It took only a single piano lesson for Joan “Yonina” Miller, then 10, to know that she wanted a career in music.
Now an accomplished pianist, music teacher and composer, as well as a published author, Miller, who resides at Weinberg Manor East in Northwest Baltimore, has been delighting audiences with her music, poetry and “stories that rhyme” for decades.
A Philadelphia native, Miller moved to New York City’s Upper West Side as a child to live with her grandparents. Among her fondest memories of life with them is waking up to hear her grandmother declare, “Let’s have a party!” Miller says her grandfather gave her the middle name “Yonina” to set her apart from other girls her age named Joan.
As a child, Miller was intrigued by an out-of-tune piano that she noticed at her grandparents’ apartment complex. Soon, she began taking music lessons with her cantor’s fiancé.
“I want to be just like you,” she recalls telling the teacher. “I want to play piano for the rest of my life at concerts, and I want to teach piano.”
Throughout her childhood, Miller honed her talents and eventually studied music and French at Goucher College and played piano at the Peabody Institute when she was only 15. She also spent a summer abroad in Europe, studying composition in Geneva under a pupil of famed Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.
Later, Miller moved back to New York City for 10 years, earning a master’s degree in music and directing the choir at an Orthodox day school for girls. During that period, she became immersed in Israeli and Hebrew music as well as show tunes from such Broadway classics as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story” and “My Fair Lady.”
In 1978, during a five-year stint teaching preschoolers in Virginia, Miller penned the tune “Joel the Mole.” The rhyming story for children about a mole who travels around the globe to discover his inner essence sold hundreds of copies and was republished last year.
“The fact that these kids are 4 years old, yelling, ‘We want Joel!’ — that to me was the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard about something that I did,” says Miller. She believes that her writing has been generally well-received because of its “simplicity and relatability.”
Since moving back to Baltimore from Virginia in the mid-1990s, Miller has performed for patients and visitors at Northwest and MedStar Good Samaritan hospitals, Mercy Medical Center, for guests at the Eating Together kosher programs and for fellow residents at the Weinberg Manor senior citizen complexes.
“I take special requests wherever I go,” says Miller. “For many people, [music is] a good way to go along with what they’re feeling. I’ll say, ‘Is there any favorite you have that I could play for you today?’ and they’ll stay for hours and they’ll get cheered up.”
Miller also has continued writing prose. One of her latest poems, “The Amazing Survivor,” describes how Miller practices daily gratitude to overcome medical problems and concerns. “I’ve been through a lot, but I always come out on top,” she wrote in one line of the poem.
“It’s amazing, when you’re writing something from yourself to yourself, how many people can relate to it,” says Miller. She says medical personnel have frequently asked Miller to make copies of “The Amazing Survivor” to distribute to emergency room patients.
Miller’s recent endeavors include the creation of “The Sky’s the Limit,” a musical inspired by her friends’ lives. The plot involves a pair of disabled individuals — a Christian man from Africa and a Jewish woman from Baltimore — who develop a friendship that enriches their lives.
Miller — who is single, never had children and prefers not revealing her age — says she keeps herself busy by practicing yoga and tai chi, studies foreign languages and is writing a tribute to her grandparents that she hopes to publish in the near future.
She still teaches piano lessons to children and adults. Among her students is vocalist Tomeka Powers, who met Miller through a mutual acquaintance at her church. Powers says she’s quite impressed with Miller’s patience and talent.
“When she plays, my voice sounds beautiful,” Powers says. “Some of the things that she’s done are inspirational. She’s courageous, how she’s helped so many.”
For people interested in creative pursuits, Miller advises to start simple and ask for help. “Whatever appeals to you, write about it,” she says, “then share it with a good friend.”
Jolene Carr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.