Jazz singer gives Swiss reason to smile

Today, retired dental hygiene instructor Bernita Bush has more time for her career as a singer. Bernita Bush

She has been making the Swiss smile for nearly 40 years, whether promoting oral hygiene or putting on a show. Bernita Bush tells her Swiss story, in the fourth of our series on US expats.

This content was published on August 13, 2017 - 11:00
Jeannie Wurz,

I had just celebrated my 30th birthday when I came to Switzerland in November 1980 to take a job for one year as a dental hygienist. The first two weeks I lived with one of my bosses and his wife and their two sons in Grenchen, canton Solothurn. My boss – a dentist in private practice – took me around and introduced me to all the important people and really took me in and made me feel right at home.

I couldn’t speak the local dialect in the beginning, other than “Gruezi” and “Danke schön” and “Auf wiedersehen” and “Gesundheit”. After about half a year - three quarters of a year, I could speak the language pretty well, and I wanted to be able to continue that. It was a challenge. I liked Switzerland: the job, the country, the peace and quiet.

Leaving the United States and moving to Switzerland was the best thing I ever did.  My life took a totally different direction. I had wanted to learn a foreign language, to clear my head, to widen my horizon, to reflect on past experiences, and most of all, to take some time out. I was able to do all of that in Switzerland. And I knew that I was going to stay – and made plans to stay – after four months here. I went back to the US and sold my house with everything in it. I knew that Switzerland was where I was supposed to be.

Dental hygiene boom

Dental hygiene was a relatively new profession in Switzerland at the time. The first class of students had graduated in 1976. The very first school had opened up in Zurich. Hygienists from the United States started coming to Switzerland in the early ’70s. Before that, it wasn’t really a recognized profession here.

At first, you could only be a hygienist in a university clinic. And then they opened it up and started allowing dentists in private practice to hire hygienists. A “B” work permit was good for one year, and could be extended. You already had to have a job lined up before you got here.

That was the start of the boom. There were so many American dental hygienists coming in all over Switzerland. It was incredible. They were in every major city, in small villages, in Ticino and in the French-speaking part. You could get hired through an agency that was specifically looking for American hygienists, because Swiss dentists were now aware of hygiene and how hygienists could help their patients maintain oral health.

Before that, the dentists were doing hygiene. They weren’t really trained in it. They couldn’t do the scaling and root planning that hygienists know how to do. Professor Niklaus Lang, who headed the periodontology department at the University of Bern from 1984 to 2008, had earned a Master’s degree in Periodontology from the University of Michigan. He was instrumental in bringing dental hygiene to Switzerland.

From the late ’70s up until 2000 there were people coming in constantly. At some point they also started recruiting hygienists from Scandinavian countries and Holland and Canada. It wasn’t until the 2000s that they stopped issuing B permits to dental hygienists because there were enough being educated at the four different schools in Switzerland.

Bernita Bush

Microphone in one hand, scaler in the other

Not long after I arrived to be a hygienist in Switzerland my second career took off. The dentist I was working for in 1980 found out that I could sing. He had been listening around the corner while I was singing in my operatory, and he asked me to sing at his service club’s Christmas party. That’s how it all got started.

I started singing jazz with a local bass player, and that got on the radio. Then a friend of mine in Bern got me singing with his gospel group. Everything got rolling in the ’80s.

Gospel and jazz are two very different pairs of shoes. Gospel is religious music that developed during the time of slavery in the United States. The themes are always from the Bible. Wherever there’s an Afro-American church, there’s Gospel being sung. The Swiss generally connect gospel with Christmas, but in the US it’s sung all year round.

I started singing when I was 5 or 6, in my family’s church in Cincinnati, Ohio. You started off in the children’s choir, and then when you were older you moved up to the adult choir. When I came to Switzerland there was no gospel choir to join. But when the minister in my town found out that I sang gospel, I started singing with their choir.

Mostly I sing jazz. There’s all kinds of jazz. There’s old-time jazz, there’s Dixie, there’s straight-ahead jazz, there’s bebop. I don’t sing bebop. That’s not my forte. It’s very difficult. I do scat, though. That’s improvisation, without words.

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I like songs with melodies, from the Twenties through the Sixties. I do a lot of swing, a lot of Bossa Nova tunes. I have my own band, but I also work as a guest singer with other bands. Certain jazz bands specialize in certain eras, and I have to adapt to the bands that hire me.

My husband of 27 years is a drummer. He’s Swiss. He plays in a brass ensemble. We met in a big band with 17 members. There was only one other woman, a saxophonist. I started singing in the band with my husband in 1983. We were just buddies in the beginning. And then at some point we moved in together and became more than buddies!

Moo cows

Where we live now is a little village of maybe 1,500 people. I like that quietness. I didn’t like the hustle and bustle in the US. Here, there is peace. The mountains. You can go into town, be in Bern in 35 minutes, and be back in your peaceful little village in a short amount of time. And when you wake up in the morning you hear nothing but birds chirping or cows mooing.

In 2014 I retired from dental hygiene – more or less. Now I have more time for singing. But my two careers both have a place in my heart. Of course when I was singing I had on my singing hat and I was with it 100%. And when I took that off and put the scalers in my hand I was 100% there, too. They are equal passions for me. I can’t put one above the other.

Back in the US, I don’t think I would have been recognized as a singer. I don’t think I would have been recognized internationally as a dental hygienist and speaker, either. That stepping stone that I got with that first job in the hygiene school and the call to the university – that made a big step in my career. I don’t think I would have had those opportunities if I had stayed in the United States.

I got that chance, and I ran with it. And now I’m very thankful!

A bridge between Switzerland and the United States

People look at my face and they immediately start speaking English. They know that I’m American. I speak German with people in Switzerland. I speak dialect. But you can’t hide that I’m American – you hear it in my accent.

Not that I want to hide it. But a lot of Swiss and people from other countries have categorized Americans. I want them to see that there are all kinds of Americans. Not just the ones that they may or may not have contact with. Or may or may not have seen on television. I’d like to help them see that you can’t put us all into one pot.

I don’t think I’m a typical American. I’m a little more reserved. I take on a situation, I analyze it, I think about it, and then I react. Sometimes Americans can be a little bit impulsive, I think.

In some ways I’m like the Swiss. I was brought up to be modest. My parents always said: “Don’t brag about what you can do. Just show me in your actions.” I don’t put myself out there. That’s me, more or less.

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Bernita Bush

Bernita Bush earned a degree in dental hygiene education from the University of Minnesota in 1980 before moving to Switzerland. While working in a private dental practice she met Professor André Schroeder, who had introduced the field of oral implantology in Switzerland. A recommendation from Schroeder helped Bush obtain a job as one of the first three dental hygienists at the University of Bern’s new dental hygiene school. In 1984 she helped design the school’s curriculum and became a clinical instructor at the Feusi School, and in 1993 she was called on to instruct at the University of Bern dental school.

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