Some people are larger than life. Time and space bring perspective, but still; the imprint of a talented, forceful, room-filling person on a young life should not be underestimated.
Such was the role Jeff Berta played in my life. In any examination of influence, I can’t overlook his presence and the way his teaching impacted me. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that because I spent three years in his classroom, the entire course of my life and career were set.
From a fairly early age, I was focused on music – all the time. Choir was my outlet of choice – although I hung with a few jazz band kids, I was a loud, passionate alto. I also had the distinct privilege of being one of the accompanists for our program. When I was fifteen – my sophomore year – Jeff Berta took the choral director job at our high school. He was new, young, aggressive and focused, determined to raise the level of excellence for us as individuals and as a program.
As I recall, it seems like we always fell short. We were a bunch of suburban kids listening to Journey and the Eagles, while he introduced John Rutter and Handel and did everything in his power to help us love it and appreciate it.
|Jeff Berta, smack dab in the middle of our
high school choir…
I’m not sure we ever did, at least not to his satisfaction.
But he never gave up. He was educated, classical and sophisticated – he knew what he was doing, and he pushed and pulled us to a place where at least we could try to execute at another level. I still remember pieces like Cantate Domino – six vocal sections, desperately struggling to keep up and count and read and stay in tune. He pushed us toward a level that we didn’t even know existed.
He let us sing pop stuff, too; and musicals. Somehow, he stretched dollars and probably overspent budgets to let us mount huge productions like Guys and Dolls, Mame, The Mikado, Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man. We had incredible costumes and backdrops and props and a fabulous taste of something so far beyond our high school appreciation that I’m not sure anybody really understood what was happening.
But he did.
Berta was a polarizing figure for some, but I was fiercely loyal. He was my director, and he lived and breathed music and excellence, and I would have done anything to support his program and his passion for excellence. It was by his side that I learned the art of accompanying; of sensing, out of the corner of my eye and the thrum of my heart, where and how he wanted to lead the choir. Subtle dynamic shifts, slight tempo adjustments; my favorite spot was always behind the piano as he conducted.
(There is a similar joy in my life these days, when I sit to the side while my current ‘conductor’ leads; partnered with Brian Hughes, there’s nothing I appreciate more than the opportunity to ‘make a moment’ – me at the piano, him at the podium. It’s a slightly different process, but still – an attempt to create something beautiful out of space and sound.It is not lost on me that I am recreating my high school experience somewhat…)
As a senior, I had three choral classes; as the official teacher’s assistant for the Freshman Choir, I accompanied; and then, in the Spring, as he was overwhelmed with musical preparation, Berta let me teach the class. I taught parts and conducted rehearsals, and I know that he knew what he was doing. My course was set.
He took me with him to work in unfamiliar (to me) settings; accompanying a big-time Presbyterian church choir that was tackling Handel’s Messiah, really challenging my skill level, along with other gigs. My world was broadened in ways that never would have happened, left to my own devices.
Later that spring, Berta set me up with an audition at Texas Tech University – his alma mater – where I eventually obtained a degree in Music Education, on a full scholarship.
He saw something in me, and he pushed and prodded until the very best of it rose to the top. I’m better for it, and thankful in countless ways.
As the best educators often are, he was a friend in times of need. I went crying to him over one of my most disappointing and difficult moments in high school, and he handled the situation with grace and appropriate encouragement. When my parents were ready to strangle my stubborn neck because I wanted to date a totally inappropriate individual, they leaned on Berta to knock some sense into me.
He knew his influence and handled it well. He was, in every sense, an excellent door holder for me – my career, my musical development, my education were all powerfully influenced because he poured his life into his students and his program with authenticity and passion.
But the underlying impact of Jeff Berta was truly realized a few years after I finished college. We kept in touch; he lived in the same neighborhood as my parents, and I’d stop by to see him and his wife Susie – an incredible woman in her own right – once or twice a year. A few years out of college, I found myself teaching music overseas, having a great adventure – but tangled up in a mess of relational, emotional and spiritual issues that had me paralyzed.
I went to see Berta.
He listened, and then he suggested that I go see a guy.
He’s a counselor, he said. He happens to be a pastor, but he’s a counselor. He’ll help.
And so I went to see the guy, and that’s another door holder story; but suffice it to say that after opening doors for my education and my passion for music, Jeff Berta directed me to the person who would help me walk through the most important door of all.
And, in that process, I began to understand the motivation and foundation for everything I’d experienced as a student under the most influential teacher I’ve ever had.
I’m grateful for Jeff Berta. It was with him that I learned to love the “second chair” and the deep, rich joy of what will always be my favorite position – as The Accompanist.
|Berta and I in Texas in 2014. We’ve both grown up.|