Written by Ruby Van Dyk
“Let’s try that again” Barry Berdahl’s hand waves in the air. He pauses, looking down at the music that’s strewn across the top of the piano which he’s been playing with his nonwaving hand. “From the top.” He then looks out into the rows of students that is his first block choir class and begins to conduct, the students breathe in and then start to sing. The sound immediately fills the room, sweeping and moving around like a strong summer wind. Warm and comforting but strong, and according to Berdahl, maybe too strong. “You’re pushing too hard. Relax everyone.” There are around 100 students in the room, and I am one of them. We’ve been practicing for about 25 minutes so far, singing a song called Ave Maria. The piece is a beautiful prayer. Written by Franz Biebl it calls to God “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum” (Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee”) We try again, the boys starting out then the girls joining. I listen more carefully this time and he’s right, something’s missing. Berdahl steps away from the piano, putting his hands on his hips. “Here’s the problem, you don’t know your place. This is a relationship. This is like a very big dysfunctional marriage.” Everybody chuckles. This is classic Berdahl. He’s always coming up with metaphors and telling us anecdotes that make us laugh but also (usually) hold a bigger idea about both the music, and sometimes life. He smiles and starts to go over a few measures that need improving.
“Women, hold back here. Men, this needs to crescendo.”
He moves back to the piano, putting his hands in the air and says “But really, put in the effort. Figure out your place. Be better.” He raises his hands as we breathe in, ready to try again.
Mr. Berdahl has been my teacher for the last two years, but before that, I was still fully aware of who he was. I’d seen him around, but mostly I’d just heard my friends rave about him, and his class. I remember listening to stories about choir. About the festivals, the overnight retreat, that really difficult song that everybody was finally starting to get, and most of all Berdahl. “He’s a living legend.” they’d say. I once asked my friend Mira about Berdahl and I remember her saying “He’s just, so.. Well, he’s just so Berdahl. I can’t explain it.” This at the time seemed odd to me and wasn’t til I joined the choir that I understood what she meant. Mr. Berdahl is one of those people that almost seems as though he’s popped out of an incredibly well-written T.V. show. Sometimes, the things he says seem too funny to be real, too clever to have been improvised. But, they are. He is witty and lighthearted, but also insightful. Full of self-deprecating jokes and an aura of not taking himself, or sometimes anything, too seriously. Sometimes this aura clouds the fact that Berdahl does, in fact, does really care. He cares about his students and most of all, the music.
It was in his hometown of Newcastle, Wyoming, a small town of about 3,000 people that Barry Berdahl found his love of music. Saying Berdahl was a musical kid doesn’t do him justice. He started taking piano lessons when he was 7 and went on to join the ban, then choir, sang in the school musicals, played in jazz band and on top of all this, was elected student body president.
When I ask him what “type” of kid he’d classify himself as being he laughs, “I was a nerd.” Apparently a Student body president kind of nerd, though.
After graduating High School, he went on to College at The University of Wyoming. At the University he changed his major five times. He tried Biology, Pre-Med, and a few others. “I had no idea going into school what I wanted to study, all I knew that I didn’t want to be a teacher.” When he said this to me I chuckled, of course. He finally landed on music and met his future wife Angie in choir. “It took me seven years to graduate.” he grins. “I was having a marvelous time, and back then school was so cheap I could afford to keep going” After those seven years he graduated with a Bachelors in Music Education.
He then moved to Arizona, where he worked as a substitute teacher, a choir teacher and at Wendy’s. “I used to let my choir kids come to Wendy’s, give them free frosties and just let them sing. The Wendy’s people hated that.” he laughs. He then married his wife Angie and after few years in Arizona they packed up and moved to Oregon, where Angie was from. He got a job working for the Forest Grove School District as an interim Choir Teacher for Tom McCall. During that time he worked three jobs, selling cell phones door to door in the mornings, teaching at the school in the afternoon and then working nights as a truck driver for a lumber company. When I asked him if he was exhausted, he smiled and shaked his head “Nah, I was young. No kids yet.” But honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Berdahl tired, and I see him at 8 am every other day. He has the kind of energetic attitude that I tend to only possess after at least three shots of espresso, and I’ve never seen him drinking coffee.
He worked at Tom McCall for 6 years before he was hired by the High School to be their choir director. That was in 1998 which means he’s coming up on 20 years. When Berdahl first started, his choir consisted of 32 people, and at their first concert Berdahl decided they would perform the entirety of Vivaldi’s Gloria with an Orchestra. “It was chaos” he smiles. Over the next few years, the program began to expand. “Every year we’d have more kids.” By 2003 he was teaching full time and by 2006 he had both a women’s choir of about 60, a zero period choir of around 20 and a co-ed choir of about 100. When the school faced intense budget cuts and the drama teacher was laid off, Berdahl took on after school theater responsibilities, directing the plays and musicals. The class selection becomes limited, with electives being cut. Although the cuts were deep Berdahl adds that “The the district did a great job of being supportive, they never dropped or fully cut the music program, while many other districts did.”
Mr. Berdahl now teaches music theory, three choir classes, intro to theater and in many ways, he is the heart of the department. During his 18 years at the school, he has championed the power and importance of music, taking his choirs to competitions and state. In doing so he has created a class and a community that people truly want to be a part of, and want to succeed at. Once you join choir you not only become a singer, but you become a part of something bigger and that’s all thanks to Berdahl.
It’s about a week later now and we’re singing Ave Maria again. Berdahl stands behind the piano. He plays it. “Got that everybody?” We start to sing, and about 6 measures in he stops us. I’m ready for him to tell us to start again. But instead, he says “Now that, that is a kissable sound. I could kiss that.” We laugh as he smiles, and again his hands start to move. We start to sing and watch him intently, letting Berdahl steer us off into the sky with the music.
This year Mr. Berdhal’s choir will be attending the State 6A Choir Festival on Saturday, May 6th, at George Fox University.