fifth grade, directed the choir for years before moving to Lincoln, and now records music played at services. 

From humble beginnings riding her bike to a one-room country school, she graduated Elkhorn Valley High School, Tilden, in 1971, then Doane College (now Doane University), Crete, in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts in music education. She also holds a master’s degree in counseling from Wayne State, earned in 1998. 

“I had been reading a lot about psychology and thought I could use music to be a wellness counselor,” she said.

Fact is, she was imparting wellness through the universal language of music all along. The fall of 1975, she joined Elgin Public Schools as music teacher, along with running a robust piano studio sometimes with as many 26 students. She stayed home in the early 1980s to care for two daughters, both graduates of Elgin High and exceptional musicians, who live in the Oklahoma City and Omaha areas. She has one grandchild. 

In 1987, she signed a music teaching contract with Pope John High School, then added St. Boniface School in 1988. “The big thing was musicals,” she said with fondness. She now comes back to Elgin routinely to see “her kids, or the kids of her kids” perform. 

Diagnosed with diabetes in 1991, she cut back some on teaching at Elgin’s Catholic schools to learn how to deal with this chronic illness. “I told all my classes, everyone,” she said. Though she never did, “I could have passed out if my blood sugar got too low.” 

By 2011, she thought retirement was her future and then got a call from Neligh-Oakdale Public Schools where she taught elementary music and accompanied junior and senior high choirs for seven years. “It (music) is in my DNA,” Miller said emphatically. She recounted the crystalline voices of a girls trio, a “you knocked my socks off” comment from a jazz choir judge at district music competition, and the memory of little Timmy. “I always worked hard with the little ones to find their high voice,” she said. “When Timmy (who struggled) finally was on pitch, we all cheered.” 

In 2016, the painful cancer death of the love of her life, Jim Miller, left her alone and lost in the farmhouse. They married in 1973 and built a life together, he as a farmer and she a music teacher, and together cared for their family. Henry, a bigger-than-life golden retriever who died recently, was her buddy and trusted protector out on the farm. Shipley’s brother, Doug, now lives in the farmhouse keeping watch and welcoming the Pat-David duo for overnights during their frequent treks back to the Elgin area. 

Shipley, most recently of Norfolk and also an accomplished organist, and Miller met, you guessed it, through music. Now they sing in the acclaimed choir at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln and on occasion perform as The Bench Warmers playing four-hands piano. It is a sight to behold, switching hands and body placement on the piano bench, smiling in mutual admiration of one another while giving thanks that music brought them together. They also enjoy travel, most recently to Europe and Hawaii, and across our state checking off the stops in the Nebraska Passport program. And reading, too, with an audio and hard-copy book in hand most every chance they get. 

In addition to music events, and to visit friends and family, Miller heads back here to buy meat from Dean’s Market “because it’s better,” she said. “I miss neighbors here, water aerobics at the pool, and small-town medical help.” She also fills in as officiant on occasion for area United Church of Christ church services. She obtained the Education for Lay Ministry (ELM) credential in 2014. For the complete story turn to this week’s Elgin Review.