Julia Millen recalls walking from the staff residences in Bow Valley Provincial Park, out to the highway, in that deep darkness that settles far from the lights of any town. She was a park interpreter – but on this evening in the late 1980s, she wasn’t looking for wildlife.
Headlights cutting through the dark night illuminated a troubling sight. Some drivers stopped to offer help. “Your baby – are you okay?” they asked the woman on the roadside with a cloth bundle over her arms.
“This is my costume,” Millen told them. “I’m waiting for a bus. It’s okay.”
And so, at the side of the TransCanada in a mountain valley, one alto singer joined the Calgary Renaissance Singers and Players on tour.
That woman on the roadside might look like a tragic figure, clinging to her music and her science, refusing to choose between great loves. Yet a look at Millen’s life today reveals remarkable successes, not from sacrificing any one interest, but from finding ways to bring these two, and more, together.
Piano lessons and nature walks fit comfortably together – in childhood
Both music and natural science entered Millen’s life early.
She and her siblings all took music lessons. She started piano before kindergarten, and later added flute and voice. At home, she played piano duets with her mother, and sometimes the family sang along with her father’s guitar.
Other times, outdoors near their home in Banff, they looked for calypso orchids and the northern lights.
“I remember Mom taking me in her arms down to look at the reflection of the moon on the river,” says Millen.
In her first year of university, Millen studied science and math to prepare for medical school. Amongst all the classes and labs, she continued her music lessons, working on her grade 10 piano, but eventually she dropped a physics class.
In the spring session, she took the physics – and the piano exam.
“Physics suffered. But I did really well on my piano,” she laughs.
Millen still loved science and wanted to connect it with people, but she realized she didn’t want to spend her days in a doctor’s office.
“I really needed to have some time outside,” says Millen.
Searching for a new direction, she took courses ranging from psychology to ecology, and discovered fluvial geomorphology – a branch of geography focused on rivers in the landscape – how water, land and people interact.
Millen had found a field of study that brings numerous topics together in a big picture. “I fell in love with geography – because it thinks the way I think.”
After graduation, she took the job west of Calgary in Bow Valley Provincial Park – the first of many connecting people with nature and science.
Millen has tried choosing between nature and music
Wherever she went, though, music crept in. And one of these nature jobs, at the Helen Schuler Coulee Centre in Lethbridge, led her back to serious music study.
“As soon as I moved down to Lethbridge, I was exploring, ‘okay, what music can I do?’ – even though I was working full time,” remembers Millen.
So, she joined the University of Lethbridge Singers.
“Every single time I catch up with her, I say, ‘Julia, where do you get your energy?’” -Wendy Karhoffer
There she met George Evelyn, a renowned conductor whose mentorship renewed her passion for choral singing. Along with her day job, she sang in up to six choirs at a time.
Finally, nearly a decade after her geography degree, Millen decided to pursue a degree in vocal performance. She told herself, “‘I don’t want to be 90 and not find out [if I can do it].’”
Then she dug deeper into the study of music and its evolution, earning a master’s in musicology in Toronto.
But while living in Toronto, she searched for balance. She cherished glimpses of sky, and cracks where plants grew. On weekends, in the next building over from the faculty of music, she took classes in medical illustration.
With the same focus on detail that carries a musician through hours of practicing, Millen produced exquisite drawings of beetles, capturing iridescent colours with pencil crayons and the gloss of a hard shell with carbon dust.
Participants in her guided hikes notice how she loves to look closely at things. So much so, she says, that when some hikers expect to be late to the trailhead, they don’t worry about catching up. They tell her they’ll find her, still looking at whatever interesting things she has found next to the parking lot.
By looking closely, she says, “you learn so much.”
Her intense curiosity draws people in
Always eager to learn, Millen has explored work roles as diverse as flood recovery volunteer coordinator, fire communications officer, and even “described video writer.”
For the reality TV program My Rona Home, Millen turned the visible actions of couples renovating their homes into tiny phrases to be spoken in gaps in the dialogue, so that a blind listener could follow what was happening without seeing it.
Not everyone is so ready to learn. While leading nature programs for schools, she explains that it’s not easy to spark a love for nature in everyone.
“You can get kids who are really keen, but you can also get people who would rather be somewhere else, including some of the teachers.”
Still, she shares her excitement and hopes it may spark a new interest for others – possibly long after the program is over.
Once, in what was basically a naturalist-in-residence program, Millen saw the same students over a longer period – one week in the fall, and another in the new year. At the end of the second session, kids were calling her name in the halls.
“I felt like a rock star,” she recalls with a grin.
Her words slow as she describes what happened next. A little boy joined in, calling ‘Julia!’ as he raced down the hall to hug and thank her. Millen says a teacher who witnessed it, “looked very stunned, and ... said, ‘That’s never happened. He’s not a huggy, touchy-feely guy – he never remembers people’s names. You made a big impact.’”
Millen connects with people as intensely as she does with the flowers she discovers or the music she sings. Her friend and former Parks Canada colleague, Wendy Karhoffer, says, “I know she’s got a busy schedule and she likes to do things, but when we get together, she just makes you feel like you’ve got her undivided attention.”
Both Karhoffer and Millen’s choir director, Tim Shantz, remember asking her about good places to take visitors hiking. She not only listed a good selection of trails but also brought him a collection of trail guides.
“Before I knew it, I had even more than I could handle,” he says.
Millen’s wide-ranging interests create surprising links
Millen is often asked how she does it all.
“I think one of her biggest struggles might be that she takes on so much,” says Schantz.
Yet although she appears to “do it all,” there is a common thread among Millen’s roles. She sees it as communication.
She seems particularly drawn to communication across boundaries, such as introducing urban dwellers to nature, or converting television scenes to sound. Fittingly, as part of her employer’s commitment to accessibility, her Alberta Parks business card is stamped with dots that spell her name in braille.
Science itself can be a strange and foreign place for many people. Millen was drawn to a group that makes science more real for schoolchildren by sending scientists and engineers into classrooms to share their work firsthand.
“I fell in love with geography – because it thinks the way I think.” – Julia Millen
While working with the Calgary Science Network, Millen began mentoring young women in science through another organization, now called Cybermentor, and eventually became the program director.
Leaning forward with a steady gaze, Millen explains how Cybermentor connects young women with opportunities they “wouldn’t have ever dreamed of, and you might not have either.” She mentions her own niece, who wanted to be a pediatrician – and is now completing a civil engineering degree.
While Cybermentor was starting conversations between aspiring and established scientists, the organization faced a communication challenge between older mentors accustomed to email, and younger mentees who preferred social media. Millen designed an online platform where both mentors and mentees could comfortably meet to chat.
Even between science and music, Millen makes connections. Karhoffer remembers her first meeting with Millen, who filled in on short notice as an interpreter to help lead a school tour at Lake Louise – and brought her flute. After Karhoffer got over her initial puzzlement, she says, “I thought, ‘Wow, you’re not like a typical interpreter!’”
Shantz says Millen brings her wider knowledge to choral events as well.
When the Spiritus Chamber Choir presented a program called Northern Lights last year, she arranged for a display in the lobby from the Arctic Institute of North America, including webcam video where concertgoers could hope to catch a glimpse of the auroras.
Recently she sang with Luminous Voices in their presentation, Path of Miracles, inspired by a famous pilgrimage route in Spain, El Camino de Santiago. As the choir prepared the work, Millen enriched their experience by locating manuscripts about the route.
A source of joy
Luminous Voices, a professional choir, is “the huge joy in my life,” Millen says.
For an accomplished singer like Millen, Shantz explains, working in a choir at a high level is like an NHL-caliber hockey player finally getting to play in that league, where his skills all come to life.
In addition to her roles with Spiritus and Luminous Voices, Millen leads the alto section in the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus. She has toured through Europe with Spiritus, and sung solos with the Philharmonic at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary.
Millen refers to Shantz as an “enabler” for her singing habit. He says, “It’s pretty easy with a person like Julia because of how much skill and talent she brings to the table.”
For her part, Millen appreciates being in several choirs under the same director – free of scheduling conflicts. At this time, Shantz says, Millen is the only singer who performs with all three choirs.
Karhoffer says, “Every single time I catch up with her, I say, ‘Julia, where do you get your energy?’”
But Karhoffer suggests Millen’s remarkable energy seems to come from the same passion for learning and sharing that drives her into so many pursuits.
Perhaps it comes precisely from her refusal to limit herself to one thing.
At the end of the interview, Karhoffer reveals yet another one of Millen’s passions – baking. But of course there’s a twist. At one of their pre-Christmas bake-a-thons, Millen brought a recipe for marshmallow cookies decorated as snowmen – and then melted to look like they had encountered that other force of Calgary nature – the chinook.
- By Laura Stewart