A true celebration of life for Guilderland music teacher Jeff Herchenroder

Jeffrey Allen Herchenroder, a longtime stringed-instrument and orchestra teacher for the Guilderland schools and a bassist for the Albany Symphony Orchestra, died on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Jeff Herchenroder, who passed away unexpectedly, was a mainstay in the Guilderland school music education program for a long time. I first met him when he taught my daughter Heather the viola when she was in high school.

The thing I always liked about him was he had that special gleam in his eye. The gleam of someone who is very smart and talented but doesn’t take himself too seriously. Those are far and away my favorite kind of people, and Jeff will be missed by all who knew him.

As a sendoff to this fine musician and dedicated husband, father, and friend, a memorial service was held on Friday, Feb. 28, at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. My daughter so loved her former teacher that she drove all the way in from Boston to join many of her classmates, along with plenty of friends, family, and what looked like the entire Guilderland music faculty (along with many from the Niskayuna school music program where Jeff worked as well).

Jeff taught music, the love of his life, with passion and enthusiasm for a long time, and was loved and admired by many for the sheer joy and competence he exuded. The turnout he got on a frigid winter night showed just that. The large, ornate church was packed full.

Lately, there have been more of these memorial services as opposed to the more traditional funeral services. While funerals have their place — a quiet time to reflect on a loved one’s passing in the company of friends and family — the memorial service is so much more. It truly is a Celebration of Life.

Jeff Herchenroder’s memorial service was such an event. If you were there, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve never seen and heard such touching, heartfelt musical performances at a celebration of this type before. Jeff would so, so have loved it.

After a few kind words from Rev. Daniel Carlson, the program started with a recording of “Evensong” by Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. Jeff had specifically asked for this to be played at his service.

I’d never heard it before but I was taken aback by it’s serene, haunting beauty. It features a lilting melody played on a fiddle and perfectly set the tone for the evening. Amazing that Jeff would pick out such a singular piece of music as this.

Next, Jeff’s nephew Ian Herchenroder played a Grateful Dead tune called “Bird Song.” Ian sang while playing an electric guitar. Let me tell you this about Ian’s performance — as far as I’m concerned, he could be playing at Caffe Lena or anyplace accomplished musicians play.

He put such heart and soul into this piece it was all I could do to keep from shouting at the top of my lungs. What a way to honor one’s uncle. As an aspiring guitar player myself, I was just blown away. I only hope Jeff got to hear Ian play this piece at some point.

Jeff’s wife, Linda; his brother Keith; and his children Janna and Jesse then spoke, telling wonderfully funny stories about the many quirky aspects of Jeff’s personality. Listening to their tales of him fixing cars, doing house projects, and of course his love of music and the outdoors really made me wish I’d gotten to know him as a friend and not just my daughter’s viola teacher.

He liked the same things I like, and he was just off the wall enough (like me) that I know we would have gotten along swimmingly. Those stories were really great and we all laughed heartily as we heard them.

At that point, a gentleman named Lucas Sconzo performed a piece on solo electric guitar that he had written for Jeff called, appropriately, “Song for Jeff.” Can you imagine being so inspired by someone that you write and then perform a beautiful piece at their memorial service? Such a wonderful expression of love and respect. A truly virtuoso guitar performance as well.

Jeff had been active with a fiddlers’ group, and two of them, Peter Davis and George Wilson, played a piano-and-fiddle duet called “Shetland Fiddle Air.” Not only was the performance amazing, but they spoke about how they so enjoyed working with Jeff, and about how he was not only an excellent musician but had become a true friend as well.

That Jeff touched a lot of lives in such a profound way was obvious to all of us who got to enjoy this service.

Cathy Hackert, representing the Albany Symphony Orchestra, spoke about what an amazing friend and performer Jeff had been for many years with the symphony. As Cathy spoke, I stared at Jeff’s beautiful double bass, which was up on the altar with a flower on it.

I imagined Jeff playing that bass for so many fantastic concerts. I hope it goes to someone who will treasure it and play it as perfectly as he did.

Two of Jeff’s former students, Liz Silver on violin and Erica Pickhardt on cello, played an absolutely beautiful duet for their dear departed teacher and mentor. Sometimes less is more, and to hear these two instruments played with such passion and feeling was heavenly. I hate to repeat myself, but Jeff would have just loved it.

The final musical performance featured many of Jeff’s former students, including my daughter. The piece they played was called “Mairi’s Wedding,” and the entire front of the church was filled with violins, violas, and cellos in a melodious and jubilant final tribute to their dear departed friend and mentor.

It was the perfect way to end a truly wonderful memorial service. After some parting words from Rev. Daniel Carlson, we left there feeling like, though the world is less because of the loss of such a brilliant man, his legacy will live on.

On the back of the memorial service program was this poem, called “Separation,” by W. S. Merwin:

Your absence has gone through me

Like a thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Yeah. What he said.

Folks, it’s not about how much money you make, or how many cars or houses you have. It’s about the mark you leave on this world when you leave it.

Jeff Herchenroder gave the gift of music to so many people his light will live on forever. I know that, from now on, whenever I hear the Grateful Dead or some fiddle piece I’ll think of him. Rest in peace, Mr. Herchenroder. You did very well for yourself, indeed.