When the Chester Children’s Chorus staff first started planning for this year’s summer camp, they weren’t sure a live performance — the traditional sendoff to the camp experience — would be possible.
“We had guidelines on capacity and spacing. … It was yet another step in the pandemic,” says Dana Semos, managing and education director.
But with a few strategic adjustments, including using the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater as a stage, the chorus closed out the camp with an emotional concert on the evening of July 24.
“During the academic year, our concert choir only rehearsed outside in sections — sopranos on Monday, altos on Tuesday, etc.,” says John Alston H’15, the chorus’s founder and artistic director. “This summer, we sang as a full choir for the first time in 16 months — a beautiful Italian madrigal written by Lassus, ‘O Occhi, Manza Mia — O Eyes of My Beloved.’”
When Alston asked Zoe Gainer, the alto section leader, how she felt about singing together after such a painfully long hiatus, she told him: “I wasn’t expecting anything special. Then we started singing, and I was excited and moved: ‘OMG, this is such a beautiful song and we sound so good.’”
“Our Chester children do sound really good,” says Alston. “In that first rehearsal, we sang some of the sweetest harmony I’ve ever heard.”
Though students were elated to be physically back on Swarthmore’s campus after a mostly virtual school year, there were signs that the summer camp experience had indeed changed.
“It was very different from the normal summer,” says Semos.
Several outdoor tents provided the meeting spot for breakfast and activities for the sessions, which began June 21. Concert rehearsals took place in the amphitheater, and beloved swimming lessons were off the schedule because of masking protocols.
“We’re emerging … and the College has been incredibly supportive and amazing in supporting behind the scenes,” Semos says. “The kids were thrilled to be here.”
A total of 115 students from third through 12th grade participated in academic instruction, music and dance rehearsal, and a few of the perfect perks that make summer camp special, including a trip to a water park.
Throughout the five-week camp, staff members from the Chester Children’s Chorus, as well as Swarthmore faculty and staff, provided lessons in science, math, reading, coding, gamelan (a classical percussion method), and African dance.
“I definitely had a wonderful experience,” says Daniel Peterkin, 14, who will be a freshman at Archbishop John Carroll High School in the fall. Especially interesting was a photography class, says Peterkin, who has attended the summer camp since he was 7.
For Daniel’s sister, vocalist Rachael Peterkin, 18, this last summer camp was bittersweet.
“I missed everybody and being together, and being in person is so much better,” says Rachel, who will be a freshman at Drexel University in the fall. “I don’t want to sound corny, but it felt like a feeling of happiness and warmth being back. It was really hard to be behind the screen for a year.”
Rachael also took a photography course, like her brother. “We took portraits and are learning cool things,” she says. “I have always loved photography, and my favorite part is taking city pictures.”
But the most treasured aspect of Chester Children’s Chorus, she says, was feeling supported. “Choir being so much of a family, people need that,” she says. “You need to know that people will stand by you after you leave.”