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Remembering Roots

Cellist Miland Honors Parents With Music Scholarships

   
    Since he first picked up a cello at age 10 in Alameda, Emil Miland has devoted his life to making music, and he’s now also doing his part to encourage young musicians in his hometown’s public schools.
    To honor his parents, Tommie and Emil Q. Miland, the cellist established a scholarship fund in their memory, a fitting tribute from the couple’s only son and youngest of their four children: Miland’s father was the coordinator of music for the Alameda schools who witnessed the dismantling of his 30 years of work, the result of Proposition 13 in 1978, which severely cut property taxes and thus public schools’ funding.
    “They were selling the instruments in Alameda. There were no orchestras anymore. It decimated the schools,” Miland says, voicing a strong opinion about the continued poor state of music education in California’s public schools.
    “I believe it really affected his health,” Miland says of his father, who retired soon after Prop 13’s approval and died in 1988. After his mother died in 2001, Miland felt the need to give back to Alameda and remember his parents.
    Today, Miland has a house in San Francisco that he shares with Freddy, his partner of 20 years. Miland is a warm, engaging man with an avuncular charm. He is tall, with a grizzled beard and receding hairline, and he has a hearty, mischievous laugh. Sitting in his lush garden, which has been featured in the London Times, Miland calls the public school graduates of the last 30 years a lost generation of artists and musicians. “I think a lot of children have gone through our public schools and not been given the opportunity to explore their talents because they never knew they had them,” he says.
    In contrast, Miland recalls his early music education at Edison Elementary School, where homeroom teachers were often skilled at playing the piano and the children looked forward to singing together. “We had music every Friday. We had music textbooks. It wasn’t this after-school thing that people had to pay extra money for. It was part of the curriculum,” he says.
    In 2003, at the invitation of music teacher Armen Phelps, Miland served as grand marshal of Encinal High School’s Band Review. That provided a catalyst for the scholarships’ establishment and gave Miland a thrill. “Being a cellist, I never got to be in a marching band, so the only way I was going to be in a parade was waving from a car.”
    Since Miland established the fund for graduating seniors from Alameda’s public high schools, there have been seven recipients of the $1,000 scholarship, ranging from a drum major to a trombonist.
    Miland explains the idea behind the scholarships: “It wasn’t about someone playing the best Mendelssohn violin concerto or somebody having a voice that sounded like a young Whitney Houston. Really, it is about the instructors who can find the one that, first of all, needed a little help financially, and for the ones who delight in music and you can tell will continue their musical journey.”
    Two drummers from Encinal High School stand out for Phelps and illustrate Miland’s belief that the study of music has the power to enrich and change students’ lives. Keith Jacobs played the drums, but his academics weren’t always the best. But he worked hard as a sophomore on the drums, became the band’s drum major, and in his last two years he got invited to play in New Year’s parades in London and Paris. As a senior, his grades rose, and he is now in his last year at Morehouse College.
    Chudwudi Hodge, who couldn’t read music when he entered high school, received the other scholarship, which he put toward his education at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
    Alameda Education Foundation board member Judy Blank says the Miland scholarships are different than most others. “Usually you’re worried only about GPAs or musical talent for scholarships.”
    In 2007, thanks mostly to the AEF, its fundraisers, and volunteer performers such as Miland and Alamedan and opera star Frederica von Stade, Alameda elementary schools offer some music education, but students can learn an instrument of their choice only if they pay a fee. Middle and high school students have bands and orchestras to play in again.
    Miland has fond memories of the Island, saying he grew up protected in something of a bubble. He lived in a house on Fernside Boulevard, across from Lincoln Park. Miland took to the cello quickly and made his solo debut with the San Francisco Symphony at 16. He would have been a member of the class of ’77 at Alameda High, but he bypassed his senior year for a chance to study cello in London. He continued his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music and earned his bachelor’s degree with honors. In 1988, he joined the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, where he still works today.
    Although he’s studied and played all over the world, Miland has never forgotten his Alameda roots. He attended Edison Elementary and first learned to play the cello at Lincoln Middle School. His instructor was Carlton Hanson, now 90, with whom he’s still in touch.
    At 48, Miland reflects on all the teachers who helped him become the musician he is today, which has motivated him to teach fledgling cellists. He has several private students, and in September began coaching cello students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has also judged competitions for the Oakland Youth Orchestra., where he was a member in the 1970s.
    Miland says he feels very lucky to be a professional cellist. “The only jobs I’ve ever had are my paper route for the San Francisco Chronicle when I grew up on Fernside Boulevard and my cello. That’s it.”
    Berkeley pianist and “Then and Now” radio host Sarah Cahill has known Miland since they were 12 years old and performed Benjamin Britten’s cello sonata with him in January 2007 at the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco. “Most noticeable about his playing, I think, is that he has such a vocal tone. It’s really as close to the human voice as you can get,” she says.
    But his talents go beyond the cello, says von Stade. “I do think everyone should know what a great voice he has. I was lucky enough to sing with him for one of the AEF concerts,” she says in an e-mail.
    Miland, as a soloist and chamber musician, has premiered new works written for him by many composers, including David Carlson, Lou Harrison and Jake Heggie, composer of the opera Dead Man Walking. In 2002, Miland recorded Heggie’s essay for cello and orchestra, Holy the Firm, with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Miland’s other credits include recording music for the soundtrack of the Sean Penn–directed movie Into the Wild and background sound for video games. “One day it’s Tannhäuser and the next it’s Star Wars,” says Miland.
    Even though he mostly plays classical music, Miland was delighted recently to find a Partridge Family album in a San Francisco record store. “I knew every word of every song,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t imagine my life without music.”
    To donate to the fund, send a check to the AEF Miland music fund, P.O. Box 1363, Alameda, CA 94501. For info on AEF,
call (510) 748-4008, ext. 105, visit www.alamedaeducation.org or e-mail info@alamedaeducation.org.

BENEFIT CONCERT

Emil Miland performs on cello with Mack McCrary on piano at 4 p.m. Jan. 27, 2008, at a concert to benefit the Alameda Education Foundation’s Tommie and Emil Q. Miland Music Fund at Twin Towers United Methodist Church, 1411 Oak St. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. Buy tickets online at www.alamedaeducation.org or at the door.

By Keith Gleason
—Photography by Lori Eanes