A weekend shopping trip to the Northwest Arkansas Mall would not be the same without the peaceful melodies coming from the food court. Smack dab in the middle of the atrium sits 31-year-old James Miller, a Bentonville resident who has been delighting shoppers for almost eight years.
Sitting close by the Baldwin piano are three figures – his mother, Betty Jo; his friend and driver, Burdette Schmidt; and little brother Mark. The three stay nearby through Miller’s four-hour performance, listening to every song and keeping an eye on his tips.
A keen observer may notice the walking stick beneath the piano seat, or the fact that Miller never looks down at his hands. He plays without paper music because he can’t read it.
He doesn’t look down because he can’t see the keys. Blind since birth, James Miller is nothing short of a prodigy. He is a pianist, singer and composer, playing pieces learned entirely by ear and rearranging the notes to suit his style.
“It wasn’t easy to learn the piano,” Miller said. “But I learned it pretty fast. Now, it’s all I want to do. I like to sit here and play all day.”
And his music does not end at the mall. At home, Miller plays for his brother, Mark, who visits on weekends. Mark, who suffers from a severe form of autism, joined the family when James was only a small child, and he has grown accustomed to the musical household his brother creates.
“Sometimes he bosses me around,” said Miller with a laugh. “He can be demanding. He wants different songs. He doesn’t play any music, but he can carry a tune. He likes to sing along while I play. It makes us both happy.”
But family and home life for James has not always been so happily musical.
“I DON’T REMEMBER MUCH. EXCEPT BEGGING IN THE STREETS. I DO REMEMBER THAT.”
Twenty-six years ago, a 5-year-old James Miller lived in a very different world. He was growing up homeless in Guatemala City, Guatemala. The exact date or location of his birth is unknown.
“Well, when he started school we had to have a date of birth,” said Betty Jo, his adoptive mother. “We knew the year, but the date, we just kind of had to guess.”
“I remember sleeping in cardboard boxes and being cold and hungry,” said Miller.
“Before I came here, I don’t really remember much, but I remember eating out of garbage
Miller’s life on the streets of Guatemala City was not unique, according to occupational therapist Kelly Yates and developmental therapist Carol Harlan of TEAMworks in Fayetteville.
Yates and Harlan have traveled to Guatemala to work with disabled orphans and have firsthand knowledge of the awful conditions the homeless endure.
“Many children and homeless live in an area called ‘the dumps’ in cardboard structures,” they wrote in an email interview. “The homeless in Guatemala City will follow tourists around or plant themselves near attraction areas to beg for food and money. Some children with special needs are used by their families to beg for food.
“Guatemala City is very over-populated with a large number of homeless,” they continued.
“The homeless sleep anywhere available, especially in park areas, benches, etc. Many of the orphans we met were ‘street children’ found in dumps, outside public places, left without families, in public bathrooms and other appalling areas. The outlook for the homeless is very bleak in Guatemala City.”
According to Casa Alianza, an outreach program supporting homeless children in Central America, an estimated 14,500 children, 4,500 of whom are in Guatemala City, live on the streets in Guatemala and scavenge to survive. The exact number of children living on the streets of the capital city are unknown due to poor records, lack of governmental intervention and the transient lifestyle of street children.
Most of these children will not survive into adulthood. According to UNICEF International, street children in Guatemala have a life expectancy of around four years, and that number greatly drops for children with physical disabilities.
Twenty-six years ago, James Miller was facing a near certain death.
“I don’t remember how I got to the adoption agency,” he said. “I was so young. I remember getting on the plane, though. I came on the plane to America to meet my mom.”
“I’ll tell you what he did,” added Betty Jo. “He grabbed ahold of my neck and would not let go. He hung on and hung on, even in the car on the way home. No seatbelts, no nothing. He was in my lap in the front seat and hung onto my neck like he was going to choke me.”
“Well,” added James with a smile, “I finally had a mama, and I wasn’t going to let her go.”
“SHE TAUGHT ME TO PLAY ‘ONE LITTLE, TWO LITTLE, THREE LITTLE INDIANS’”
Five-year-old James, having found his mother and now safely in his new home is Grand Island, Neb., faced yet another challenge: learning English.
“I only spoke Spanish when I got to America,” said Miller. “I only knew three words of English: chocolate, coffee and Coca-Cola.”
“That was all he spoke when I got him,” added Betty Jo. “I didn’t speak any Spanish. We couldn’t really talk. But I still talked to him.”
James was immediately enrolled in the Nebraska Center for Blind Children in Nebraska City, his mother said, and began the process of learning English and Braille. “He was really quick,” said his mother. “He’s just so smart. He just kind of picked it up.”
But before he would become fluent in English, Miller would find another way to communicate.
“I started playing piano when I was between the age of 6 and a half and 7,” he said. “I started playing ‘10 little Indians.’ My mama taught me that song.”
“I had six months of piano lessons and they had started me on these little songs, so that’s what I taught him,” said Betty Jo. “And I could carry a tune. I knew just the basics, and I would sing songs to him. He really just kind of figured it out.”
“She taught me where the sharps were and where the flats were,”added Miller. “I would just play the songs. I would listen by ear and then play by ear. I couldn’t see the music, so I had to really listen.”
Within a year of learning to play, James was playing piano for crowds.
“He started playing at church,” said Betty Jo.
“One of the ladies at the church heard him play.
She worked at Dillard’s there in Grand Island.
She thought he should come down to the store and play there. Everybody at the Dillard’s had heard about him when he was a tiny little fellow out at the church playing.They really enjoyed having him there.”
“I took my little miniature keyboard. I started with a first one, a tiny one, and as I got bigger and bigger and bigger, I got bigger ones.”
“We carried in the keyboard for him to play in the store,” said Betty Jo. “I carried his brother on one hip, his keyboard under one arm, and he walked beside me, holding my hand. It was quite a thing.”
‘HE SIGNED UP AND CAME IN AND WE REALLY HIT IT OFF’
James would continue to play weekly at the Dillard’s store until the family moved to Northwest Arkansas in 1992. He resumed playing for local churches and senior centers, and although he was confident enough to play at venues, James Miller wanted to advance his abilities.
Miller signed up for classes at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville in 2006 with the goal of improving his piano playing skills. It would be at that college where he would meet a great influence on his playing.
“I took two years of computers and music,” Miller said. “Henry, he started me on more advanced pieces. He taught me how to do more than just basics.”
Henry Runkles, an instructor of music at the University of Arkansas, was teaching piano lessons at NWACC when he met James six years ago.
Working with a disabled student was not new to Runkles. “One of my first piano teachers had polio as a child,” he said. “She was restricted to a wheelchair and had to be held up by supports.
“She really was limited, but she knew what she wanted to do,” he continued. “Now, if a disabled student wants to work with me, I will work with them. Music is such a thing that it is not limited by disability.”
Runkles worked with Miller for two years.
“He was a bit jumbled at first,” said Runkles.
“There were just some technical things like fingering that were giving him problems. He had a much easier time not getting in his own way once he learned the techniques.”
After learning the new techniques, Runkles started Miller on typical studies: scales and chords, progressions and technical fingering. Though he taught Miller with usual techniques, the sessions were far from usual.
“I remember he would always record every session,” said Runkles. “I would always play first, exacting the notes, then he would play after me.”
Runkles would divide a piece into small sections, he said, and carefully play the selection. Miller would then play the piece himself, taking care to hit every note correctly.
Miller would then slowly string the stanzas together into a completed piece.
“You could see that he listened in our sessions, then he went home, went over the tapes and really looked at it,” said Runkles. “He progressed really well.”
And sometimes, a little too well.
“He was able to turn the tables on me quite a bit,” said Runkles with a laugh. “I wouldn’t always play the piece perfectly. If I missed a note, he wouldjump in and say ‘Oh, that’s not right!’ He is a quick kid.”
“WALK ON, WALK ON WITH HOPE IN YOUR HEART, AND YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE”
“We saw in the paper where this gentleman died who was playing at the mall,” said Betty Jo.
“So we came down to try out.”
The then-24-year-old James got the job and was soon sitting at the black Baldwin grand piano in the mall’s food court. “I started working by playing the “Boogey Woogey Blues,” he said, singing the song. “I had to start by playing the boogies.”
But playing at the mall is not his only gig.
James plays at The Maples at Har-Ber Meadows twice a month, says activities director Brenda Oxford, and is the delight of the residents and staff at the facility.
“One of my assistants was at the mall when he was playing and eventually tracked him down and invited him to play here,” said Oxford. “He came in with his keyboard and started playing and singing. Our residents just love him,” she continued.
“He draws a big crowd, especially when he plays some Oak Ridge Boys.
They just enjoy him so much.”
James has also been involved in regional competitions for children and young adults in addition to his performances at the mall, local churches and the Maples.
“We started to go to Branson, and he joined the Big League of Little Entertainers, the American Kids Inc.,” said Burdette Schmidt. “And so we went to contests all over. One was clear over in Wichita Falls. We went to a church in Kansas to play because someone heard about him.”
“I sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’” said Miller. “I stood in the middle of the stage and sang. It wasn’t easy, but I was so proud.”
“He was on a stage that was real small,” said Burdette. “And two guys, one on one side of him and one on the other, they just waited for him to fall.
He was moving back and forth, but he didn’t fall.
And he did it all his own.
“When he was just a kid, he used to play ‘Need a Little Christmas’ at the competitions,” Burdette continued. “He sang and played it on the keyboard.
He’s got lots of trophies and a lot of rewards.”
Trophies aside, James Miller is simply happy to do what he does best.
“I like to play. It makes me the happiest, all the time.”
Safe, healthy and happy, Miller plans to entertain crowds of shoppers for years to come, with the same determination, passion and joy that has guided him through his life and brought him to the mall’s center stage 1,700miles from his birth place.
His talent has made the once homeless James Miller an icon in the Northwest Arkansas community.
And yes, he takes requests.
Link to the article can be found here.