Rockridge Chorale: About Much More Than Songs

By Marta Yamamoto, Correspondent

Anyone passing by the Rockridge home of Devi Jameson on a Tuesday evening will be treated to the sounds of choral singing, anything from Mendelssohn and Mozart to popular favorites such as "You Raise Me Up" and Cole Porter's "It's De-lovely." Don't expect the singers to depart "Devi Hall" once practice is complete. That's when the socializing gets into full swing because the Rockridge Chorale singers enjoy each others' company as much as they love to sing.

Jameson is the director and the force behind this professionally recognized group. Of Indian heritage, she was born in Shanghai, where her father was a musician, and later moved to India. "We all grew up with a lot of music around us, primarily classical music," she said. 

Music continued to be a part of her life after moving to the United States, where she continued with choral singing, took conducting classes and eventually spent 20 years as the chorale director at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Oakland. In 2003, Jameson decided to start her own group. "I wanted to pursue and spread the joy of choral music," she said. "We had a big repertoire, and we were not able to sing a lot of it." She got 20 members from her network of choristers and they began to hone their singing skills using four-part harmony based on soprano, alto, tenor and bass. As the members came together musically they decided to take their music to those who did not have the opportunity to hear choral music, targeting retirement homes and elder care facilities. "That's when we decided to increase our selections to include popular music from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s," Jameson said. "We do holiday concerts for St. Patrick's Day, the Fourth of July and Christmas, with music to match, and also sing at weddings and funerals."

The group numbers 25, with most describing themselves as on the cusp of retirement, though recently Jameson added two family members in their 20s. Though widely known and recognized as the Rockridge Chorale, members come from Alameda, Berkeley, Pinole, Walnut Creek and various parts of Oakland. They gather once a week for two vigorous hours of practice. "We practice very seriously for two hours with no breaks; I'm very hard on them," Jameson said. No one seems to mind. Participating provides an opportunity to sing as a group and also perform solos. Once practice is over, the party begins. "There are masses of people here," Jameson said. "We have wine and snacks, and they all visit; we even celebrate everyone's birthday with a cake."

As important as the music is the closeness of being part of a group who believe in the joy of the music they bring to others. Ramon Rodriguez has been an enthusiastic member since the start. "I enjoy choral music, and this group is a very tight and warm community," he said. "It does a lot more than sing together, and folks in the senior homes enjoy when we come in. They ask us back over and over again." 

Another member, Anne Hurley, joined soon after the group was formed. Hurley loves the energy of the group and the satisfaction of being of service to the community. "This is a group of people who love music, love to sing and are really fun," she said. "It's a very uplifting experience, especially when we go to convalescent homes and do programs throughout the year." 

Jameson has also planned fundraising concerts, using the title "Choirs without Borders" to represent the idea of choral groups from different parts of the world learning the same music and coming together as one large choir. Along with the Minsteracres Rubato Singers of Northumberland, England, and directed by Jameson's sister, Camille de Sam Lazaro Mazarelo, the Rockridge Chorale raised money for the children of Darfur in 2008 and for Haitian earthquake victims in August.

Plans are in the works for another fundraiser in India in December 2011, at which time Jameson would like to see the group increased to 32, so she is actively seeking recruits and hoping to expand the age range at the same time. She's seeking singers with choir experience for this nonauditioned group and believes the benefits extend past learning perfect pitch.

"Singing is therapy for yourself; just singing feels good, and then you double the joy when you sing to somebody who is just like a sponge taking in the joy, and you can feel that sharing of joy," Jameson said. "In addition you get to meet some nice people and get a chance to contribute something that you wanted to do and never did before."