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John Alston and choir

Voice, Mind, Spirit

Chester Children’s Chorus celebrates 25 years of love and strength

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS is a significant anniversary, but Chester Children’s Chorus Director John Alston H’15 isn’t counting years.

He’s counting measures and listening for just the right note.

“I want the children to sing wonderfully,” says Alston, an energetic director who isn’t afraid to use humor to encourage the students, who range from third-graders to high school seniors.

“I want them to have the best time when they’re in rehearsal, to have a blast when they’re on stage, to continue to grow and teach people that Chester children have the same extraordinary abilities as your children and my children, and that, with the right combination of love, humor, and rigor, they can become the best versions of themselves.”

It’s an ambitious plan. And it’s working.

Since 1994, the CCC has embodied its mission: Strong Voice, Strong Mind, Strong Spirit. It opens its doors to all Chester students with the aim to create a vigorous and joyful choral music experience. Aside from a fine music education, students have the opportunity to learn from Swarthmore College faculty, staff, and students in the arts, athletics, science, and math.

The goal is to empower the student singers to improve their communities and the world, achieved through a rigorous, by-audition-only program. Weekly rehearsals involve an intricate van route that collects each student as it winds through Chester and then delivers the kids to the CCC office in the Ville of Swarthmore.

Alston knows the role that poverty plays in many of the children’s lives, and the sacrifices that their families make to keep their kids in the program. He favors a light approach to coax the best out of every singer.

“Family-style music making,” he says, smiling widely. “As informal as possible.”

That balance of seriousness and inclusiveness appeals to the students, some of whom navigate chaos in their daily lives.

“I used to get really nervous when we’d perform, but now I feel fine—I know I’ve got my people behind me,” says A’Najah Jones-Dowling, a soprano from Archbishop Carroll High School. “We really are one big family.”

That mindset has fueled the chorus since its start. Recalling those early days, Alston laughs.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says.

He wanted to start a boys’ chorus in Chester, like the one he had been part of in Newark, N.J., and considers the brightest light of his childhood. Alston, then an associate professor of music, visited the office of Maurice Eldridge ’61, then vice president for community and college relations, who helped him procure a keyboard and other necessities. Within a week, Alston had seven boys in the choir. He knew that without the experience of teaching music to elementary-age kids, there would be a learning curve. But as it is with most grand visions, it took the required leap of faith.

“The kids and I loved each other almost immediately,” Alston says. “We were coming from the same place, recognizing so much in each other.”

Before long, girls were welcomed to rehearsals, too, and it dawned on Alston that Swarthmore could have a children’s chorus. A place not of charity, but discovery.

“And so it went,” Eldridge says, “and here we are, 25 years later, celebrating its success. It has done so much good in the lives of the youngsters who have participated, and their families.”

Among them is Deondre Jordan ’19, who spent 10 years in the chorus and will soon embark on a research position with the National Institutes of Health.

“The chorus was the anchor,” Jordan said in a video that delighted the crowd at the chorus’ 25th anniversary gala in October. (See the video at

Reveling in the response that night was Dana Semos, the chorus’ managing and education director, whose top takeaway in her first year on the job is the eagerness of the entire College community—from the President’s Office on down—to do anything it can for the chorus.

“You just can’t help but be inspired and impressed by the kids,” says Semos. “It’s beautiful to be a part of the community that is the CCC.”

That community is on full display at rehearsals, too, which begin with the students and Alston catching up over pizza and teasing (or “burning”) one another. The banter reverberates through the lesson, as the students sway side to side while they sing and Alston pops up and down from behind the keys. He’s explaining a fine point of Handel’s Messiah one moment and taking—or dishing—a playful jab the next.

“Go ‘head, girl,” he teases one soprano who gets a little carried away on the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” “That’s your gift.”

Other nights, the mood is tense. The children at times carry struggles, from typical school and family issues up to losing loved ones to gun violence. Sometimes Alston stops rehearsal to take a child aside or to hash something out as a group. It’s not the high note of the job, but it’s one he embraces.

“The children are so, so important,” Alston says. “There’s so much humanity and wonder and humor and wit and sorrow and anguish. It’s all there. They deserve to be seen and appreciated.”

That’s especially true at the chorus’ public performances across the Delaware Valley each year. This summer, they shook the room with a version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, among more traditional choral selections.

“That’s a night I will never forget,” says My’Rell Stone, a soprano from Chester Charter Scholars Academy. “How many people from somewhere like Chester can say they sang Mozart’s Requiem with a full orchestra?”

“Every time they step on stage, these children get the opportunity to be excellent,” adds Alston. “And the audience gets the opportunity to see that with the right structures in place and barriers broken down, all children can flourish.”