Celebrating our colleague, Bruce Berr
We are blessed in our profession to have opportunities to interact with the best in our field—the best teachers, colleagues, friends. Such has been the case for teachers across the country with our colleague, Bruce Berr. Bruce had been an Associate Editor with Keyboard Companion and Clavier Companion since 1997. Recently, he wrote a regular column in American Music Teacher entitled "ad lib." He presented lectures and teaching demonstrations across the US, and directly impacted students of all ages through his teaching and compositions.
Extremely intelligent, deeply genuine, truly sincere, a tremendous colleague and leader in piano pedagogy—all of these describe Bruce, and yet, don't really complete the picture of this extraordinary man.
I first met Bruce in the year 2000, when he served on the MTNA Pedagogy Saturday committee that I was chairing. At first, I found his sharp intelligence and willingness to challenge the direction we were going a bit alarming; however, I soon came to treasure his honesty, wisdom, and energy in pursuing what was best for the event. Out of that experience came a wonderful colleague, but also a dear friend.
A wonderful sense of humor, and I always just loved that twinkle in his eye when we talked and laughed together.
A great love of music and teaching. He always treated his students, whether they were eight years old or a university graduate student, with genuine respect.
A deep commitment to Clavier Companion and MTNA. His contributions to each touched thousands of piano teachers' lives and left a lasting legacy to us and our profession.
A genuine devotion to his wife and soul mate. Every time he spoke of her, there was always boundless and sincere love in his words and voice.
An outstanding love of chocolate (who else would name his dog Frango?!). I remember several years ago he gave a fantastic workshop at an MTNA national conference. As I was congratulating him after the session he wiped his brow and said, "Boy, I could really use some chocolate!" Fortunately, I had my emergency stash of Dove dark chocolate pieces in my purse and we had a good laugh as he ate his reward. Later, when I became President of MTNA, he more than returned the favor by sending me a box of fantastic chocolates from Chicago.
Thank you, Bruce—my life is better for having had the honor of knowing you.
There has never been a more generous and supportive colleague than Bruce. He was the first to welcome me as I nervously joined the editorial staff of Keyboard Companion. Whether attending one of my workshops or a performance, he always had an insightful and supportive comment to share. Bruce was always direct and honest—one could always count on his feedback being genuine. An ideal colleague is someone with whom you can talk about teaching and music, and always come away enriched. Bruce has been this ideal.
When looking for new teachers for my preparatory program, I could always count on Bruce to recommend one of his pedagogy students. I was lucky to have two of them work beside me for many successful years. My preparatory program held a special recital of music by Chicago composers which the composers attended. Bruce's compositions were among those performed. I will always cherish the appreciation in his eyes as the students played his pieces.
Bruce has had a tremendous impact on teachers near and far because, in his work, his focus was always on the student. He video recorded nearly all his lessons and most recently gave workshops using some of these recordings. His goal was to get us to observe and learn from our students. It was inspiring to hear him talk with intense animation about how students respond and how we teach. I believe he was energized and inspired by his students throughout his career. Whether sharing these experiences in articles, workshops, or simple conversations, he enriched all our lives.
I believe in angels; people who come into our lives at just the right time, whether for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Bruce was one of my angels. I went back to college at 45 years of age to earn a degree in piano performance and pedagogy. When I began that journey, I had no idea what was ahead of me. Luckily, when I started pedagogy courses two years later, Bruce was there to teach, guide, inspire, and mentor me. I couldn't have accomplished what I did without him.
In one of the first classes, Bruce asked us to write about a favorite teacher, explaining what made them special. I wrote about my high school history teacher who turned me around from hating history classes to loving them. He did this with humor and a great love for history that was infectious. He brought it to life.
Bruce brought this same gift to his teaching. He taught me not only about pedagogy, but about the music. He developed my ability to diagnose problems, and gave me the tools to fix them, never compromising on quality, but always making it fun. He encouraged me to grow as a professional, becoming involved in teacher organizations, attending conferences and programs. Later, he also became my piano teacher, and brought me to a higher level of understanding of music, performance, and pedagogy. He coached my colleague, Annie Artinian, and me for ensemble performances; teaching us to listen, hear, and understand more. He was always there with sound advice, encouragement, and a sprinkling of fun and laughter.
Over the years I have been contacted by former students, thanking me for all I taught them. They are now using these skills in teaching or in playing. This is all because of Bruce, and it will continue on and on—what a lovely legacy.
Annie reminded me that Bruce would be so happy when a student did well. He'd say, "And I'm being paid for this?" I say, "Not nearly enough." Thanks for the wonderful journey.
Intimidating but stimulating. Those were my first impressions of Bruce Berr, based on a get-to-know-you conversation we had when I joined Keyboard Companion as Editor in 2006.
Spending very little energy on small talk, Bruce immediately dove right to the heart of what was on his mind: what would I do that would be good for piano teaching, good for the magazine, good for our profession? What did I think about starting controversial conversations, challenging teachers, and making sure that we are helping teachers improve?
The questions kept me on my toes, but Bruce's passion and dedication to good teaching were crystal clear. This passion and dedication continued to surface throughout my time at Keyboard Companion and Clavier Companion, and the opportunity to work closely with Bruce is something I will always treasure. His natural sense of good pedagogy, high musical standards, excellent writing, and consistent pursuit of excellence have helped countless students and teachers throughout his long and distinguished career. His articles, compositions, and conference presentations have provided a wealth of valuable material that will serve the profession for years to come.
While his professional record speaks for itself, I've also genuinely enjoyed getting to know Bruce as a person over the years. While that first conversation was intimidating, it was a reflection of how much he cares about things. It quickly became evident that Bruce is a very caring person: caring for friends and family, students, community, the world around him, and his beloved Chicago Cubs.
I'm grateful that I have been able to know Bruce and work with him; it has made me a better person. And there is no doubt that the profession of piano teaching has been made better through Bruce's presence and contributions.
Brilliant, insightful, compassionate, empathetic, honest, straightforward, funny, generous, remarkable—these are only a few words that describe my dear friend, Bruce Berr.
Those of us in the field of pedagogy acknowledge Bruce as one of this generation's greatest contributors. His insights came not only from his intelligence and giftedness; they also came from the way he sees the world. Everything he teaches and writes comes from his deep and compassionate insight into human nature.
I don't recall when Bruce, his wonderful wife Jennifer, and I became close friends. But if seems as if I have known them all my life. Bruce's down-to-earth, no-nonsense manner was one of the things I most appreciated about him. When I was with him, I was perfectly at ease. Because he was so genuine, he made others feel they could be, too.
Bruce was the kind of teacher who lives and breathes the music he shares with others. Providing the best learning experience for each individual was consistently his top priority.
He brought out the best in people. That is why he was such a great musician and teacher, and more importantly, a great friend. I worked with Bruce professionally, but it's the personal moments I cherish even more—meeting for dinner after recitals or festivals, attending one another's concerts or presentations, going for ice cream or experiencing his beloved Ronny's Steakhouse, receiving his practical expertise in countless ways, sharing personal sorrows such as losing a beloved pet or encountering health challenges. But there has been laughter—lots and lots of laughter.
As life goes on, you start to identify the people who are the "anchors" in your life. Bruce was one of my great anchors. He opened my mind and heart to a beautiful world, and I have been forever changed by knowing him.
Bruce's many accomplishments as a musician, teacher, writer, and composer are well-known. As a colleague I valued his expertise, his pedagogical wisdom, his insightful columns, and his music. What I remember most about Bruce, though, are his many acts of kindness and support.
For two years I taught in Jennifer's Music Together program in a church basement about two miles from their house. Setting up for the lessons required me to fold a huge accordion-fanned wall. I struggled and struggled with it until one morning, and every morning after that, Bruce showed up to help me move it.
Bruce never failed to write to me when he liked one of my columns. I knew I could trust his praise, because he also wrote to me when he took exception to something I said.
Another of Bruce's talents was technology. Because of Bruce, Keyboard Companion became one of the first interactive publications. In the late-90s I remember bringing a student to Bruce's home studio to record a clip for the magazine. He greeted us from behind a massive wall of wires and electronic equipment, and then taught both of us how it all worked. Bruce began videotaping his students' lessons when the equipment was still huge and cumbersome, and he spent hours watching each one to better his teaching. I always left his studio thinking, "I am not doing enough!"
Bruce delved into everything with rigor and earnestness. He expected those around him to do the same, and had little patience for business, academic, or political folks who favored expediency and gain over quality and decency. This aspect of Bruce made his life sometimes more difficult, but it never failed to cause those around him to question their own motives and actions, and to try and better themselves.
My fondest memory of Bruce includes the most important person in his life, Jennifer. Together they stood ready to take their wedding vows as their beloved Basenji pup came strolling down the aisle with a satin pillow strapped to his back, wedding ring on top. Two happier people never joined together to create a life of giving and inspiration, to their families, to their students, and, lucky for me, to their friends.