Miracles happen

Teacher, conductor, musician, composer Barbara Pickhardt
gives all she's got to the life she loves

by Johanna Hall

Barbara Pickhardt was born and grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior. She was an ice skater and a cheerleader there, but always an artist and in­strumentalist, singer and maker of songs, a questing, curious, optimistic spirit right from her very be­ginnings. She was Barbara Kay Johnson, the curly-haired baby of a working-class family. In a time and place, she told me, when girls rarely went to college, her parents endured the critical question, "Why are you letting Barbara go to col­lege?"

Encouraged by family rather than discouraged, she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees with honors from both the University of Min­nesota and, later, Westminster Choir College, where she re­ceived the Ruth and Raymond Young Award in Composition.

She is a many-faceted woman with a long and varied career in teaching, conducting, composing, arranging and per­forming as a pianist and harp­sichordist. Since 1976, she has been the artistic director of Ars Choralis, creating three con­certs a year. She is the founding conductor of the Hudson Valley Youth Chorale; in 1998, she took them to sing in Vienna. For the last year-and-a-half, she has been the director of choral music at Ulster County Community College. In June 2001 she'll take Ars Choralis to sing in Vienna and Budapest.

I have known Barbara for many years and in many guises: as patient piano teacher, inspired choral conductor, fellow yoga and Pilates student and walking companion along the roads of life. She might be the busiest person I know, immersing herself totally in each thing she does. Concerts stack up over concerts like planes over a snow­bound airport. And then in the middle of it all, she's giving a dinner party for 20 people because it's her daughter's birthday. Family is the rock she's founded on, and that extends from her 92-year-old mother, Theresa Johnson, in California to her daughters and granddaughters in the Albany area. In their mother's footsteps came daughters Erica, a cellist, and Kristen, a pianist, and making music with her family has been one of Barbara's great joys. Maybe she is so keenly aware of life because she lost her husband, Mel, to an early death. But certainly she relishes and cherishes all the experiences of life.

Catching up to someone as busy and pro­ductive as Barbara takes some doing, but we did sit down to talk over breakfast. There were many things I realized I didn't know about her. And so I asked.

Johanna Hall: When did you start making music?

Barbara Pickhardt: I have no idea! I have recollections as a three-year-old of singing—lov­ing to sing—of counting the songs I knew. I remember standing in front of a little pump organ as my father pumped the bellows so I could play Swedish folk songs for my grandfather—songs I played by ear. I accompanied my kindergarten class during singing time. Again, all songs I played by ear. I started formal lessons at age seven. During my early years, it was assumed I would be an artist. I passionately drew everything in sight, all the time. A pencil and paper were appendages. But somewhere along the line, life directed me to music.

JH:  When did you come to Woodstock?

BP:   Mel and I came to Woodstock in 1969 - It was like coming home for us. I had always lived in the shadow of a mountain. In Duluth it was Spirit Mountain; here it is Overlook Mountain. The terrain, the foliage, seasons, everything about the Hudson Valley felt comfortable. But there was and is another kind of "comfort" level in Woodstock, one that touches the soul. It was an instant love affair for me. Margo Balmer, one of my first acquaintances here, told me that it is common for people to feel like they have come home when they move to Woodstock. It's true! Maybe it's the countryside, the artistic community, maybe it's the people, maybe it's all of the above and more. I don't know. But after 31 years I still get a warm feeling as I drive up Mill Hill Road. I am glad to be home.

JH: What was your first job in Woodstock? I heard you were the nursery school teacher at Christs' Lutheran Church and taught Matt Ulrich [now first tenor with Ars Choralis and a father-to-be at any minute]!

BP: I taught nursery school, yes. Soon afterward I began performing with the Diemer Trio, led by one of the Hudson Valley's most beloved mu­sicians, cellist Eleanor Diemer. In 1976 I joined the Woodstock Chamber Players, a major involve­ment in my life during the next 10 years, which led me into Baroque Performance Practice. I bought a harpsichord, studied in New York City and played both chamber music and orchestral music. I have played piano and harpsichord stints with various chamber groups and soloists since then, even toured in Germany and Austria with The Linden Trio, a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ensemble. I love playing chamber music, collaborating with other musicians. It is a fulfilling and important form of musical expression in my life.

JH: When did you join Ars Choralis?

BP: In 1969; it was then the Mid-Hudson Madrigal Society. I was invited by Margo Balmer to join. I went to the first rehearsal and sat in my car for a long time before mustering the courage to enter... and I have never left. We sang in small groups, in full groups. I wrote in-school concerts for the group and took them around the Hudson Valley schools. I took over as director in 1976.

JH: When did you go back to Westminster for your graduate degree?

BP: In the early '90s. I decided to act upon a long-held desire to do a master's degree in music. I drove to Princeton, New Jersey, weekly over a two-year period. It was like going on an extended vacation—no cooking, no cleaning. Nothing to do but immerse oneself in music surrounded by musical people. It was an extraordinaiy experience—at an age in my life when I could fully appreciate it. I did piano performance, choral conducting, church music and composition. It was one of life's gifts to me.

JH: When and how did you found the Youth Chorale? What is your vision for it?

BP: The idea of a chorale for youth came from Father Frank Walner at Holy Cross Church, In 1995 I got involved, gave it a name (The Hudson Valley Youth Chorale) and was off and running. A fledgling chorus of 17 young people has blos­somed into an organization alive with the energy and expectations of over 60 musical young people. It has already realized part of my vision—the participation of children from all walks of life, all ethnicities, all cultural and religious persuasions. Still to come? To continue working on diversity— reaching out to all corners of society. Seeking those children who love to sing and gathering them into the fold. To start blending in structured pedagogy. Children are so involved in extra activities, it is hard to find time to develop the "singing school" aspect of the original vision. But I still think about starting with the very young and supplementing the skills they are learning in school and from private music teachers. And of course, a part of the vision that needs constant care is musical integrity, exposing the children to all kinds of music, all periods, all genres of music. And constantly striving for excellence in performance to help singers grow in self-esteem.

JH: Increasingly, you are called upon to direct. From Dido and Aeneas last summer on the rocks at Opus 40 to last week's Dickens of a Christmas with Ars Choralis, your theatrical talents are coming to the fore. Where did your theatrical skills come from?

BP: I have no idea where theatrical skills have come from! Certainly no formal training. But I have been involved in the musical aspect of many plays. In my youth, I wrote and directed plays at school and church. Nothing of any consequence—childlike stuff. Just another avenue of expression, where everything gets blended together—piano, singing, instrumentals. I was always directing and arranging music for school groups, organizing singing groups, one of which was a girl's sextet. I convinced six classmates to give up lunch hours for two years to rehearse. I wrote school songs and songs to mark special occasions in my family—births, weddings, anniversaries. Last year Erica marched down the aisle at her wedding to 12 celli playing the song I wrote for her birth. I wrote songs when I was happy, when I was sad... a release. Music is that for us—a healing avenue of expression. I just did it. Never thought much about it. Never set out to write a song or start a group or anything. It all just happened. The door opened and I walked through it. Lots of doors, lots of opportunities, lots of wonderful experiences.... It has been a real honor in the last few years to work with Robert Starer and Gail Godwin on their operas, giving me another kind of musical/theatrical experience.

JH: How did you begin to do choral conducting? Were you trained at all?

BP: I never saw choral conducting in my life. Being born in "band country," I was an instru­mentalist: piano and clarinet. A college professor saw it and insisted I take choral conducting classes, which I resisted at the time. To this day, I thank that man for steering me in that direction and giving me the fundamentals upon which to build an entire career. Not only did he insist that I take choral conducting classes, but he also made me the director of my first chorus, the University of Minnesota nurses' chorus, a position that (at that time) went to the promising conductor of the choral department. And I wasn't even a choral major. I conducted my first concert with a flushed face (unknown to me at the time, I had German measles).

JH: You spend months, sometimes years, preparing your concerts. You pour through stacks of music and texts to develop an idea that becomes realized in a very detailed way. It's part of what makes your concerts so meaningful. What is it that drives you to work this way? What keeps it so fresh for you?

BP: Life has been and is a continuous adventure. I never know what is around the next curve, what idea will start bubbling within... the .seed of something to be realized somewhere along the road, maybe next year, maybe 10 years hence. Who knows what drives me? I just follow the path and believe. It is exciting to be alive, not always easy, but I just know that there is beauty here. Amidst the difficulties we all face, there is goodness and love to sustain us. I am blessed. I am grateful.

JH: Any unfulfilled goals?

BP: I don't know. Since I have never been motivated by goals, I suppose there are no unfulfilled goals. Yet I know there is more to come. I always thought of myself as sort of drifting through life and having lots of good fortune. I have always thought of myself as lucky, I guess.

JH: Lucky in what ways?

BP: I have been so lucky! I have wonderful friends and a loving family, sisters, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and parents who instinctively knew their children needed two things: unconditional love and limits. They gave both abun­dantly. They taught me to let go of self-pity and keep going. None of us escape the hardships of life. That is where the work is done for what's to come. That is where we learn that our job here is to help others.

JH: Didn't you once tell me that you were, in a sense, a child that was never meant to be?

BP: Yes, I was a tubular baby that the doctor advised be aborted. At my birth he pronounced, "This is the child I never thought I would see." But my mother had another idea. She put her life on the line for the child she knew was meant to be. I never thought of it like this before, but I guess I was something of a miracle baby.

JH: And so you've always loved miracles?

BP: I've always believed in miracles! ++