By Tracey Rector
Photos by Kelsea Schafer & contributed
One might assume an interview with a boys’ choir director would focus on music and performance. A recent conversation with Ken and Susan Berg, the Vestavia Hills husband and wife team who lead the Birmingham Boys Choir now into its 50th year of existence, upends that assumption. Sure, they talked about the importance of music in the lives of the young choristers with whom they work and the lifelong mental and physical health benefits that accrue to those who continue making music. But what became crystal clear as they shared their experiences, is their passion to help guide boys to become strong, confident young men whose positive impact can be felt in any arena in which they find themselves – musical or not.
Ken and Susan have years of experience with the Birmingham Boys Choir: 45 years, to be exact, which is also the number of years they’ve been married. Ken was approached by a college friend who knew the recently formed choir was searching for a new director. He accepted the challenge but laughs when he admits, “I was just a punk. I had no idea what I was getting into.” With his new bride playing the piano while he directed, he took 26 boys to his first choir summer camp. Afterwards, 13 dropped out.
Completely undaunted, the Bergs persisted. Today the choir averages around 135 boys from ages 8 to 18.
A Thousand Years of Tradition and Training for Life
While The Birmingham Boys Choir may only be 50 years old, the tradition of the boys choir goes back over a thousand years to the ninth century. Its roots are firmly grounded in the Church, and the Bergs embrace that heritage. “While we’re not aligned with any particular church or denomination, we don’t shy away from religious music,” Ken says. In fact, he says, their annual Christmas concert is almost completely devoid of secular music – just “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at the conclusion. Even that one is changed to include the word “blessed.”
“We’re very careful about the texts we put in front of our boys because it opens up opportunities for conversation,” he says. A recent selection called “Mary’s Carol” from their Christmas music led to discussions about the social and emotional implications of the Virgin Birth for Mary and Joseph.
Because these discussions occur among just the guys, Ken and Susan observed that the boys feel more comfortable talking without fear of judgment. They intentionally promote their time together as a safe space for expression.
“We’ve seen this be an anchor for some of these boys when they’re going through a tough time at home or school,” Susan says. She tells of a student who, during a time of introduction, told the group that “this is a place where I feel like I can be myself.”
“Mr. Ken,” as the choir members call him, views today’s attitudes about and opportunities for boys as a function of permission. “Boys have a great deal of permission from society to be athletes. To a lesser extent, they can be scholars. They get limited permission from society to be artistic. We provide the permission that allows young musicians to explore and expand and thrive. Give them permission, and just watch what boys can do.”
The Berg’s commitment to encouraging expression both musically and emotionally resonates with their young singers. Originally, boys would “age out” of performing when their voices changed during puberty. A problem arose, although it was a good problem to have: many of the boys didn’t want to leave. Their desire to continue singing despite their emerging deeper voices led the Bergs to establish a choir for older boys. Now, Susan directs the Junior Choristers in grades 3 and 4, and Ken directs both the Senior Choristers in grades 5-8 and the Graduate Choristers through 12th grade.
In addition to the opportunities for reflection and discussion present in their musical repertoire, Ken developed 12 Birmingham Boys Life Lessons that are routinely presented and enforced. While some of them are humorous – # 3 is “Always make sure your wife and your girlfriend are the same person!” – these truths remain with the boys throughout their lives. Ken says he’s received calls from former choir members on their wedding day to say, “Mr. Ken, I’m happy to tell you that my wife and my girlfriend are the same person!”
Impact Wherever They Go
The choristers themselves display the impact of disciplined pursuit of both artistic excellence and responsible citizenship. Michael Rumore, a high school senior and ten-year member says, “The virtues that Mr. and Mrs. Berg teach us and the hard work ethic they instill in us every day have made me a better man.” Marc Ayers, Jr., another ten-year member, says, “I have loved every minute of it. The friends I have made and the lessons I learned made it one of the best experiences of my life.”
The parents offer equally high praise. “It’s refreshing as parents to know that the Birmingham Boys Choir provides an opportunity [for our sons] to grow in virtue and authentic masculinity through God’s gift of singing,” say Charlotte and Terry Rumore. “Susan and Ken Berg love these young men like their own and their love of God and music is continuously taught through their weekly interaction and instruction.”
Strengthening and supporting family is another pillar of the choir that Ken and Susan purposefully promote. One tradition that is both fun and meaningful is the opportunity at some performances for dads, grandfathers and other father figures (many of whom are BBC alums) to sing with their sons. Ken recalls an interaction with a father who told him, tears in his eyes, “I can coach his baseball team, but I can’t get out on the field and play with him. This is one thing we can truly do together.”
But the positive impact of the organization stretches far beyond just the personal. Choir members take the lessons they’ve learned with them into their communities through their career choices. The Bergs note that there are BBC alums making positive change as doctors, CEOs, teachers and business owners not only in Birmingham, but also throughout the world.
Ken praises the organization’s board of directors who, through their support and determination, found ways to keep the choir singing through the stressful uncertainty of Covid restrictions. “As a civic group,” he says, “we depend solely on the goodness of our community.” The board navigates the organization through fundraising, donations and sponsorships that allow the young musicians to take their skills from Birmingham to the Grand Canyon to Japan and beyond.
Their impact is powerful wherever they go. On a trip to the Grand Canyon a few years ago, the boys had to take a lengthy train ride with many who were not part of the group. “You could see it in [the other travelers’] eyes when we boarded,” Ken laughs. “They weren’t thrilled to be stuck with a group of boys.” But the choristers won them over. “We received emails for months from folks on that train, who couldn’t get over how well-behaved the boys were.” It’s praise the Bergs say they receive all the time, and they make sure their students understand its significance. “The representation of our community is one of the most important things we do,” says Ken. “Some people hear we’re from Birmingham, and their first thought isn’t necessarily a good one. It’s important that we represent our city well.”
In their 45 years of leading the choir, Ken and Susan say they’ve seen many changes in the boys who come through the program. Trends and fads come and go, but one thing remains the same: the boys are, in Ken’s words, “endlessly entertaining.” One question he asks the choristers is “What song made you understand why you do this?” One young man replied, “It’s ‘How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place’ by Brahms. It’s so well-written!” Ken laughs as he recounts the story. “I just know Mr. Brahms would be thrilled to know a 12-year-old boy thought he was good at his craft!”
But then, he says, the boy added, “When you sing it, it’s so beautiful. You feel like you’re already there.”
It’s quite a testament to the passion Susan and Ken Berg bring to the Birmingham Boys Choir through their untiring efforts to provide an uplifting, safe place to discover what boys can do when they’re encouraged to grow artistically, emotionally and spiritually.
The Birmingham Boys Choir begins their 50th season this fall. Planned events include collaborative performances with the Briarwood Ballet and the Sozo Children’s Choir from Uganda. The year will conclude with a tour choir traveling to Scotland in 2023.
For information on upcoming performances, ways to support or auditions, go to birminghamboyschoir.org.