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Strong Voices, Strong Minds, Strong Spirits

At 15, the Chester Children’s Chorus is much more than a singing group.

By Jeffrey Lott

36a_circle.jpg“When I first came to Swarthmore, I thought I was just passing through,” says John Alston, in a reflective mood as he looks back on 15 years as founding director of the Chester Children’s Chorus (CCC) and 18 as a member of the College’s Music and Dance Department. “I thought I would be here for a year or two and, then, I’d go on to become a famous choral director,” he says, adding wryly, “though there is no such thing.”

Alston has found fame among the children of Chester, the most impoverished city in Pennsylvania. He’s become a pied piper of music, education, and opportunity to 100 boys and girls who currently comprise the CCC—and now to nearly 200 more children in grades pre-K through second at the Chester Upland School of the Arts, which opened in September 2008. (Look for an article about the first year of this exciting new school in a future Bulletin.)

The CCC began in 1994 as the Chester Boys’ Choir, with seven boys. Having sung in the Newark (N.J.) Boys Chorus as a youth, Alston wanted to create a similar experience for boys in Chester, so he went to the Columbus Elementary School looking for boys who liked to sing. On Saturday mornings, he drove a borrowed College van to Chester to pick them up at their homes and bring them to campus.


Jazmin Sarinana sings during the chorus’s winter concert in December 2008. More than 1,500 people attended the event at First Pentecostal Holy Church, the largest auditorium in Chester.

The chorus expanded slowly at first, with a few new boys joining each year after auditions of second graders from Chester elementary schools. A summer day camp on campus was added, giving Alston and the boys more time together and opening up more learning opportunities, such as a reading program staffed by volunteers who worked one-on-one with the children. Alston taught them chess and karate, then took them outside for roughhouse games of kickball in the Scott Amphitheater or pick-up baseball on the former rugby field. After an article about the fledgling chorus appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, an anonymous check for $50,000 arrived, immediately raising Alston’s sights.

All along, some boys had been showing up with siblings, including some sisters; they hung out at the rehearsals and, of course, learned the music. The boys’ choir went co-ed around 1999 and finally changed its name to the Chester Children’s Chorus a few years later. By 2001, the chorus had grown big enough that Andrea Hoff Knox ’64 was hired as a part-time managing director, handling logistics, doing publicity, and trying to raise more money. (The College contributes space and allows Alston to teach a reduced course load in exchange for foregoing sabbaticals, which he wouldn’t have time for anyway.)


Director John Alston, associate professor of music at the College (above), created a community of strivers and seekers in the Chester Children’s Chorus, which he founded with seven boys in 1994. The chorus now numbers 100 boys and girls from second grade through high school.

“When I arrived,” Knox says, “there was enough money on hand to run the chorus for the next year.” Increased publicity led to greater visibility, which led to support from hundreds of individuals, an unexpected $32,000 bequest, and finally to ongoing foundation grants. During the past two years, Knox says, two individuals have contributed $100,000 each. “If someone wants to top that,” she smiles, “we stand ready to pick up the check.” Last year, Knox became the CCC’s director of development and Anjali Gallup-Diáz was named executive director.

With 100 singers and an annual budget of nearly $500,000—much of which goes into a six-week Summer Learning Program that now includes a pioneering science program taught by Swarthmore faculty members, African dance and drumming instruction, an expanded reading program, and a host of other educational and artistic activities—today’s CCC seems a far cry from seven boys in a borrowed van. They sing an impressive repertoire that includes Renaissance madrigals, Stevie Wonder and Beatles covers, and original gospel songs that Alston writes.

Some of the original boys have gone on to college. One, now a college senior, returned to the chorus as a summer staff member in 2008. But not everyone is a success story.

His voice choking, Alston tells of one original chorus member who was later in jail for two and a half years: “He was dealing drugs and went on one of his meth rampages, and he shot somebody. I didn’t find out about it for two years, and then he wrote me a letter. He let me know what had happened and that he was still in jail. He’s out now, and I’m still very, very close to him, but it’s such a mess. You spend time—you spend time with children who love you so selflessly, and then what can you do except give that back in return?”

And give it in greater measure.


Sixty percent of children who join remain with the chorus for five years or more—and many continue through high-school graduation. Several have gone on to college or other post-secondary education. Older chorus members such as Nkenge Daniels (center), who joined as a second-grader and recently finished high school, become admired mentors for the younger kids. The modest ambitions of the original chorus have grown over time.

This year, the CCC plans to hire a full-time assistant music director who will work with the youngest singers in the training chorus. (There’s also a Junior Choir on the way to the Concert Choir. All three groups perform at each of the CCC’s three annual concerts.) Having an assistant will give Alston more time to work with children 11 years old and up—including a new elite Chamber Choir that debuted last fall.

The new assistant director will also create the curriculum for another ambitious initiative, the Sing to Learn Partnership. Its goal: “To provide classroom music instruction to more than 300 kindergarten and first-grade students in the Chester Upland School District starting in September 2009.” The initiative will integrate music instruction into the regular curriculum, building on well-established research that shows how music learning is a distinct form of intellectual activity—and that children often learn more effectively when they employ multiple types of intelligence.

The chorus plans to add 25 more children by 2011, offering musically gifted singers in third grade or above the opportunity for long-term musical training—plus all of the other social and educational benefits that come with chorus membership.

On a Saturday morning outside the Lang Music Building, two yellow school buses and a couple of white vans bearing the CCC logo disgorge dozens of laughing, excited children. The Training Chorus arrives first, and each week the ritual is the same. A roll of paper towels goes around the steeply banked seats of the Presser Room, each child taking one sheet. Bags of Pepperidge Farms cinnamon swirl bread are passed around, then plastic cups. (Alston always conducts a meal before he conducts music.) He and Gallup-Diáz move among the children, pouring cups of orange juice—Tropicana, no pulp—and engaging each child in a short personal conversation. These children are respected and they give respect back; they are loved, and they love in return. Soon Alston steps to the grand piano, plays a couple of chords, and the pure joy of singing starts anew.

WATCH: John and his students talk about the chorus.


One Response to “Strong Voices, Strong Minds, Strong Spirits”

  1. I love it! I remember seeing those boys arrive on Saturday mornings in 1994 … thank you, John, for sticking with them, and giving me such inspiration!