//Hearts on Fire: The Central Valley’s Only Rock ‘n Roll Choir

Hearts on Fire: The Central Valley’s Only Rock ‘n Roll Choir

By Dave Fountinelle | dave@fresnoflyer.com

“Rock ‘n Roll” and “choir” – two words most people would probably never expect to hear in the same sentence. However, much like the legendary pairing of peanut butter and chocolate, the duo actually makes for quite a tasty combination. Likewise, the story of Fresno’s first and only rock ‘n roll choir is both sweet and serendipitous. 

One evening in 2012, Debi Ruud and her husband were in Sonoma having dinner with friends when near the end of the meal, a friend excused herself saying, “I have to go to choir practice.” Curious, Debi asked which church she attended. “Oh, it’s not a church choir,” her friend replied. “It’s a rock ‘n roll choir.” Intrigued by the concept, Ruud asked if she could tag along and see for herself what a rock ‘n roll choir was all about. 

“I was really blown away by their performance,” Ruud recalls. “Everyone was having so much fun and there was such a great, positive energy in the room.”

Ruud returned to Fresno determined to start her own rock ‘n roll choir in the Central Valley. One year of hard work and recruiting later, Hearts on Fire was born.

Steeped in the world of music, Ruud has built a well-rounded career as both a musician and entrepreneur since her time studying vocal performance at CSU Fresno. Teaching music and voice since 1992, Ruud went on to establish Fresno Music Academy & Arts’ first brick and mortar location in 1998. No stranger to either musical groups or performing as a solo artist, Ruud has also brought her talents to both The Voice Shop and Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater over the years. This vast experience and deep love for rock ‘n roll music led her to recognize the immense potential in what she witnessed at her friend’s rehearsal. Out of that inspiration came her vision to create an open, inclusive choir for people of all talent and experience levels. 

“Many of the people who wanted to join the choir had no formal training or experience at all,” Ruud explains. “So, to accommodate everyone, we don’t teach the songs with sheet music.”

Instead, Ruud teaches the choir to learn their notes by ear and how to harmonize naturally with the rest of the ensemble by having participants sing along to the recorded versions of their vocal parts. Teaching a largely inexperienced choir is a challenge, but it’s one Ruud has been happy to take on.

“Something I always say is, this is rock, not Bach,” Ruud smiles.

The first Hearts on Fire performance featured about 15 members in the choir. Ten years later, there are over 60 members rehearsing for the upcoming performance on April 29th at the Tower Theatre. Ruud credits the swell in membership to positive word-of-mouth and great song selection.

“We’re doing the entire Abbey Road album by the Beatles for our performance this year,” Ruud relates. “It’s really going to be an amazing show.”

Providing the musical accompaniment to the choral group will be a live band, led by musical director Nate Butler.

This year’s performance at the Tower Theater is a special one. Hearts on Fire has partnered with the Tower District Preservation Association (TDPA) and the Valley Music Hall of Fame for the event, which will also feature an exhibit from Spectrum Gallery and a live auction. Proceeds will go to support the TDPA in its efforts to maintain the rich cultural identity of the Tower District. Some of the TDPA members are part of the Hearts on Fire ensemble, including TDPA Vice President Joe Catania and Michael Birdsong, who sits on the Board of Directors. Both Catania and Birdsong are thrilled to be putting on this year’s performance at the historic Tower Theatre, something they confess wouldn’t have been possible without financial support from the City of Fresno, courtesy of former district council member Esmerelda Soria and current council members Analisa Perea and Miguel Arias.

“Esmerelda, Miguel, and Analisa have all been so supportive of what we’re doing here,” Catania explains. “They provided the funding for us to be able to hold this event at the Tower Theatre, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

Adds Birdsong, “It would be amazing to continue to see this kind of financial commitment from the City, so that we can host the Hearts on Fire event at the Tower Theatre every year.”

In addition to the performance by Hearts on Fire, “Just the Two of Us” featuring Ruud and her daughter will be dueting a set of songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Fresno Music Academy & Arts children’s choir will also perform a Beatles song to open the show. 

Hearts on Fire featuring Nate Butler and the Rockin’ All-Star Band, performing the Beatles’ Abbey Road album in its entirety, will take place at the Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts, located at 815 E. Olive Ave in Fresno, on Saturday, April 29th, at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at the Tower Theatre box office and Fresno Music Academy & Arts, at both their Tower District and North Fresno locations. All proceeds will benefit the Tower District Preservation Association. 

For more information visit the Hearts on Fire Facebook page, or www.towertheatrefresno.com. If you are interested in joining the Hearts on Fire Rock ‘n Roll Choir, sign up at either Fresno Music Academy & Arts location.