Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Music Professor John Alston spends his Saturdays convincing reluctant Chester children to sing.
He distributes glasses of orange juice, coordinates van drivers, and teaches youngsters the basics of music theory. To do this, Alston works with the organization he founded fourteen years ago: the Chester Children’s Chorus. He now devotes thirty hours a week to the Chorus, in addition to his work as a Swarthmore professor.
Looking back, he can hardly believe the chorus has come so far. “It was impulsive,” he explained. “I thought-I’ll just start a boys choir, I’ll train them up, and we’ll be singing Bach cantatas.” He considers himself more realistic now. “We have one genuine song writer in the group,” said Alston, “and four or five who could … be in a professional boys’ chorus.”
The Swarthmore students who’ve listened to the children in Alston’s chorus are impressed. Jackie Warner ’07 described the music she heard at a Summer 2007 concert, saying, “It gave me chills. [It] was amazing.” Erek Dyskant ’09, a former Lang Tech Crew Manager, conceded that although yes, the musicians were children, “it was an amateur performance, but a good one,” he concluded.
Alston is not naÃ¯ve about the competition his chorus faces from the rest of the world. “They have to prepare for the next step. There are children out there, children they are competing with, that just have more. It is hard, but it will be harder when these kids graduate from high school, or even college.”
Alston has some experience in the matter. As a high school student, he grew up in urban Newark where he was a member of the Newark Boy’s Chorus. He attended a music conservatory. He now admits, however, that he wasn’t prepared for his job at Swarthmore. “I was a good musician, but I couldn’t talk about life, I couldn’t talk about why music is important.”
For Alston, learning about music and learning to teach music meant putting music in a broader context, and to do that he educated himself widely. “I educated myself. I read, I read literature, American history, African-American history,” The more he read, Alston says, “the more angry I became.” Until he began this bout of reading, until he came to Swarthmore college, Alston claims he didn’t know the meaning of social justice.
Now the term is central to the true mission of the Chester Children’s Chorus. Now, for Alston the Chorus is about much more than music. Alston aims to use music “as a vehicle to offer children who live in the Chester-Upland School District the opportunity to expand their intellectual and cultural horizons and strengthen their life skills.” It works under the motto, “Strong voice, strong mind, strong spirit,”
Alston wants children from Chester to have an equal shot in the world. He wants these children to have access to college. “I would do anything to get those kids into a good school,” he explained, his voice filled with yearning.
He makes his aspirations clear to the students. “He is trying to get us ready for the world, and help us prepare for college,” said Nkenge Daniels, a home-schooled high school senior and a bass singer.
The job is a tough one. Alston starts his recruiting in second grade. He goes from classroom to classroom, testing nearly all of Chester’s children to understand their potential. Destiny Sharp, who is an eighth grade soprano, admits that when Alston first asked to hear her singing, years ago, she was ambivalent about whether she even wanted to be in his chorus. She recalls Alston making whooping sounds to the befuddled seven-year-olds. Sharp remembered that she knew she could sing but tried to hide it so as to not be singled out.
Somehow Alston saw through her act, and a few weeks later she received a phone call.
The Gazette interviewed three chorus members who all plan to graduate from the Chorus and attend college. This isn’t the destiny for every student, however. One long-time choir member, a high school sophomore, just dropped out of the Chorus in order to get a job and buy a car. “An old car will last him, what-a couple of months?” Alston asked, frustrated. “But he’s got his hormones going, he’s got to be a man.”
Even when the children do stick with the Chorus throughout their school careers, there are disappointments. Not one of Alston’s charges, for instance, has ever qualified to get into Swarthmore. “They need to be better before Americans as a whole will be willing to give [them] a shot, despite affirmative action.” Alston doesn’t think discrimination is as blatant as it was fifty years ago, but instead credits a lack of opportunity as why “the us in Chester don’t have a chance anymore.”
Alston pushes not just academics, but also behavior. At the meetings he holds for each section of the Chorus, he requires the children sit up straight and avoid slumping on their hands.
He also encourages his children to learn linguistic skills that will open doors for them. “You need to be able to speak perfect English so you can be in charge,” he told the children at a recent Saturday rehearsal as he walked from child to child. “You need to master the language of the people who are in power.”
He reinforces this message during the chorus’s summer sessions, which, Destiny Sharp said, include lessons on “how to carry yourself, how to handle situations, and how to walk away from things.” Ultimately, as Sharp sees it, Alston “wants us to get a job, do an interview, and get treated the same way as everyone else.”
Many of the older children in the Chorus are mentored by Swarthmore students, who serve as section leaders and tutors. Sharp, for instance, gets help with her math and vocabulary. “My teacher has us do twenty, thirty vocab words a week. He says that he’ll never give us more than fifty,’ she said, explaining why the help from ehr Swarthmore mentor comes in handy. “And they are words like ambidextrous and skittish.” She threw up her hands in exasperation. “I’ve never even heard the smartest people I know use words like those!”
Despite this rich smorgasbord of activities he offers, Alston isn’t so confident. He longs for more time with the children. “I just don’t see them enough,” he said, frustration plain in his voice. “It is an after-school, summer, weekend program. I know I am making an impression. But it isn’t enough.”
So Alston aims to try to start an arts school in the city of Chester, something that several of the older chorus members say is sorely needed. Jabrea Reaves a junior at a Chester high school and a bass singer is in the top English class at Chester High, but says he hasn’t yet read a single book this semester.
“How is he going to compete?” asked Alston, incredulous. “He’ll graduate … and have read Romeo and Juliet, a couple Langston Hughes poems, and maybe the Red Badge of Courage.” In contrast, an unscientific poll of twenty Swarthmore students suggested that it was common for these students to read ten to fifteen books during their junior year English class.
At an October 19th conference at Teachers College, Dick Allington, the author of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers and former president of the International Reading Association, said “research has shown that schools that have a large percentage of [low income] students are especially apt to fill the school day with crap.”
“Crap,” Allington continued, only partly in jest, “is the technical term researchers use for all the non-reading and non-writing activities that fill student’s days: circling synonyms, filling in crossword puzzles, and looking up vocabulary words.” If Sharp and Reaves are representative of other Chester students, the school day for many may bring little more than non-reading and non-writing.
Alston said he is trying to raise the money for an arts school; the Daily Gazette will have more on this story in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, as Alston fights to give his students a better chance, he celebrates the little victories. “My purpose isn’t to save the world,” he admitted. “It is to take music, and with these children, to make the world just a little bit better.”
You can see the Chorus in action on December 15th at the First Pentecostal Holy Church in Chester, P.A. For more information and driving instructions, go to the Chorus’s website: http://www.chesterchildrenschorus.org/