Gospel choir cultivates community

Ja Ronn Thompson leads the Gospel Gators choir practice during class in Jack Adams Hall Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (Melissa Minton/ Xpress)

The large classroom echoes with the sound of students being welcomed into Jack Adams Hall, until they quiet down and fix their gazes on their professor. Choir instructor Ja Ronn Thompson walks onto the stage and begins his first lesson with a chant, his voice booming across the stage.

“We sing with-” Thompson leads.

“Passion!” The class roars.

“And?” Professor Thompson asks.

“No fear!” The class yells.

This is the daily mantra that the Gospel Gators choir say every Monday evening. They are practicing to prepare for their next gospel concert, which will take place at SF State’s Student Life Event Center at the Annex Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m.

“I’m really excited for this concert,” Thompson said. “I hope we can convey a message of struggle, happiness and the belief in overcoming.”

Thompson has been teaching this class, which he created as a student at SF State, for the last 12 years. He said he wanted to give students a form of community while teaching music, as well as instill a strong sense of unity.

“I had an overwhelming desire to sing,” Thompson said. “I remember walking around campus praying to God asking to be in a choir. I remember distinctly hearing a voice say, ‘Well then, start one.’”

Danish exchange student Karoline Brudeboel, 23, said she was excited to hear about the choir at the Welcome Days for freshmen and transfer students in the beginning of September.

“This is my first time in choir,” Brudeboel said. “They said everyone is welcome, and you don’t need experience. I got a really good impression of this class – it looked like a good place to make friends.”

English major Kaylee Fagan, 22, started singing with the Gospel Gators last spring. She said she repeated the class again, and their head-count of students has since doubled to 50 students this semester.

“I think Ja Ronn is a great teacher with a lot of experience,” Fagan said.  “He knows what we need to do as a choir.”

Thompson said that while most choirs perform to sound pleasing to the ears, he teaches his students to truly feel what they are singing.

“Every music piece has a story with intention,” Thompson said. “I want to incite a certain emotion, otherwise there’s no artistry there.”

Karina Medina, a 21-year-old psychology major, said she repeated Gator’s Gospel choir because she felt a family connection that she didn’t want to end.

“When I auditioned, I was a very timid singer, and I went in and he gave me kudos and encouragement,” Medina said. “Since then, he is all about wanting people to get out of their shell and sing.”

Thompson holds a retreat toward the end of the fall semester for the students as a celebration after major concerts. Thompson said he takes the choir to the Santa Cruz Redwood Glen camping facilities to give his students the opportunity to bond outside of choir.

Madeline Flamer, SF State faculty advisor for the Gospel Gators, has been with the choir for the past five years and said her favorite memories of the gospel class has been the annual retreat.

“The students shared things inside that were broken,” Flamer said. “They all support and rally around each other like family. We had people meet and get married and have families.There’s a reason why we are here.”

Thompson said the class can be used toward credit, but can also be taken without a grade. Thompson said that Gospel Gators is not just about teaching musical technique, but for people looking for a place to belong.

“We’re creating a family-type atmosphere,” Thompson said. “Some look to fraternities or sororities, but ours is different. We’re not asking you to pay or do anything – we’re just saying, ‘Hey, come be a part of this family.’”

Members of the Gospel Gators choir practice during class in Jack Adams Hall Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (Melissa Minton/ Xpress)Melissa Minton

Members of the Gospel Gators choir practice during class in Jack Adams Hall Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (Melissa Minton/ Xpress)

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