By Peter Page
Places and things prominent in childhood are nearly always shrunken when revisited as an adult, but for David Berends, the piano looms as large now as when the instrument awed him as a preschooler. "I remember going to church and seeing the women play and wanting to play, begging to play," he recalls. "From the time I was three, I told my parents I wanted to play the piano. I think I started when I was five or six."
Berends, 45, is not easily categorized by occupation, not even by himself. His engineering career, pursued entirely at firms within lunchtime jogging distance of New Jersey's Delaware & Raritan Canal, has taken him to Sarnoff in Princeton, where he works in the company's communication systems and networking group. One of his main projects has him working on digital television, and the group does a lot of work with wireless technology. Founded in 1942 as RCA Laboratories, Sarnoff conducts contract research for government and commercial clients, specializing in electronic, biomedical, and information technologies.
Berends' music career, conducted now in hourly increments each morning playing the piano in his home, has included innumerable radio, television, and concert performances with the likes of jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and the legendary Chuck Berry. The first of his two CDs, Fifteen Exceptions for Piano, earned enthusiastic reviews in classical music publications. Berends not only plays, he composes piano pieces as well -- he later came out with a second CD, Rhapsody In Life, consisting of original piano compositions. So does Berends, the son of an engineer, regard himself as an engineer or a musician/composer? "Both, at this point," he quips.
Unlike Berends' love-at-first-sight calling to the piano, there were a few forks in his path to engineering. He started at the University of Pennsylvania intending to become a music major, but he became turned off by academic music, so he transferred to Princeton University as a sophomore. "I reached the point where I knew I didn't want to study music theory or composition, and I wasn't willing to pursue math to a doctorate," he says in explaining that he enjoys math but knew pursuing it would ultimately require attaining a Ph.D. A fascination with electronic music brought him to study engineering, admittedly by process of elimination.
"I got very interested in digital signal processing. This was back in the days of the old analog synthesizers, which are wonderful if you're not into electronics," he recalls. "I studied electrical engineering, but whenever I had an elective, I took a music history course. Whenever I selected an engineering course, I made sure it was somehow applicable to audio." He studied analog and digital electronic music synthesis, all the while playing in jazz and jazz fusion bands on the side.
Berends graduated, married Mary Pat, had two children, and pursued an engineering career that never kept him far from Princeton and his favorite local amenity, the Delaware & Raritan Canal. "Basically, every job I've ever had has been within a mile of that canal," he reports. "Wherever I've worked, at lunchtime I run down to the canal." An avid runner, he runs about four times a week and puts in 20 to 25 miles a week. "It's an escape."
And during those lunch hours, Berends' mind shifts restlessly from the demands of engineering at Sarnoff to the music he labors to create in the precious hour of every morning. "I get up in the morning, get ready for work, and practice for an hour," he says. "It's hard in an hour to juggle keeping your chops up and trying to compose, but sometimes I can actually take the raw material, the thematic material I'm constantly jotting down and recording, and turn it, finally, into a work of art."
Composer/engineer is a daunting dual career, but Berends is a realist about the merciless nature of a solely musical career, especially the sort shaped by his drive to compose. Engineering has allowed him to avoid artistic compromise, but at a price he pays every morning when he leaves the piano just as he's getting warmed up. "It gets to the point in music where you think, do I compromise on this so I can eat tomorrow, or do I push on? I do this the way I'm doing it because I don't have to compromise, but the tradeoff is I don't have enough time to do what I want to do," he laments.
Two careers passionately pursued are bound to bump into each other. For Berends, sometimes engineering preempts music, sometimes the other way around. "If there's a big project at work, I find myself sitting at the piano, going through the mechanical motions while trying to solve some technical problem," he says. "But there's almost always a piece of music going through my head. I think that's one of the curses of being a musician. You know how people complain there's a tune stuck in their head? There's always one stuck in my head."
This story was reprinted from E-Quad News, the magazine for Princeton University's School of Engineering and Applied Science.