With budget cuts silencing music-education programs throughout the state, Birmingham Community Charter School teacher Michael Suffolk is happy, because his 40-person choir was selected to participate in the prestigious Heritage “Festival of Gold” in San Francisco. The principal of the school, Marsha Coates, joined the recent bus ride north to support the kids.
“It’s the best they’ve ever sang! St. Ignatius Church was the perfect venue acoustically for their voices," Suffolk told Patch. "I’m so glad Principal Coates was able to see what all the hard work and dedication to the program has led to—an amazing choir and incredibly well-behaved kids.”
Suffolk’s 40-member choir, the Birmingham Community Charter High School Chamber Singers, qualified to compete at the "gold" level in Anaheim last year. This led to the invitation to perform with 11 of the most accomplished choirs from Washington, New Jersey, Ohio and Canada. The choir spent weeks fundraising to pay their own way to the competition in April.
Suffolk said part of the competition required him to select eight of his students to be in an honor choir. Those students were taught four songs, and were directed by the composers of the songs themselves. Later, all the students participated in an encore presentation with the other choirs.
“The kids got very positive feedback from the directors at the festival and, believe me, those guys don’t sugarcoat anything,” Suffolk said.
For many of the students and parents, it was the three-day trip of a lifetime.
The choir earned scores that placed them in the upper 90 percent of the competition.
Senior Jacqueline Inouye, 17, who is headed to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara to study fashion photography, said she felt honored and lucky to have this experience in her final year.
“Mr. Suffolk is very inspiring, and also a technically great choir director," she said. "He really challenged us with difficult songs in foreign languages, but it was so rewarding in the end.”
Jacqueline spoke of her favorite song, Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord, and how Suffolk told students its back story, about an imprisoned friend of a king, which allowed them to sing the soulful song with more passion.
Jacqueline’s mother, Tarumi Inouye, who went along on the San Francisco trip as an informal chaperon, said joining the choir in her junior year brightened her daughter’s attitude toward school.
“She was hugely, immensely influenced by the choir and Mr. Suffolk," she said.
"Every single day, she stayed through a seventh period without a complaint because her dedication to the music and the group was so strong.”
Inouye said she felt the trip would have a lasting, positive impact on all the kids, many from low-income backgrounds who often don’t get opportunities or recognition for hard work.
“The kids were on their best behavior the entire time because they felt grateful for the experience, but also because they knew Mr. Suffolk was going through a difficult personal challenge during the trip,” Inouye said.
Suffolk’s mother, Mary Suffolk, was diagnosed with brain cancer in February and died on May 7. Suffolk said this weighed heavily on him during the competition, but he reflected on how the best and worst things can appear at the same time in a person's life.
“I was so proud of them—they were amazing," Suffolk said of his singers. "I’m also grateful my mom was able to hear them perform and knew about the competition before she passed away,” he said.
Students were very supportive of Suffolk and his mother, and some even volunteered during winter break to perform a Christmas program in the nursing home where Mary Suffolk was staying, Inouye said.
“[She] was the belle of the ball that day because everybody knew it was her son who brought all the beautiful music and joy to the nursing home," Inouye said. "It was wonderful!”
Inouye said her other daughter attends Portola Middle School, where she plays clarinet in the band—and her music teacher just received a pink slip.
“It makes me want to cry," she said. For many of these kids, music is their favorite part of school."