By Pat Launer
Ariana Miller was born with a rare, complex congenital heart disease. She underwent six open heart surgeries, five before she was 2½ years old. For several years, she was able to lead a normal life; she played piano, and loved to sing (she had perfect pitch). She liked to cook and travel. Then, after her last surgery, she took a downward turn and was desperately in need of a heart transplant. She spent the last five months of her life in the hospital, waiting for a heart donor who never materialized. She was 13 years old when she died in 2008.
“After Ariana passed,” says her father, Jeffrey Miller, a radiologist with San Diego Imaging, “my wife and I could have taken one of two routes. We could’ve said, ‘It’s over. We don’t want to hear about heart transplants again.’ Or we could do something to improve the lives of children with congenital heart disease.”
The Millers took the latter path. “People wanted to donate to a memorial fund, The Ariana Fund,” he says. “But we weren’t sure what to do about it.”
During Ariana’s illness, friends from church had introduced the Millers to Resounding Joy, a nonprofit that, according to its mission statement, “uses therapeutic and recreational music programs to improve the social, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of individuals and communities.”
Resounding Joy offered music therapy to Ariana once or twice a week before and during her final hospitalization and ICU stay.
“They brought percussion instruments, they sang, they made a CD, they taught Ariana to play the guitar,” says Miller. “Even on her sickest days, her eyes would light up during the music therapy sessions, and she would be laughing. It got her through a lot of tough times.”
So, recalling the significant effect this program had on his daughter, Miller came up with the idea of staging a concert featuring “incredibly talented young performers from San Diego, to showcase the best of the best,” to help raise money for children with heart disease.
Miller connected with Barbara Reuer, executive director of Resounding Joy, and they joined forces to create the Ariana Miller Music with Heart program, which is supported by the Heart of a Child Benefit Concert. This is the fourth year for the concert, which has raised about $60,000 so far.
Since the program began in 2011, Resounding Joy’s Ariana Miller Music with Heart Program has provided music therapy, at no cost, to more than 500 children in the cardiac division of Rady Children’s Hospital.
At first, concert participants were selected by word of mouth, and recommendations of the musical director, Judy Grant, who has extensive experience in musical theater and TV. Her daughter was a good friend of Ariana. But so many young people wanted to be involved that, this year, there was a formal call for auditions, judged by a committee of seven, including Miller, the event director.
“There were so many amazing performers,” says Miller, “that we had to turn away more than 20 wildly talented young people. We tried to take the best, and the best fit, and a wide age range,” which ended up being from 5 to 20.
The youngest performer is five-year-old Abraham German, from Lakeside, already a veteran of musicals produced by Cal State San Marcos, CYC Youth Theatre and Leigh Scarritt Productions. Although he doesn’t start kindergarten until next fall, he spends his non-singing time drawing, acting, and writing and directing his own musicals, starring all the members of his family.
Isabella McCormick, 9, is a La Mesa harpist who earned first place in the Preparatory Division of the Young Artist’s International Harp Competition.
A returnee from last year’s concert, Carlsbad’s Sadie Duca, 12, is “a jazz vocalist with an incredible voice, who writes her own songs,” says Miller. She also plays piano, guitar and ukulele. In 2011, she made her television debut on “America’s Got Talent,” making it to Las Vegas. In 2012, she won the Del Mar Fair Superstar competition. She’s already performed at the House of Blues in San Diego, and is working on her first album.
Sixteen year-old Cody Lovaas, also from Carlsbad, is, according to Jeff Miller, “a young pop-rock sensation,” named Best New Artist at last year’s San Diego Music Awards, the youngest ever to receive that honor. Cody recently opened for two-time Grammy winner Jason Mraz on his U.S. Tour.
A classical piano prodigy from Carmel Valley, Adrian Liu, 16, was the 2011 winner of the San Diego Symphony’s Young Artist Competition. He made his orchestral debut with the San Diego Symphony in 2012, at age 13.
In the benefit concert, Adrian will be playing with Carlos Aguilar, a 19 year-old flutist from Escondido, who has won first prize in all the San Diego open competitions for young talent, including the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus Young Artists Competition. In 2014, he received first prize at the State VOCE Competition and was the recipient of the Deveaux Scholarship for the best performance of a newly commissioned work in the National Flute Association’s High School Soloist Competition.
Several groups will perform in the concert, including The Tritones, UC San Diego’s premier a capella vocal ensemble, which advanced to the semi-finals in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. Their members have shared the stage with many renowned performers, such as Taylor Swift.
The “Heart of a Child” event, to be held on April 25 in the 500-seat Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall in Sorrento Valley, will be co-hosted by Food Network host and executive producer Marc Summers and TV director Hal Grant (“The Bachelor,” “Real Time with Bill Maher”). “They’ll even be singing a number together,” Jeff Miller promises.
Before the performances begin, there’s a reception and a silent auction, with attractive travel and entertainment packages on offer during a live auction. All proceeds go to the Ariana Miller Music with Heart Program at Rady Children’s Hospital.
“The way we look at it,” says Miller,” we can do some amazing surgeries on these kids with cardiac disease, but their often-abbreviated lives may not be not normal. Ariana was fortunate to be able to have so many opportunities to enrich her life. We’ve created this program to provide some of those opportunities to other kids, to make a difference in their lives.”
The 4th annual “Heart of a Child” benefit concert is Saturday, April 25, at the Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall, 5775 Morehouse Drive, Sorrento Valley. Doors open at 6 p.m. for a reception and silent auction. The concert begins at 7 p.m.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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