Story by Beth Wilder and photos by Brit Huckabay and Tricia Simpson
Boys are everywhere – over 100 of them. Being typical boys, they are running, jumping, laughing, and horsing around on the lawn outside a nondescript brick building on a college campus. Older boys are joking with younger boys while 8-year-olds vie for the attention of teenagers and quieter boys sit in the calm of a shade tree smiling at the mayhem and exuberance of youth. It is camp and snack time – an opportunity to take a break from the activity inside and enjoy the fellowship outside in the sunshine. What sets this camp apart, however, is what goes on inside that brick building. This is not a camp where boys might improve their golf swing or create a robot or build campfires. This is a camp where they hone a God-given talent and learn life-long skills that make them better men. This is a camp where they build friendships with boys from all walks of life and open their hearts and minds to new possibilities. This is a camp where they learn to make beautiful music – for themselves and for everyone in the Magic City.
For over 50 years the Birmingham Boys Choir (BBC) has served the community with the unique choral sound that is created by the blending of boys’ voices. The tradition of boys choirs dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe. Women were generally barred from performing sacred music in mixed-gender settings such as a church, so the higher-pitched voices of boys were needed to round out the men’s choir. The pure and regal sound created by these young voices captivated audiences over a thousand years ago, and it still does today. The first such group in Birmingham, the Apollo Boys Choir, was founded in 1935 and sang together for about 20 years. In the late 1960s, the Reverend Allen Walker revived the tradition and established the Birmingham Boys Choir at the Episcopal Church of the Advent. In 1973, a group of parents incorporated a nonprofit foundation to support the group and the modern-day Birmingham Boys Choir was born. In the past five decades, the choir has not only delighted audiences in the Magic City, but across the country and around the world as well.
Since 1978, this collection of boys has been under the leadership of Ken Berg, music director, and his wife, Susan, associate music director. The Bergs, both graduates of Samford University, spent their careers in music education and originally worked part-time for BBC. In 2011, Ken retired from his post as Music Minister and Composer in Residence at Mountain Brook Baptist Church to work full-time for the choir. With their guidance, the choir has grown to over 150 boys between the ages of 8 and 18 and representing 50 different Birmingham area schools. The choir is so large now that four satellite rehearsal venues have been established in different parts of the city, which enables broader participation. “It is so inspiring to see them form friendships with boys from different geographic, economic, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds,” Ken says. “Singing together builds bonds like nothing else!”
The bonding begins each August when the choir kicks off its season with a week-long camp. This is one of a handful of times all 150 boys will rehearse together in one site as they prepare for their annual performances. “They learn a lot about self-discipline,” Susan says. “They learn a lot about tenacity, sticking with something. They learn a lot about teamwork – it’s not just sports where they can learn that.” Ken echoes her thoughts and adds that his Twelve Life Lessons are foundational to the BBC culture. All of the boys can recite them. “For example,” he says, “Life Lesson #4 is Do the Right Thing at the Right Time. When it’s play time, play! When it’s work time, work! Don’t confuse those.” My personal favorite? Life Lesson #7: “You can choose your actions, but you cannot choose the consequences of those actions.” Ken expects the boys to sing well, but he also expects them to behave well. “It is always a delight to have restaurant owners or hotel managers or airplane stewards or tour guides tell us how impressed they are with the gentlemanly behavior of our boys,” he says. “It warms my heart and inspires me to keep at it.”
Chris and Dunia Ritchey agree with other BBC parents that the music education their children receive in choir is excellent, but the life training they receive is second to none. And they would know. The Ritchey’s currently have two sons (Andrew and Alexander) in choir and four older sons (Philip, Patrick, Stephen, Nicholas) who are BBC alumni. “We have been with the choir for 18 years now,” says Dunia. “That is a lot of memories. Ken and Susan have so much love for these boys. They are like second parents to them all.” She also believes BBC has been a life raft for some children at a time when they needed it most. “We know of countless boys who were saved, so the speak, from situations and life events and difficulties because they had the opportunity to sing with a group that supported them and cared about them and gave them a place to be.”
David Mandt, the new choral director at Mountain Brook High School, understands firsthand the salvation that can be found in singing. He started in BBC at age eight and literally grew up in the choir. Life has come full circle for him as he now works alongside a team of other music educators to assist the Bergs with BBC direction. David lost his father at a young age, and Ken stepped in at a crucial time for him. “Spending time with Ken and the other boys my age as a young man was totally essential to me. Without those men I have no idea where I would be now. Certainly not the man, husband, son, or teacher that I am today,” says David. “Ken is extremely intentional about vocalizing his desire for the boys to be both outstanding musicians, and men of integrity and respect.”
Another choir alum, BBC Assistant Director John Kinkaid, says: “He encourages boys to think about what it means to be a man, and what kind of man they want to grow into. Since my father died in 1980, when I was seven, this made a large impact on my life.” John now serves at the choral director for Hoover High School, and he incorporates into his teaching some of the lessons he learned as a chorister. “I learned that making music together, singing, disintegrates lines of division between humans. It may not be permanent, it may only last while the music is being created, but that is still a hopeful improvement on the usual human tendency to put up walls and barriers to delineate our differences.” Like David, John’s BBC experience has come full circle. His 13-year-old son Matthew has been singing in the choir since third grade.
“We have a lasting impact on so many boys and our audiences all at the same time,” says BBC Board President Renn Williams. “Becoming a young man has never been harder. Our choir helps arm our boys with courage and skills to persevere through life’s challenges.” He has been a member of the board for seven years, helping manage the growth that comes from an ever-expanding geographic footprint. “It’s been very rewarding to see the choir continue to move in a positive direction and have meaningful impacts on our boys and their local communities.”
Growth does have its challenges, though. Mandy Peterson, the newly appointed executive director, says one of the biggest issues the BBC faces right now is the lack of venues for rehearsals and performances. “Since we have grown to over 150 boys it is hard to find a stage large enough that also has an auditorium that will seat enough people,” she says. Pricing for large venues has increased dramatically in the past few years, and like all non-profits, resources are limited. Mandy says the BBC staff has to be creative and efficient with funding, which comes from chorister tuition fees (which cover 37 percent of the budget), donations, grants, and fundraising events. Adding satellite rehearsal spaces has helped. These allow the boys to rehearse in smaller groups in the satellite locations, and then come together for the large performances.
Having additional rehearsal spaces and times also alleviates many of the constraints that might keep a boy from participating such as geography or scheduling. This allows them to remain active in other extracurricular activities while pursuing music, which Ken says is vital to growing well-rounded young men. He views choir as a perfect complement to other activities a boy might be interested in, such as sports, scouting, or academics. According to Ken, our society gives boys permission to be athletic, but not necessarily academic or artistic, which can be problematic for smart, talented boys. He believes boys are happiest then they are all three. “When boys are given permission and even encouraged to be academic, artistic AND athletic, they can often rise to stunning heights of accomplishment,” Ken says.
If alumni support is any indication, the Bergs and the Birmingham Boys Choir are doing something right. The BBC alumni stay connected long after they graduate and they often attend concerts and perform in alumni events. Many, like assistant directors David Mandt and John Kincaid, work with the choir in addition to their other jobs. Many more alums place their own children under the Berg’s care and guidance as choristers, which is the truest testament of all. As the choir continues to grow and thrive, the future of choral music in Birmingham is bright.
Collaborative Concert featuring Sean of the South, April 2
2nd Annual Spring Concert, May 12
Visit the Birmingham Boys Choir website for information and tickets to upcoming events:
Audition for the BBC
Ken invites all interested boys ages 8-16 to audition. Auditions take place all year long and are done by appointment only. To schedule an audition, visit the website and click on the “auditions” tab.