SAUGERTIES – When Saugerties band teacher Bernhard Spirig (67) stands in front of an audience filled with parents and guardians of his Band students, most would never know what he is going through. Spirig, who has been living with Parkinson’s disease for the last three years, said that he’s not going to let this disease take away his love of teaching music.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and different parts of the body controlled by nerves. Symptoms can include tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles, impaired posture, speech changes, and loss of automatic movements.
Despite Spirig’s challenges with movement and rhythmic shaking, he still enjoys sharing his musical talents. He realizes that every day is a gift—a hard-earned, life-affirming, take-nothing-for-granted opportunity to keep doing the thing he’s loved since he first started playing an instrument.
Spirig, who grew up in Olten, Switzerland, said that his musical training began when he was 9 years old. He started learning how to play on a recorder, which led to playing the flute, and later the trumpet. He performed in his High School marching band, which is also when he discovered that he wanted to teach Band.
Spirig came to America in 1997 and attended and graduated from the College of Saint Rose with a degree in Science in Education. He worked as a Music teacher at Woodstock Day School, moving on to Saugerties Junior High School in 2000.
“Music is all about building relationships and making connections,” Spirig said. “It’s about having students feel, hear, connect, and perform the music.” He went on to say, “Music is such a powerful thing; it enriches our lives and helps foster intelligence.”
Three years ago, Spirig noticed that his tremors were beginning to affect his performance while playing the trumpet. Sadly, he had to give up playing the instrument, as his tremors would not allow him to give a quality performance. “This was a very difficult time for me,” Spirig recalled. “I felt like I had to learn how to live with this degenerative disorder and do it with a smile.”
Spirig currently takes medication for his tremors and is speaking with a biofeedback therapist to help him understand what he is feeling mentally. The therapist discusses different exercises and diet modifications that can help boost his ability to deal with symptoms of the disease. She also emphasizes the importance of a positive attitude and how it can make living with Parkinson’s more tolerable.
“Whenever we’re faced with a hardship — our first instinct is to avoid it, fight it, or be angry,” Spirig confessed. “But I’ve learned to be more accepting of my capabilities and the capabilities of others.” He explained that acceptance is not about “getting over it” or putting on rose-colored glasses; rather, it is about making peace with the situation and moving forward with your best self. He hopes that his students will learn from this mindset.
“I was nervous in the beginning about how my students would respond to my tremors,” Spirig admitted. “But they have been incredibly compassionate about it.” His students, he said, are very patient, especially when he has to say or do something at a slower pace.
Spirig has learned how to stop judging himself on what he can’t do and to start focusing on what he can do. He now plays the bass and the tuba, which are more tremor-friendly, and he performs and practices with numerous bands several times a week. “Parkinson’s won’t define me,” he declared.