Monday, February 13, 2012

Touched by a Stranger

The stranger's name is Ken Berg.  He is not strange, as far as I know - I just don't know him.  I was touched by him this weekend, and I want you to know about him.  I want you to know what an impact this man made on me and how I enjoyed watching him in his element, the world of choral music.

I caravanned with five other mothers, six incredible sixth grade girls and one great music teacher to South Georgia this weekend for the girls to participate in the State Honor Chorus.  (The caravan itself may make the blog on its own right, but that's another story.)

The event was Friday and Saturday and the girls spent the majority of the time learning from a guest director, practicing to perform together on Saturday afternoon.  They worked hard and they had a blast.  It was one of those weekends that you know your child will always remember.  There was a lot of laughing, a lot great memories built.  It was a fabulous group of girls; a group with no drama, and that's really saying something for sixth grade girls.

As we arrived, I quickly read over the materials about the weekend - the way they would divide the five hundred and two children into two choirs, the rehearsal schedule and the names of the two guest directors.  It all sounded just fine, like it would prove to be a wonderful weekend for a big bunch of talented young singers.  I read that a man named Ken Berg would lead our choir and then I left with the Mom's contingency to check in at the hotel.  All was well.

I stuck my head in on the first minute or two of practice, and I loved what I saw.  I saw this stranger, new to these kids, transform the room in seconds.  A rowdy group of giddy pre-teens from all across a state quickly fell into the trance of someone who was completely plugged in to them.  Mr. Berg had them stand up and begin to warm up.  He asked them to do what he did as he spoke, and this group of young people stood up, as if they had practiced a hundred times, and they followed his every move.  He moved his own body gracefully and the children followed.  As they moved together, Berg spoke to them about music.  He spoke about what they were doing, why they were doing it and he sprinkled in wisdom about singing, about how to do it well and why it's important.  Being a teacher at heart, I couldn't help but be captured in the spell.  I snapped a couple of photos with my cell phone and headed out.  The kids were in good hands; that I could tell.

Each time we collected the girls, they were clearly happy, they were learning and enjoying.  It was fun to see them so engaged, so alive.  We enjoyed the time together, and we all got ready for the performance.  The girls practiced, the moms talked together and those of us who still needed to shop for the required black skirt did just that.  It all went along and then it was time for the performance, the moment when the hard work pays off and those sweet voices get to sing out for all the world to hear.

We made it to the crowded auditorium in South Georgia and began the 'dance' of parents wrestling for a seat to watch their children.  We worked hard to find seats where we could sit as a group, one where we could actually see our own singer, not just five hundred faceless figures.  That didn't prove possible and we divided up to do the best we could.  I had my camera and hoped to shoot some good photos of our six girls on their special day.

I settled between two mothers I had never seen before.  I sat between a parent with both elbows braced on the armrests to hold her camera steady and a mother who clearly was a pro at videography, her large tripod spread out in front of four of us.  They were ready and I quickly began to ready my camera and lenses, excited to see the girls.  The other choir went first, and they were wonderful, sweet voices that sounded like birds in flight.  It was beautiful.  I even closed my eyes a few times to let the music sink in a little deeper.  I couldn't wait to hear our girls, to listen to them, more sweet voices in love with singing,  doing what they love to do.

And then they slowly made their way to the stage.  It takes a serious plan, a flow chart unlike any to get two hundred and fifty children off of the risers while two hundred and fifty more take the stage.  Somehow they did that and made it look like it was easy!  That is a marvel in itself.  Our girls, joined by their counterparts from across the state, stood straight and tall and smiled a sweet, sneaky smile as their director, Mr. Berg, was introduced to us.  He seemed like a great guy and I poised the camera to capture the faces during the music.

I quickly scanned the crowded choir, searching for the six faces I knew well.  I wanted to make sure I had a clear view of our precious ones, that I would have photos of each one of them during this special performance.  My eyes were fixed on the stage, on the girls.

And then it happened.  This Mr. Berg extended his arms, the young faces glued to his moves, and the music began.  They were wonderful, just as we knew they would be.  That was not a surprise.  The girls sang their heart out, they were proud and tall and beautiful as they did what they live to do.  Their combined voices were angelic, and it was difficult to believe that they hadn't known each other twenty four hours before that moment.

I was frustrated about my spot in the auditorium and quietly moved to the side, down closer to the front so I could see our girls better, photograph them from closer up and feel like I was more a part of the performance.  I wasn't watching from head on, but I liked the new location and felt nearer to the action.

I loved photographing the girls, loved watching them and seeing their faces light up with the music, each and every note.  It was beautiful.  It was no surprise; we knew in our hearts it would sound that great.

What was a surprise was that I, too, fell under the spell of Mr. Berg.  I can't remember ever seeing a director like him; to say that he was one with the music would be an understatement.  He moved in such a way that any bystander might believe that this music, these beautiful voices singing as one, came directly from him.  He seemed to be 'living' the music - he almost danced his directions to the children and they responded.  They sang their hearts out and this stranger was with them.  Their voices moved with him, light when he danced lightly and loud and bold when his face told them to be strong.  It was like watching a sleek boat being rowed by a team of streamlined athletes under the direction of a strong leader, a teammate in charge.  Mr. Berg was the leader, but he moved with the kids, he was in it with them and seemed to feel each of their voices mixing together on each note.

Watching him at work was a gift.  His love of this music and these singers and his craft was unforgettable, and I was thankful I had moved - thankful that I could watch his face emoting to the children and see the ways he used his body to teach them the moves, the way he used his entire being to help them get it right.  I'm not sure I can remember ever seeing someone who loved their work more, who exuded more joy in each note.  Mr. Berg reminded me of all of the quotes we see that remind us to 'live our best life' or 'do what you love and love what you do' or 'follow our bliss.'  Ken Berg was 'in the moment.'  He was not thinking about the future or what he had to do after this afternoon performance or when he should check out of the hotel or his bank account or how many emails he needed to check or what he needed to do in the office on Monday.  He wasn't thinking of any of that, of that I can be sure. I was witness to the fact that Mr. Berg was living right in that moment.  We were witness to a man who loves what he does, who cared about our children and their love of music in that very moment in that auditorium in Tifton, Georgia.

The kids responded to his love; they laughed when he was funny, they sang with force when he showed them to and they moved high and low in pitch with his arms, his entire being.  It was beautiful, really, and I appreciate that I got a different angle - that I had relocated for a better view.  I'm so glad I got to watch the exchange between singers and director.  I'm so glad I was fortunate enough to watch as their sweet faces lit up when he directed them to do so and see as he danced in a way they knew what they sang was meaningful and serious.  The moments between them were amazing.  He directed with his entire being, and I am thankful that I was witness to the magic.

I don't Mr. Berg.  I had never heard of him before Friday.  I know nothing about his life or his family or his regular days.  I don't know what he has done in his career or where he went to school or what he loves to do when he isn't making music.  But, in some ways, I feel like I know him well.  I know that he loves what he does, I know that he showed our children the way a being moves when he is completely transformed by beauty.  I know that.  He showed our girls something important on Saturday.  He showed them what it means to make a difference in the world.  He showed them what it looks like when one person gives all that he has to make something matter.  He showed them love, love in notes.  He showed them what it looks like for one person to care so deeply about music and people and the world that he can stand on a platform and direct with his entire being.

I may not ever see Mr. Berg again, but I know I won't forget him.  I won't forget what he did for my child and for all of the others.  Watching Berg do what he does has gotten me thinking.  I've been thinking about the folks in my life who put all they have into what they do.  Some of them do it in the classroom and some of them do it on the ball field and others do it when they look at our children as they exit the school bus.  Some of them touch us for years and others only have a moment, but they use what they have to make this world better.

All around us on Saturday, the news outside was bad.  There was sadness in the town we're from, the national news was negative and that auditorium was filled with regular people dealing with their own problems.  But in that moment, in those few beautiful songs, one man helped us forget all of that.  One man showed our children how things can be when just one person is alive in that moment with them, when someone cares deeply and uses what he knows to enrich us all.

Thank you, Mr. Berg.  Thank you for all that you've learned, for all that you've done to get where you are.  Thank you for caring about sixth graders in Georgia, for hoping that their two days of singing will make a difference.  Thank you for dancing through your job, for using your face, your emotions, your hands and your whole body to exemplify a being totally alive.  Thank you for loving music and for showing that to our children.  We don't know you, but this weekend you loved and laughed and taught and told much to our children.  You showed them how it can be when someone cares as much as you do.  I'm glad I saw it, glad I was there.  You direct with love, and I won't forget what I saw.

I vow to remember others like you who show me how it looks to be alive and to remember those in my own life who have taught me with their whole being.  You live with soul and I'm grateful that my child got to see that.  My Molly and her friends and all who watched you this weekend were touched by you.  You are truly alive, and we are thankful to have witnessed you at work!

I thank God for Mr. Berg and for all of the Mr. Bergs out there - the people who do what they do in such a way that we all stop in our tracks and watch; we all stop and listen and learn and remember what living is all about.  Who are the Mr. Bergs you have seen?  Thank one when you have the chance.

Thank you, Mr. Berg.

I did do a little research.  Here is what I now know about Ken Burg:

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