Will Ray Miller’s passion give you perfect pitch?

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It’s the middle of the day and I’m driving through downtown Lewiston, singing as always. I sound quite a lot like Jim Morrison as I belt out The Doors’ “Crystal Ship.” But my ear tells me that if I drop my voice a little bit, I’ll sound even better.

It happens almost automatically. The machinery of my voice makes the adjustments without much conscious effort on my part. What do you know? I am singing much better than I was before. I’m ready for the Hollywood Bowl.

I owe it all to the gadget upon my head. They’re called the HearFones and it’s nothing fancy, really. Just a set of headphones with a long, grooved dish at each side to deliver my voice directly to my ears. Now that I know what I really sound like, I can adjust accordingly. I can become a better singer.

The good news (for all of us) is that so can you.

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“All these people say ‘But I wasn’t born with a singing voice,'” Raymond Miller tells me. “Well, no one is. It’s a matter of teaching your body.”

A man of many interests

A stroll through Miller’s working space in his Oxford Hills home reveals quite a lot about the man. Not everything, of course. His background is too long and too expansive to be represented completely by books and knickknacks.

But there are signs. Like the Iwo Jima poster on the wall and the Iwo Jima hat hanging on a hook.

Like the books with titles such as “The Psychology of Music” and “Principals of Voice Production.”

Like the glue sticks and tape, C-clamps that keep part of a desk in balance, literature from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

Are you starting to get a picture?

Miller is a survivor of the World War II battle at Iwo Jima. He has an academic background in psychology, a working background in manufacturing and a lifelong background in music. All of that knowledge and all of those passions converged when he teamed up with engineer Pete Mickelson to invent the HearFones, an astoundingly simple device designed to tackle a very old issue.

“I knew how to solve just about every problem a singer could have,” Miller says. “But I couldn’t solve the problem that they can’t hear themselves. They can’t hear how they really sound.”

Only, now they can. About 20,000 singers and teachers in 36 countries have bought Miller’s HearFones. The list of testimonials (see related story) just goes on and on. But if you think Miller is calling it a day, you haven’t learned enough about the man.

Martini time

At 86-years-old, Miller will shame men half his age.

When I went to his home in Paris, I interrupted him while he was upstairs at work on his novel “The Third Martini.”

“It’s what some might call a naughty novel,” Millers tells me. “It’s kind of steamy. No publisher will touch this, but a million women will buy it.”

The novel chronicles the relationship between Otto, a masseur, and his client Felicia. It’s a relationship fraught with sexual tension. The novel features chapters with titles such things as “How to Undress a Woman” and has nothing to do with the war or engineering.

It won’t be Miller’s first book. Not even close. Miller has authored a number of books on music along his journey. And last year, he published the war memoir “From the Volcano to the Gorge: Getting the Job Done on Iwo Jima.” It was written with Howard N. McLaughlin Jr., who also served in the 5th Marine Division at the notorious battle.

“I’m happy that I survived,” Miller says. “Boy, that wasn’t easy. We lost a lot of men.”

Yet, the book isn’t so much about the blood and guts and weaponry of the war. Instead, Miller wrote about different things that he found interesting about his experiences. Thinking outside of the box is a trait learned from his mother, who herself started writing verses when she was 71.

“Part of her philosophy,” Miller says, “is my philosophy, as well.”

Despite the thrills and horrors of battle, a romantic might suggest that Miller’s true adventures didn’t really start until January of 1946 when he returned to his home in Wisconsin.

He got home on a Saturday and surprised his parents as they were having dinner.

“I took Sunday off and slept a lot,” Miller says. “On Monday, I got a job at a machine shop. On Tuesday, I enrolled in a teacher’s college. I come from a family of workers. I got right to work and I’ve been busy ever since.”

He went to Chicago. He came back to Wisconsin to study psychology. He came and went, got married, had kids, continued to explore.

One afternoon, he was on his way to a job interview with a large firm in Chicago. It was an opportunity for Miller to put his psychology degree to work – to wear a suit and tie to the office and make big money.

“I stopped at a red light. There’s a big sign that said: ‘Men wanted. Now hiring machinists.’ I thought, ‘Well, I have time to take a look.’ I was hired. I never did get downtown for that interview.”

Miller ended up working in Connecticut for a publisher who owned 250 presses in the Northeast. It was another of the many changes in locations and jobs he would make that would take him west to California and then back East to Vermont and then eventually to Maine, attracted by a woman there when he was no longer married.

Ultimately, he moved to Maine and, although the relationship didn’t work out, Miller stuck around. “I really got lonesome for winters,” he says. “I got lonesome for the Northeast.”

The 1960s had begun.

Music hath charms

As Miller changed jobs, schools and women over the years, the one thing that stayed consistent was his passion for music, another trait he got from his mother.

“My mother was very musical. She played the piano. She was always singing,” Miller says, “I was singing at the age of 2, she told me. I was performing when I was 10 or 11.”

When he was in first grade, Miller hummed so much, the superintendent of schools threatened to send him back to kindergarten.

And Miller was still humming, still singing, still studying as he said goodbye to middle age.

He was, for a time, an assistant district music educator. He was a troubleshooter in all matters musical. He sang in choirs, with barbershop quartets and he co-authored papers and books about music and all of its beautiful mysteries.

“Music is a human construct,” Miller says. “It doesn’t exist in the atmosphere or anything like that.”

He began to study the personality of chords. Why does one chord want to move constantly to another?

The result is a very heavy box — Miller lugged it out by himself. The man showed no sign of needing any help from the likes of me — stuffed with folders marked “Deviations,” “Lopes,” “Graph plots” and other topics completely foreign to me.

“I’m very interested in harmony,” Miller says. “I was writing some music and learning how to be a manager.”

He was also smoking cigars, drinking martinis and meeting people. One of the people he met was Mickelson, an engineer and choir singer who, like Miller, had a lot of experience with product development.

Miller had a trove of experience with singers and how to teach them. But still, that one problem persisted. How do you teach a singer who does not know what he or she truly sounds like?

When a person speaks or sings, Miller says, pointing to his lips, “the sound comes out here. But your ears are way back there.”

The result: Sing as loud as you want but what you hear isn’t your voice as others hear it. What you hear is your voice bouncing off walls or traveling through space to get to your ear.

“We needed to put the ears out there,” Miller says, again pointing to his mouth. “And that’s what we did.”

The HearFones prototype was a comical device constructed of a coat hanger and some plastic from bottles of Pepsi. It wasn’t pretty, but it did what it was designed to do. Put them on your head and anything you said went right to your ears.

“I put them on and I continued to talk,” Miller says. “I didn’t hear any difference. Because you make an adjustment without trying to. It’s motor learning. It’s different than the kind of learning you do when you study to pass a quiz. It happens automatically.”

Mickelson noticed that Miller was making adjustments to his voice while he had the early version of the HearFones on his head. It was exactly the kind of mouth-to-ear relationship Miller had been searching for.

The men formed the company NexTep and began selling their invention. They joined The Voice Foundation and related organizations. They produced seminars on the science of the voice. The HearFones were suddenly flying off the shelves.

The fact is, Miller says, anybody can be a better singer by using the device. The only people who have problems are those singers – and there are many – who refuse to believe their voice needs any work at all. They have no desire to hear what their voice really sounds like.

Foolish, Miller says.

“If you were a chef in a restaurant and the people out there said your stew was slop, then you have quality control issues,” Miller says. “How does a chef react to that? He tastes the stew.”

And to fix your voice, you have to first be able to hear it.

“Take Joe Smith,” Miller says. “You put the HearFones on him, and he’s a better singer. We knew that they worked. Everybody who used them knew that they work.”

Pursuing a passionate life

So they sold tens of thousands of HearFones and became millionaires, right?

Not quite.

“We have never made a dime off them,” Miller says, with more wonder than regret.

The problem: They were selling the device and the instructional information that comes with it too cheaply. From the start, HearFones have been (and still are, as of this writing) just $33. That just about covers their costs.

Miller wants to nudge the price up a bit. His partner isn’t so sure.

“Pete thinks of the little old lady who sings in a choir who needs them but can’t afford them,” Miller says. “But it’s not the little old lady who is buying them.”

So, they continue to sell their invention and continue to bicker about the price. Meanwhile, Miller keeps working on “The Third Martini,” which was up to about page 212 when I interrupted him.

“I expect it will go 350 pages or so,” he says.

He also plans to work on promoting the HearFones more. Then there’s his live-in girlfriend, Mary, whom he met ten years ago after placing a personal ad.

“She demands a little attention, too,” Miller says, giving Mary a squeeze.

So, who knows what Raymond Miller will be up to next year when his naughty novel is on the shelf. If, at 86, the man shows any sign of slowing, I didn’t see it. Miller isn’t just youthful and spry “for a man his age.” He’s youthful and spry for a man of any age.

Upstairs, in the tower of the old farmhouse where he writes, I spotted a slip of paper on the wall. On the paper was a short and simple motto. Somehow, after all I’d learned about Raymond Miller, this simple proverb seemed to sum him up the best.

“You won’t die pursuing the passionate life,” it states. “But you won’t live unless you do.”

Learn more at www.hearfones.com

Musicians sing praises of HearFones

“I find HearFones helpful with singers intonation, and the rest of the choir notices the difference.  They often make the singers’ voices seem softer, and sing with better fidelity and less distortion. The choir then blends better. One of my singers especially likes to use HearFones in her vocal warm-ups.”

— Sally Trice, choir director, Portland

“As a 20-year Sweet Adeline veteran, I still couldn’t understand what our chorus coaches were trying to tell us – until I tried HearFones. I was finally able to hear how changes in mouth shape, tongue placement, vowel forming etc., were manifesting themselves in my vocal production. Now I can be my own coach. They’re great. I love them.”

— Dr. Ruth Freeman, Tennessee

After 50 years of being afraid to sing, I started vocal lessons, determined to set free the singer I’d always believed was in me somewhere. After a year of practicing almost every day, I gave up. . . .  Two years later, I started again. At my first lesson, she loaned me a pair of HearFones and a whole new world opened up for me. I could actually hear what I was singing (or trying to sing!) and I could hear precisely . . . Perhaps people like me who’ve always believed they couldn’t sing have never been willing to listen to themselves. HearFones gives us the boost we need to hear and then sing.”

— Pat Murphy, Minnesota

“My singing students simply love HearFones. They’re getting lots of use. They’re particularly helpful for young singers who are learning to match pitch and for singers who have trouble hearing themselves and have a tendency to oversing and blare. I have heard examples of a choir singing with and without the HearFones and there’s no question in my mind (and ears) that the sound resulting from their use in group settings results in quality tuning and blending . . .”

— Lisa Popeil, Voiceworks, Los Angeles

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