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MIT Technology Review

John Miller '64

Path to bassoon mastery winds through MIT.

When John Miller started to play the piano at the age of six, he never would have guessed that music would be his career. “I didn’t like it all that much,” he says with a laugh. Today, as principal bassoonist for the Minnesota Orchestra, he has a well developed love of music–and of the bassoon in particular.

Miller discovered the woodwind instrument that became his lifelong passion through a former professional bassoon player who worked at the music store where he took his weekly piano lessons. “Orchestral music really appealed to me in a way that the solo music written for the piano had not,” Miller says. Throughout high school, he attended music camps, practiced constantly, and even played professionally. Once he came to MIT, Miller knew he wanted to make his career in music. “But I was interested in science as a backup,” he says. “I wanted the best education I could get, and I wanted to do something in acoustics if music did not work out.”

But it did work out. As an MIT student, Miller used his scarce free time to play the bassoon professionally with groups around the Boston area. He became the first MIT graduate to be awarded a Fulbright grant for music performance, which he used to study in Amsterdam. And in 1971, when he was appointed to his current job, he became the first graduate of MIT to hold a principal chair in a major American orchestra. As a soloist, he has made critically acclaimed recordings and performed in recitals at the world’s major conservatories. He teaches at the University of Minnesota, where he founded the Nordic Bassoon Symposium, an annual international gathering of professional, student, and amateur bassoonists.

Miller, who has three children and lives in Saint Paul, values his time studying humanities and engineering at MIT even though his career took a different turn. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I developed a lifelong interest in scientific endeavors,” he says. “If I could go back in time and see how I ended up, I definitely would still go to MIT.”