North Coast Singers soldiers on despite challenges

North Coast singers caroling at the Encinitas Public Library.
North Coast singers caroling at the Encinitas Public Library.
(Sara Kilburn)

San Diego North Coast Singers has been a musical pillar in North County for 29 years.

Hundreds of youths from the region have participated in the Encinitas-based organization’s choirs, which are open to students in the second through 12th grades from throughout the area.

Like nearly all cultural enterprises, the group has taken a big hit since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in early 2020. Participation shrank more than half from the pre-pandemic level of more than 100 members.

Supported largely by charity, the group’s financial resources have ebbed, potentially endangering its survival in the near future.

“It’s changed quite a bit, but we have managed to stay open thanks to many families in the community and philanthropists in the community who believe in the value of having arts for kids,” said Artistic Director Melissa Trevino Keylock.

“If it weren’t for them we would not be open right now. There are choirs around the country that have closed during Covid and we are very grateful that we have had enough supporters to keep our doors open.”

This year will be the third consecutive one in which the nonprofit has had to dip into its savings, said the Fallbrook resident, who took the job in 2019 when founder Sally Husch Dean retired.

Artistic Director Melissa Trevino Keylock
Artistic Director Melissa Trevino Keylock
(Cari Ellen)

“We had to eat into the little nest egg,” Keylock said. “That won’t last forever. So we are definitely looking for people who want to continue to support choir in this area so that we can reach 30 years.

“I think at this rate we could make it one more year before having to close if we don’t get some normality back to the world or get some serious funding.”

Keylock emphasized, however, that all financial decisions are the board’s responsibility and the organization is committed to continue operating.

The nonprofit has managed to endure despite the setbacks.

After a hiatus from March to May 2020 during a countywide lockdown, rehearsals resumed outside in the church parking lot. The number of choirs was cut from four to three. Rehearsals for the elementary school-aged students was reduced from three per week to two.

“We met outdoors with masks,” Keylock said. “We really sang by the security lights of the church. We were able to safely meet outdoors and give the kids one place where they could meet with other kids in person. We had many kids who participated via Zoom.

”We were able to meet the needs of all of our families by providing multiple options for the kids to have a safe after-school choir experience.”

North Coast Singers performing their Winter Concert.
North Coast Singers performing their Winter Concert.
(Leon Trevino)

Prior to the pandemic, Keylock said the group’s choirs routinely scheduled performances with local orchestras and went on tour to sing with children in other communities. The choirs have even gone as far as Cuba to perform.

Such activities were halted over the last two years.

However, North Coast Singers in April will host the San Diego Children’s Chorus for a joint session.

“We felt it’s important for kids when our numbers are so small to get the experience of singing in a large group,” Keylock said. “We’re going to take our smaller choir and the smaller choirs in the San Diego Children’s Chorus and combine them so they get that feel of doing a combined performance and being able to sing with more kids, but without the obvious travel issues.”

Moreover, enrollment has begun to pick up steam. Membership, which typically consists of more than 100 children, has ratcheted up to 56 from a low of 43 earlier in the pandemic.

Now, as witnessed recently at the church, students were rehearsing while singing through masks. They were led by Keylock with the accompaniment of pianist Anna Juliar.

The resurgence of interest is due in large part to the persistence of Keylock, with the board’s support. A career choral professional, Keylock left a choir leadership position in Princeton, New Jersey, to live in this area with her husband, who took a job here.

When North Coast Singers’ board cut its administrative position to save money, Keylock agreed to take over those functions without extra pay.

“That’s how much I believe in this program,” she said. “For people who drive an hour and half to keep their kids in this program, that’s why I do it.”

Choir offers a cultural and social experience for children, as well as opportunities for students who might not be comfortable in other after-school activities such as sports or visual arts.

“The kids learn music from all different time periods, different countries,” Keylock said. “We like to sing in different languages. They sing in at least two languages each semester. That’s really the focus of choral music and choirs, to not just learn about one type of music and not just the Western music tradition, but learning music from other cultures all around the world.

“As kids are growing up, it helps them to understand themselves better when they understand the bigger picture of what is out there in the rest of the world. It teaches them about people that are different from themselves.

“Right now, when the kids can’t travel and meet kids from other parts of the world, this is one way in which they can experience other cultures, other time periods, etc.”

In this era with families facing so many challenging issues, the program focuses on songs that are positive in tone, including some that Keylock composed herself.

“To be a safe positive after-school experience where kids can continue to engage and socialize with other kids is very important,” she said. “It’s really important our program stays open. This is a place where they build their confidence and skills and self-esteem.”

Those values were on display recently when she and Juliar led the youngest choir through their first session of the new semester, singing Keylock’s song “The Turtle and the Flamingo.”

They were followed by their older elementary-age counterparts. The students who are in middle and high schools were scheduled to meet several days later under the direction of Michelle Risling.

Eleven-year-old Liam, a member of the fourth- through sixth-grade group, said his mother enrolled him in North Coast Singers.

“I was probably the most talented singer at my own school,” he said. “My mom thought I was destined to sing. So she put me in this choir and I really enjoy it. It’s been helping my self-confidence.”

Mercy, 9, said she was motivated to join so she could develop enough musically to participate in the family band started by her dad.

“He said I should join a choir so that my voice would get stronger,” she said.

A one-day camp held by North Coast Singers and funded by a grant from the city of Encinitas inspired McKenna to join.

“I did the camp and it was just amazing,” the 10-year-old said. “It made me want to learn more and more songs.”

Alex, 10, entered the program when he was seven at the insistence of his mother, the accompanist Juliar. Now, he is an intern in which he performs various tasks, such as passing out name tags and written music.

“When I saw the people here, they were very friendly,” he said. “It was fun. There’s new kids joining every year. It’s a very nice group. I love it. I love listening to music.”

His mother said she attended the Encinitas church and had been accompanying the women’s choir when Dean asked her if she would like to work with North Coast Singers. Juliar began doing that several years before Keylock arrived.

“They’re a very professional group, but also their approach is kind and giving,” she said. “Everyone I work with loves children.”

The Carlsbad resident said she herself enjoys backing up the young singers.

“Nothing compares to children’s voices. They’re so beautiful. They’re very special, even without training.”

For more information about San Diego North Coast Singers visit