Celebrating 30 Years with Professor Gregory Berg
William Dowell ’22
For many of us, college is a transitory period in our life. Over the course of a few short years, we come in, learn, grow, and leave. However, some people decide to dedicate their careers to teaching the next generation. One of those people is Gregory Berg, associate professor of music, who is celebrating his 30th year at Carthage with a faculty recital on September 26. I sat down with Prof. Berg to reminisce on his time at Carthage.
It’s been 30 years. How does that feel?
It’s wonderful and strange. That is a long time, far longer than any student at Carthage has been alive. Students I have taught when I first got here potentially have their own children who could be coming to Carthage now. You’re looking at generations of students which is pretty incredible.
I have a little story that may be interesting about how I started teaching here. I moved to the area in 1986 to take a radio job at the local NPR station. That was a full time job that I absolutely loved and still work at part time. In early 1991, Gateway Technical College began to investigate the possibility of affiliating with the state network because at the time they were a stand-alone station with these full-time people. They decided as a cost-cutting measure to see about becoming a part of Wisconsin Public Radio which almost certainly would involve scaling back what we did. Suddenly, I was worried about my job, which would almost certainly be scaled back and perhaps even eliminated. None of us knew how that would work out. We—the on-the-ground staff—had no idea. Nobody told us this so we found out from a Friday headline in the Kenosha News. That was really scary.
That night, I went out for supper with my girlfriend Kathy (an ’84 Carthage graduate and soon to be my wife), and her sister Polly (Polly Gall Amborn, ’89). At one time Polly said that Steve Smith, at the time the piano director and department chair, wanted to talk with me about teaching voice part-time at Carthage. The same day this scary headline was in the newspaper about the radio station, was the day I first heard that somebody at Carthage was interested in me teaching some voice lessons here. The timing was just amazing.
I met with Steve Smith and sure enough, that was exactly what he wanted. Dr. Richard Sjoerdsma, the head of voice, was going on sabbatical and they needed someone to teach in his place. I very happily agreed and never left. Part of what made that work out was that there was this big spike in the number of voice students. I was just supposed to have six or seven, but instead I had 12 or 13. I had to come two days instead of one, which meant I had to work things out at the radio station. Even when Dr. Sjoerdsma came back, that meant they still needed me and as Carthage continued to grow, they still needed me. From that first semester teaching part time, I never left, becoming officially full time in 1995. The station did affiliate with the state so as I became part time there, I became full time here. I’m incredibly fortunate that it worked out.
During your time, what have been some of the favorite things you’ve seen as the department has evolved?
It’s been great to see it grow in such exciting ways. When I first taught a section of Aural Skills, I had three students. That was how small Carthage was in the early 1990s as we were coming out of a period where Carthage had shrunk dramatically. The whole college was in the midst of a resurgence, including the Music Department. It has been exciting seeing that growth and being a small part of that. That’s probably the single biggest thing.
One thing I am most excited about teaching voice this year is to be part of a staff of voice teachers who respect each other so well, because in a lot of colleges and universities, voice teachers don’t get along well. It is often very competitive and territorial, but the culture at Carthage is not that and has never been that. As our voice staff has expanded, our sense of comradery has remained in place.
The last thing is that over these 30 years, I have had the pleasure of teaching some incredible students, some spectacularly gifted and others more modestly gifted. I have learned a lot from teaching them all, and I count myself so fortunate to have made strong connections with so many students over these three decades.
Speaking of learning about being a teacher, what advice would you tell yourself when you first started teaching?
I think I did not understand at the outset how important it is to be a great listener. That means when somebody walks into the door, you have to be fully attentive to everything about them—their demeanor, their energy level, their level of focus—even before they open up their mouth and start to sing. I think over the years I have come to understand that better. A voice teacher is a listener and observer before anything else, because that is the only way you are in a position to respond to the student and take them to the next level. If you begin with all these preconceived notions about who they are and what they need, you are going to miss the point. I hope I’ve become a better listener over the years.
You have done so much not just in Carthage but with the radio station, the Racine Theatre Guild, and the local community. How do you balance all of it?
It’s tricky. I’m fortunate in that just about everything I do outside of Carthage benefits Carthage somehow, because in everything I do out in the community, I always make sure I identify myself as a music professor at Carthage College. That is at the top of my biography and when I introduce myself, that is where it begins, so I am drawing attention to Carthage and the Music Department with all the performing, accompanying, and directing I do. I think a certain number of students have come to Carthage because of those contacts. More significantly, I think it raises the profile of Carthage because we are kinda sequestered in a campus that is not really in Kenosha or Racine. It is hugging the lakefront and you can easily not know it’s there. I welcome all of the opportunities for the sake of the college and for the sake of my artistic well-being. Balancing it all can be tricky, but I have been balancing that for a long time. I am not good at literal juggling, but I’m pretty good at that kind of juggling.
Let’s talk about this year. Last year we were primarily focused on adapting to COVID and now we are slowly moving closer to normalcy. What are you looking forward to?
I was fortunate that last year, the vast majority of my voice lessons were taught in person. That was a huge relief and I am excited to go further with that. I was lucky that I could configure my office in a way that I could be 16 feet away from the singers with an air purifier between us. That way we could safely do lessons in my studio. I was actually pleasantly surprised teaching certain lessons on Zoom. Back in the spring of 2020, everything was on Zoom and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. I thought of myself as being an old dog who didn’t like new tricks but it was pretty cool. It kinda brought me back to the whole idea of listening because over a Zoom call you have to listen even more attentively since you are not in the room with them. I think I’m a better listener now because of that, so it will be great being in the room with students using this refined listening. That is going to be very exciting.
I sure hope we can keep moving to a place where people can safely come to Carthage for our performances. Probably the single most frustrating thing is that we have been putting on some exciting concerts, but it has been a situation where the audiences are either absent or very diminished. I really miss the days where we could safely gather in a large audience and cheer on musicians that thrill us. I’m never gonna take that granted again. I think most of us won’t take that for granted again.
Moving towards your recital. You mentioned that some of the repertoire would be related to your past 30 years. Could you go into a bit more detail on that?
I’m celebrating a couple of significant anniversaries, the 30th anniversary of starting to teach at Carthage and it is also my 30th wedding anniversary. I married my wife the same month that I started teaching here. For the front end of the recital, I will be singing and talking about some of the most significant songs and arias that I have taught over the years. I may reminisce about the experiences I remember having with particular students in terms of what it was like to take them through these particular songs. I may even talk about my teaching philosophy as a teacher. By the way, my training as a voice teacher came from being a very busy piano accompanist in undergrad and grad school. I think that was more influential than any vocal pedagogy class I took, because I would accompany in all these different voice studios. In my undergrad, I played for all kinds of lessons in five different studios and in grad school, my assistantship was as an accompanist for all of the voice studios. I have seen so many voice teachers in action, a lot more than the typical person. That’s where I honed my skills as a voice teacher as I observed what happened in these lessons. I noted the things that were great, the things that were terrible, the things that worked, and the things that didn’t work. Anyway, I’ll likely talk about that during the first part of the recital which would almost be like a lecture recital.
In celebration of my wedding anniversary, my wife will perform with me over the second half of the recital. We will be singing some excerpts from the musical Annie Get Your Gun by Irving Berlin because 20 years ago in September, we saw that show in New York City. We went to New York City together and it was the first time we saw a Broadway show. It was also two weeks before 9/11, so it was a very dramatic and special memory for us. Annie Get Your Gun, among other things, talks about show business. The famous song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” comes from there. We don’t tend to think of the performing arts as show business, but it is really interesting how many ways that is exactly what it is, or at least how the two worlds are more related than we recognize. I’ll talk about that as well, such as the notion that the show must go on and that you have to figure it out somehow. Also, sometimes you have the clashing of egos and competitors, but a lot of times show business elevates your excellence in exciting ways. There are a lot of lessons to learn from that lighthearted show which we’ll talk about in the second half of the recital.
Rounding this interview out, what has been one of your stand out moments at Carthage?
Well, I’ll tell you a couple. One really big thrill for me was the first time I composed a piece of music that was sung by the Lincoln Chamber Singers for a Christmas Festival. That was really special. I was already a Minister of Music at my church and I still am, so it was not the first time I have written music that somebody sang, but that Carthage performance was the start of a really exciting chapter of my life. Related to that was the first time I published a piece with Hal Leonard just over 10 years ago.
Another very special memory was back in 1997 where I organized a concert celebrating the birthday of George Gershwin. Now I am not Mr. Organized at all, but I was excited about that opportunity. We put together an absolutely spectacular concert that involved a number of different ensembles here at Carthage and some community folks. We had a packed house and it went super well. I’ve never done anything quite like that since. That type of work is not my forte, but it all came together in a happy way in that instance.
In January of 2000, I was the interim director of the Carthage Choir, so I took them to Europe. The previous director had retired and there was not enough time for a proper search. I was the accompanist for the choir in the previous years so I stepped in and took the choir to Europe. That was an amazing adventure.
In 2007, the new Carthage Choir director resigned rather abruptly at the very end of the school year. With no time for a national search, Dr. Ripley asked my college choir director, Weston Noble if he could come in to direct for a while and he said yes. He was about to turn 80 years old and had already retired from Luther College. I volunteered to be the piano accompanist for the Carthage Choir, so when he ended up staying the whole year, I was at his side the whole time. It was nice being reunited 25 years after I graduated and being able to see what he did with that group.
Probably my single high point was when the Carthage Choir performed in Carnegie Hall. It is one of the most famous concert halls in the entire world and has this amazing history. Tchaikovsky conducted the concert that opened that hall in 1893. Just to be on that stage let alone to perform and play the piano on that stage with Carthage Choir was absolutely incredible.
Help Prof. Gregory Berg celebrate 30 years at Carthage at his Faculty Recital “I’d like to express my thanks: Celebrating 30 Years of Singing and Teaching at Carthage” on Sunday, Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. in the A. F. Siebert Chapel. Tickets are free, but required. Get tickets 24/7 at www.carthage.edu/tickets