This is a short piece I did several years ago for Atlanta magazine.
Each mouth forms a perfect “O” in its serious, little face. Then an eerie, pristine peal of high notes rises from the Atlanta Boy Choir. If innocence has a sound, this is it.
Even the most jaded listeners – especially those, actually – are transfixed.
“After all this time, I still get choked up hearing this particular choir do ‘Ave Maria,’” says Adisa Nickerson, an Atlanta Boy Choir alumnus and its current executive director.
Imagine the Pied Piper, in reverse.
The Grammy-winning choir, regarded as one of the country’s best, was incorporated in 1957 by Fletcher Wolfe. It became Atlanta’s first musical organization to perform outside the United States, as part of John F. Kennedy’s entourage. This year, it celebrates its fiftieth season with gigs that range from the Oprah Winfrey Show to a tour of Russia and Ukraine.
“It’s neat to go places you never dreamed of!” says Thomas West, a gimlet-eyed 12-year-old who especially relishes Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”
Thomas is one of 120 boys who meet every week for intensive rehearsals at the choir’s Druid Hills campus, which has stained-glass windows and navy and mustard walls, like a Brooks Brothers cathedral. The ABC takes boys as young as four and, until recently, retired them at puberty’s first crackle. “Singing past the voice change used to be thought unhealthful, but it can be done with guidance,” says artistic director David White. Hence the formation last year of the Atlanta Young Men’s Ensemble for those whose downy cheeks have developed stubble.
“It was very traumatic for me when my voice changed,” Nickerson recalls. “To have the adulation of singing before those crowds and then, all of a sudden, lose it. It’s still bittersweet when a chorister graduates to the young men’s ensemble.”
Before that “Peter Brady moment,” followed by other texturizing traumas of aging, there is that unearthly pitch, clear and true. Boy choirs emerged in the Middle Ages, when women were forbidden to make a peep in church, and today many social critics decry their single-sex exclusivism. However, a boy’s voice is considered a unique physiological instrument that peaks in timbre before puberty, while female vocals enjoy a postadolescent prime. So it is not necessarily a matter of “no girls allowed in the treehouse.”
Besides, that would be rude, and the ABC hews to a code of politesse in its “Rules for Living,” 72 protocols, with a subset of 26 table manners, outlined by White and stringently enforced when the guys are not behaving like, well, choirboys. (No. 29: “The top of your pants belongs at your waist. Nobody is interested in seeing your boxers.”)
“I believe there is an overemphasis on self-esteem and an underemphasis on self-respect,” White says in a soft Carolina lilt. “In order for us to perform at the level we strive for, the boys start with externally imposed discipline, which eventually becomes self-discipline and real respect for others.”
In these times of hand-wringing over “the trouble with boys” – the so-called “Ritalin generation” – the Atlanta Boy Choir sounds that much sweeter.