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Party of 600 - Gospel Choir Rocks the House

| June 1, 2006

Party of 600 - Gospel Choir Rocks the House
Director Ken Anderson, at right, leads the Gospel Choir in a rousing song at Chancellor Fox’s inauguration last year.
Credit: Kevin Walsh

UCSD’s Gospel Choir, launched 36 years ago, is the department of music’s largest performance ensemble. It fills Mandeville Auditorium with the sound of 600 voices once each quarter. Offered as a class by the music department, the choir gives both music and non-music majors a chance to sing their way through African-American history. The Gospel Choir will give its final performance of the academic year tomorrow night at 8 p.m. in Mandeville.

Dirk Sutro spoke with Choir Director Ken Anderson.

How has the choir evolved?

When I began as director in 1989, the membership was 70, and it grew to 1,600 over the next four years, almost one-tenth of the student body at UCSD. Our enrollment cap now is 800.

What are some of the songs the choir performs?

“Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Call Him Up,” “Jesus Is Mine,” “Lord, We Love You,” “Angels Will Be Singing,” “The Potter’s House” and many more.

How and where did you first get into gospel?

I started playing the piano when I was 2, playing in church when I was 6, and became director of the choir at Mount Olive Church of God and Christ in San Diego when I was 16.

What do students learn by taking your gospel class?

Most of them have never sung in a choir before.  They gain experience singing four-part harmony, learning music by rote since most of the songs are not written out, and they learn the history of the music, and its connection to most of the popular styles in America today.

How is gospel different from other types of singing or vocal instruction? 

Songs are taught primarily by rote. I can't think of any other choir repertoire taught in this fashion, at least not in America. Certainly not classical, or popular music arrangements. Unlike classical music, matching vocal timbres and vowel sounds is not essential to successful performance. Quite the contrary. The differences make for a powerful folk song experience. Also, the skill level of the singer does not detract from the overall impact. From the Negro spiritual comes ragtime, jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, swing, rock, pop, disco, hip-hop, rap and gospel. Gospel is the only style of music descended from the Negro spiritual that works with a large choir. There are arrangements for choir in some of the other styles, but the music does not retain the style’s integrity or impact.  It tends to sound like an arrangement for a high school choir.  A gospel choir offers to anyone at any musical level an opportunity to participate and perform in a highly energized and exciting context, and to experience a very successful and rewarding exchange between the choir and the audience.

Why is it important to keep the gospel tradition alive? 

Keeping the tradition alive isn't an issue. For many black church denominations it is the staple form of worship, and for many, the only form of worship. I am flown to Europe twice a year, sometimes more, to conduct gospel music workshops. Interest in the music has exploded in Australia, England, Italy, the Czech Republic, Japan and Norway, to name a few places. Denmark is using the music to attract people back to church. They have community gospel choirs whose members pay to participate, though they don't even attend church.  One of the most common responses to the music in Denmark is they like the way it makes them feel, and that it gives them an outlet to emote.  Danes can be a very reserved people when it comes to showing emotions. When I travel, I find gospel communities in the seemingly most unlikely places, among the most unlikely participants.

Military and educational institutions are beginning to realize not only the interest gospel music enjoys, but the benefits to encouraging its performance.  People with emotional and psychological issues, those struggling with suicidal tendencies, hopelessness and depression, those who find it hard to mingle and get acquainted with people on the most basic levels – many of them are changed by the music. The strong sense of community one can experience while singing with a choir is powerful. Add to that lyrics filled with hope, joy, and faith, and even people who don't believe in God sometimes wonder at the peace and centeredness they experience while singing gospel. Being able to just sing out from the heart without worrying about the quality of one's voice can be a very freeing thing.

UCSD’s Gospel Choir performs
Tuesday at 8 p.m., in Mandeville Auditorium.
Admission is $8 general, $6 students, free for UCSD students with I.D.

Listen to samples of the UCSD Gospel Choir:
Everybody Praise The Lord [mp3]
Cert'nly Lord [mp3]
Jesus Is Mine [mp3]


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