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Singing Their Hearts Out

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Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

UC San Diego Gospel Choir tops the charts among students

Many UC San Diego students spend their days poring over equations, analyzing data and researching the meaning of our world…and their nights singing in the UC San Diego Gospel Choir. Consistently the most populous—and popular—class on campus, the choir draws hundreds of students of all majors, creeds and musical abilities. Led by the department of music’s Ken Anderson, who has directed the choir for 27 years, students learn songs by rote and perform about a dozen concerts across campus and the community each quarter.

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For the past two years, Anderson has been named among the top five of the most highly regarded educators in the nation according to RateMyProfessor.com, a popular website where students can share their opinions of their professors. Students in his course rave about its capacity to relieve stress, sharing comments on the site ranging from “…it’s the only class I look forward to every week!” to “Funniest man and most fun class I have taken at UC San Diego so far” and “Nobody should come through here without taking his class; it is a stress reliever and it’s absolutely amazing.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday night, UC San Diego Warren Lecture Hall is transformed into a cathedral, with the voices of up to 400 students merging effortlessly into a harmonious and powerful blend of tenors, basses, sopranos and altos. A great majority of students begin the class with no singing experience whatsoever, and in just a few short weeks, they master the art of dynamic pitch, how to project sound from their diaphragm and how to sway and clap to the rhythm of the music.

“I love working with what I call amateurs—those who are not professionals or skilled at what they are doing—and just seeing the transformation,” said Anderson. “I’ve had many students who struggle with social anxiety or other more serious psychological disorders, and the choir is recommended to them because of the strong sense of community and positive messaging. All students have assigned seats so that those who have a hard time meeting people get to talk with someone, clap together and enjoy themselves as a group.”

Anderson teaches the Gospel Choir class in the historical context, rather than the evangelical, he said. The songs, written by slaves, served as code, including the use of names from the Bible to relay messages about leading abolitionists of the time. According to Anderson, these songs serve as the primary influence for musical styles such as R&B, soul, jazz, swing and rock and roll, as well as gospel music.

“I think Gospel Choir is so popular because it is not like any other class at UC San Diego,” said Jennifer Alcalde, a sophomore at Sixth College studying pharmacological chemistry. “I have never been in a course with more than 300 students who actually want to participate in class, let alone sing together. To see students of all spiritual backgrounds sing gospel music together and have fun is truly an awesome experience.”

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Photo by Erika Johnson/University Communications

Students don’t need to be able to read music; they repeat the lyrics until they are memorized. And within a short time all of the students are on stage performing. Each are required to take part in two to four concerts, including a quarterly performance of the entire choir at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Center. The choir has also serenaded audiences off-campus, including the late Rosa Parks when she visited San Diego Mesa College and U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton. The largest community performance included 900 UC San Diego students singing during Earth Day festivities in Balboa Park.

“People want to sing and they want to be musical, and I think that’s one of the biggest attractions,” said Anderson. “They sing in the car, they sing in the shower, they sing in front of the mirror with a brush pretending it’s a mic. Gospel Choir affords someone with no singing experience to be part of something. It’s the one style of music where you can make an error and people still enjoy it…still come back for more.”

Anderson has been moved by music since he was a toddler. He began playing the piano at age two and by 16 was the director of the choir at Mount Olive Church of God and Christ in San Diego. After completing college—which included music courses at UC San Diego—he worked several years as an electrical engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense before following his passion for teaching full-time. In addition to leading the UC San Diego Gospel Choir, Anderson also directs the Grossmont College Choir and Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir San Diego; he also serves as a private voice instructor.

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“Ken Anderson is a truly amazing professor who genuinely loves teaching and cares for his students; he is extremely kind, funny and approachable,” said Hannah Lee, a junior at Sixth College majoring in biology. “The songs he teaches are very uplifting and fun to sing. At the end of class you just feel happy! I would definitely recommend this class to others—regardless of major, background or religion.”

The campus and local community are invited to attend the UC San Diego Gospel Choir’s spring concert, which will feature the entire choir body as well as guest soloists and musicians. The concert will take place at 8 p.m. on May 28th at Mandeville Auditorium. For more information and tickets, visit the UC San Diego department of music website.