Vicki White-Miltun grasped her violin, stepped to the front of the room and gave her first private music lesson at the age of 19 during a summer program in Joplin, Missouri.
With guidance from her mother — who wrote notes to follow on a napkin — the teenager delivered the lesson and was on her way in the teaching world.
At age 75, White-Miltun recently completed her illustrious career as a music teacher and orchestra director with her final performance at the Mercer Island High School (MIHS) commencement under the bright lights of the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent.
After instructing Mercer Island students in grades 5-12 for the last 47 years and directing the district’s orchestra program for 35 years during that time frame, the lifelong music lover retired at the close of the school year.
With that initial violin lesson propelling her toward a career filled with songs and smiles, the Seattle resident received the inaugural MIHS faculty Hallmark Achievement Award to signify an outstanding career at a recent faculty meeting. She taught in schools for 51 years, including four years in the Seattle area before entering the Mercer Island realm and making a massive impact on students and the community as a whole.
The award came as a surprise for White-Miltun, who has played the violin since age 7.
“It’s one of those awards that had never been given before, so I had no idea that they were even thinking about it,” she said. “I’m not a big crier, but I was really kind of overcome at the moment. I knew that my friends in my music department and friends elsewhere in the school and the faculty had done this, and so I was just really overcome. Humbled.”
Sarah Hart worked alongside White-Miltun as co-director of the orchestra program until her retirement. The fifth-grade and middle-school orchestra teacher praised White-Miltun during a speech at her retirement party in mid-June at the MIHS commons in front of past and current students, families and colleagues.
“She’s amazing — a true legend and as wonderful a colleague and mentor as she is a teacher. We are all lucky to have been in her orbit and we’ve learned so much from her,” said Hart, adding that White-Miltun is an inspirational person who brings kindness, grace and love to her job.
White-Miltun has guided Hart in continuing to find passion in her job each day. While building relationships with students and families, they roll along their musical ride and discover magic moments when perfectly hitting a measure or movement.
Hart added about White-Miltun carving her own path through the music terrain: “She was always ahead of her time. For many years, she was always the only woman in the room. There aren’t a lot of woman conductors, even today.”
Along with conducting her orchestras at premier festivals, contests and conferences and being named national high school teacher of the year in 2008, White-Miltun has led pivotal state music committees and is a member of the Washington Music Educators Association Hall of Fame.
Sharon Singh said that through her role as president of the Mercer Island Orchestra Boosters, she’s enjoyed working with and getting to know White-Miltun.
“She is loved by many students, parents, alumni and fellow teachers. (She) also feels like more of a great aunt to me, personally,” Singh said.
Current vice president of the Island orchestra boosters Rich Nakatsu said it was a privilege to study under White-Miltun from 1984-1992. He has reunited with White-Miltun through his daughter’s wish to join orchestra and meet his “legendary music teacher.”
“Ms. Miltun is a passionate teacher who dedicated her life to music and it showed in her teaching. She had a ‘Spider-Man-sense’ of her students’ strengths and knew how to draw them out so that we can be the best musicians we can be,” he said.
White-Miltun said that everything she brought to the table each day was kid-oriented and it was exciting to watch the program grow through parental support since she joined the Mercer Island school community.
She discussed what she hoped to achieve when the school bell rang and kids’ instruments were lifted into action: “It’s the ‘a-ha!’ moment. It’s, today did we — the kids and I — connect and, ‘a-ha!’, there is this beautiful music, or we got this concept, or we learned how to do a new thing. It’s that every day.”
The director said that music is her “family business,” noting that she, her mother and sister are classically trained musicians, her great-grandfather and his sons were fiddlers, her grandmother was a pianist and her husband plays clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flute and saxophone.
As a violinist, White-Miltun said her favorite piece to play is the “Wieniawski Violin Concerto,” and noted as a music devotee that she was thrilled to witness cellist Janos Starker perform live.
While some of White-Miltun’s students have become professional musicians, others were simply enthused to be part of a Mercer Island 120-member orchestra and help unleash a sound that was pleasing to one’s ears, she said.
White-Miltun laughed while recalling what one former student told her about his affinity for music: “I would be a wealthy man if I didn’t have so much money that went to the LA Philharmonic. Obviously, he loved music, loved to listen. I must have given him something, some reason to continue to be a music appreciator.”