Monica Yant Kinney: Chester Children's Chorus lets kids' voices - and hopes - soar

John Alston works with the Chester Children's Chorus in a summer learning program at Swarthmore College.
John Alston works with the Chester Children's Chorus in a summer learning program at Swarthmore College. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: July 16, 2012

  In the summer of 1997, as a young reporter scouring the suburbs for stories, I landed on the Sunday front page with a 1,000-word ode to a Swarthmore College professor's belief that kids growing up in the ugliest of places could make the most beautiful music.

Back in the corner, another fight is brewing, the story began. Up front, a couple of boys are dozing. But in the middle of the school bus lumbering toward some of Chester's most impoverished neighborhoods comes a voice straight from the heavens.

"Do-re-mi," it warms. "Fa-so," it climbs. "La-ti-do," it soars.

Again and again, staring out the window, the sweaty youngster works his chops. Soon, a couple of others join him. Even the weary instructor chimes in for a few bars of harmony.

It's the end of another day of summer camp for the Chester Boys Chorus, only it's not just a camp and it's not just a chorus.

To witness John Alston's musical legacy in its infancy - 30 directionless boys, few true crooners - was to hear possibility in every key.

I felt that tingle again last week after reconnecting with the now-coed, 145-member Chester Children's Chorus. Only instead of scales, these polished pros are mastering one of the most profound pieces ever composed: Mozart's Requiem.

Living in two worlds

"Check it out. Doesn't that sound a little bit like death?"

Alston, now 50, digs what he's hearing from the seasoned teenagers running through The Lacrimosa, a mournful movement they clearly adore.

"It's like candy," he observes when the singers beg for a reprise. "They can't get enough."

Across the hall, assistant music director Dan Beal effortlessly segues from rehearsing Vivaldi's Laudamus te with the junior choir to teaching the second graders the fundamentals of scatting.

"When you sing doo-doo-wop," he says, "you're being the band!"

Alston, a mixed-race (African American and Filipino) academic with a humble backstory, owes his upward mobility to winning a spot in the Newark Boys Choir. When I first met the then-ponytailed conductor, he possessed only a vague notion of how to help a younger generation imagine life beyond blight and navigate "the minority and majority world" to become "fluent in the culture of power."

"I knew nothing about children or poverty," Alston admits. "One of the boys you met back then is dead. His brother is in prison for life."

An anonymous $50,000 check arrived after my 1997 story, allowing Alston to strategize, hire help, and recruit more raw talent.

Girls joined a few years later. In 2008, Alston fulfilled part of his dream by opening the Chester Upland School for the Arts.

Straddling two worlds

Today, the chorus - supported by $500,000 in annual fund-raising - consumes its founder. The once chaotic summer program includes science classes taught by Swarthmore faculty, as well as an introduction to Emily Dickinson, African dance, piano, music theory, and composition. The littlest campers meet daily with reading tutors. Twelfth graders earn minimum wage working while learning.

"I didn't know I could sing," jokes Marquise Miles, who blew Alston away as a late-blooming fifth grader. Now 18, Miles won a scholarship to the University of the Arts, where he majors in jazz performance.

If the choral members want to blame anyone for having to learn Latin, it's J'atienne Campbell. The pitch-perfect soprano recognized a few bars of the Requiem in the background of a Christmas cantata Alston composed.

"I know that. I love that," chirped the cyberschooled senior. "Can we sing the whole song?"

Alston revels in the challenge of shattering low expectations, but he refuses to force-feed his singers a diet of classics alone.

The Chester students will perform the entire 40-minute Requiem in November with Swarthmore's chorus and orchestra, but two shows later this month will also feature gospel-tinged originals and a tribute to Whitney Houston.

"Our children must learn that the world is bigger than where they live," Alston explains, "but they should also be allowed to celebrate the world they know."


To watch a video of the Chester Children's Chorus rehearsing, go to www.philly.com/chorus .

The chorus will perform free concerts July 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. at Swarthmore's Lang Concert Hall, followed by a dance performance July 31 at 1:30 p.m. For more information, see www.chesterchildrenschorus.org .


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @myantkinney.

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