For new EMU piano professor Dr. David Berry, playing music has always been about making connections and crossing boundaries.
“My musical education from day one was as a classical pianist, but I grew up in a church that had gospel music … and my dad is a blues guitarist, self-taught,” said Berry. “So I’ve always kind of had other things in the orbit of my musical education.” And in college, at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, the trend continued: “I started hanging out with jazz majors, and I would play Rachmaninoff and they would play Duke Ellington, and I would say, ‘What was that you did?’ and they would say, ‘What was that you did?’ and you kind of learn things in the practice room that way.”
Junior Brandon Chupp, a student in his “Appreciating Music Making” class, sees Berry’s unique ability to challenge boundaries in music coming out in class as well. “[Dr. Berry] brings passion and excitement to our class,” said Chupp. “He helps us draw connections between Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and Mozart’s ‘Requiem.’”
Berry has spent the last 13 years touring as a professional musician in New York City, a significant contrast to his hometown of Syracuse in upstate New York. In fact, one of Berry’s motivations for moving to Harrisonburg was to give his son the opportunity to grow up in a smaller, college- centered city — just like he did a generation ago.
“I love New York City, and I loved living there, but I was kind of interested in having a life as a family that was closer to what I had known and what I had grown up with,” Berry said. In some ways, he said, it feels like coming home — and not just because of the city environment. “Highway 81 runs straight through Syracuse, so I would take that to the mall when I was 17,” he said, laughing. “And now I’m back on 81.”
This is Berry’s first gig at a university since he graduated from The Juilliard School with his Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in 2011, but he looks forward to adopting a new professorial role.
“I’ve always had sort of a bent towards academia and loving history,” said Berry. “Even when I was a kid, I would go to the library and check out Beethoven biographies and had this little cassette tape. I would listen to Beethoven’s life story set to music, over and over. So music history has always been something I’m really interested in, and how history and culture inform art, and how art is a byproduct of those — they’re all intertwined.”
“Even as I was not officially in academia, there was no way for me to disengage what I was doing in practice from historical contexts for the style, trying to play things with all that comes with how they came into being, said Berry. Formalizing that and becoming a professor sort of already fits with my view … it feels like a way to bring even more of how I feel about art and music together in a way that is life-giving for me as a career.”
Already, Berry has found himself drawn to and pulled into various activities here on campus. “Two days in, I met Bob Curry. I was eating my lunch in the hall, and he said ‘There’s a jazz band rehearsal upstairs, [do] you want to play?’ So I went upstairs, lunch in hand, and then we played out on the lawn [the next day],” said Berry. “For some people that could feel like a burden to have to feel involved with different things, but to me that’s life-giving.”
Berry also enjoys basketball, baseball, and soccer and is excited by the opportunity to start attending athletic events this fall. Joan Griffing, Music Department Chair said, “We really value his varied interests and the ability to connect a lot of areas together, not just in music, but across the spectrum.”
“It’s always great to have fresh ideas, somebody with a diverse background,” said Griffing. “He has had different experiences than some of the rest of us, so we value that. We just really like the breadth of what he’s bringing here to EMU.”
Above all else, Berry hopes that people here would be able to see God’s work in his life. “If there is one piece that I personally would want to be a strand that runs through all of it, it would be that I was doing this to God’s glory, and hopefully that would be something that makes itself known to people,” said Berry. “If there was any sort of legacy I would be able to leave after I leave this place, that would be it.”
Berry lives in Harrisonburg with his wife, Jennifer — a teacher at Stone Spring Elementary School — and his son, David.