Friday, November 15, 2013

Singer-Songwriter-Naturopathic Student: Debbie Miller’s Double Act

Miller tells us what she's learned about music that heals and medicine that sings.

Student Debbie Miller wears stethoscope beside sheet music
Music and medicine have more in common than you might think.

How is songwriting like learning naturopathic medicine?

Debbie Miller pauses from her lunch in the Bastyr University Dining Commons to consider the question. In 20 minutes she will take a midterm exam in orthopedics. In four days she’ll perform at a singer-songwriter showcase at a Seattle pub.

“For me, songwriting is a healing, cathartic process in itself,” she says. “Playing music in general, even if it’s not my song — there’s such a release that comes from that.”

She returns to that word release. Naturopathic medicine seeks to release the body’s healing life force — the vis medicatrix naturae. Music can be cathartic in a similar way, dislodging emotions locked inside.

As a student of naturopathic medicine and a singer-songwriter who’s released two albums, Miller finds her pursuits are more alike than she would have guessed.

“When I perform and really connect with an audience member, even if it’s just one person, that’s healing to me and to that person,” she says. “It’s different from naturopathic medicine, but I’m not sure it’s that different. It’s just another way to heal someone or reach someone.”

That leaves the small matter of finding time for both a busy academic program — with clinical training picking up this year — and the demands of songwriting, rehearsing, organizing shows and performing. Miller released her EP Measures + Waitswhile in her second year of studies in 2012.

“It’s a constant struggle,” she says of balancing school and music. “I play music and perform because I feel like I have to. If I don’t do it I’m not happy. When you have something you have to do, you make it work somehow.”

That’s meant finding a new band when she moved from New York three years ago. Miller plays guitar and piano (and is taking violin lessons), with songs that shift from hushed to soaring, funny to deadly serious and back.

"What’s she got to give that I don’t got to give? Except a fearless heart / Some love and two beautifully sculpted open arms," she sings in "What She’s Got." Bastyr friends join her in dancing for the video shot in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

Both music and medicine required journeys of discovery for Miller. Growing up on Long Island, she began piano lessons at age 7, and then sang in an a cappella group in college. It wasn’t until after college that she performed on her own in Manhattan, rushing to write songs to fill out her first set. She wrote her first song while at work as a hospital research assistant, where she hoped to figure out if she wanted to go to medical school, become a nurse practitioner or study music therapy.

Unsure, she left the job to study Spanish in Costa Rica. She was at a language immersion school, eating watermelon on break, when a classmate mentioned that she enjoyed the food’s cooling properties. That was the first time Miller heard about naturopathic medicine and the idea that a food can have a particular character. She went home, researched naturopathic schools, and applied to Bastyr.

When she graduates, she may head back east, and may incorporate music and creativity into a medical practice. At Bastyr, she took the elective “Art as Healing Modality,” which strengthened her hunch that music can heal just as an attentive doctor can help restore harmony to a patient’s life.

“The longer I study and the longer I play music, the more I realize they’re both connected,” she says.

Here’s Miller performing “Brand New Album”:

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