The Coast News Group
Children in the Brioso choir of San Diego North Coast Singers rehearse in costumes for a Halloween outreach show at a local senior residence. Photo by Tristan Quigley Photography

Voices rising as one at San Diego North Coast Singers

ENCINITAS — A young child’s voice is an instrument capable of emanating pure joy.

Listening to children sing “taps into our very humanity and is an incredibly powerful experience,” says Sally Husch Dean, the founder and artistic director of San Diego North Coast Singers.

The organization, which launched in Encinitas in 1993, currently includes four children’s choirs and a women’s chamber chorus. It also provides a traditional choral program for third- and fourth-graders at Ocean Knoll Elementary School.

San Diego North Coast Singers rehearse at a local senior residence.
Photo by Tristan Quigley Photography

Dean launched what would eventually become San Diego North Coast Singers after San Dieguito United Methodist Church in Encinitas asked her to establish a community youth chorus. Funding cuts had eviscerated many local elementary school music programs, and Dean’s chorus partially filled that void.

The nonprofit grew organically over time, gradually expanding from one choir to five — and incorporating both national and international performances.

Its singers have appeared with the San Diego Symphony, La Jolla Symphony and Chorus and San Diego State University. The choirs have also had the prestigious opportunity to perform in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, for instance, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Italy.

The youth ensembles range in size from 18 to 33 members and are organized by age and singing experience. The choirs are Giocoso (Italian for “cheerful,” beginning singers in grades two to five); Brioso (“with vigor and spirit,” intermediate singers in grades four to seven); Caprice (“of humorous or capricious character,” an advanced treble choir for grades six to 12 that tours); and Capella (“star of the first magnitude,” a chamber choir for high school students). 

Sally H. Dean. Photo by Bill Dean

Capella and Caprice member Devlin Ott, who’s a 16-year-old student at San Dieguito Academy, traveled with San Diego North Coast Singers to Cuba in the summer of 2016 for a cultural and musical tour.

Ott shared, “We went to a few different cities and during our days, we would sing in random locations, kind of like a flash mob. We sang in the lobby of the hotel and accumulated a crowd of people from all over the world, which was really fun to experience. We sang in a beautiful cathedral with stunning acoustics and even a cave we hiked into for spontaneous pop-up concerts.”

Locally, the San Diego North Coast Singers have also left strong impressions. Audience members have approached Dean after hearing the children sing and said things like, “Why did I cry? I don’t even have a child in the group.”

That type of emotionally resonant sound — with elements of whimsy thrown into the mix — will be heard at the organization’s 26th annual Winter Concert. The performance will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 18, at San Dieguito United Methodist Church located at 170 Calle Magdalena in Encinitas.

While San Diego North Coast Singers rehearse and also perform twice yearly at the Methodist Church and are incredibly grateful for the partnership and support the church has provided, the organization is not religiously affiliated. It is a nonprofit arts organization.

Called “Poems, Prayers & Promises,” the choral performance on Jan. 18 will weave together material from sources as diverse as a South African freedom song, Jewish morality laws and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Associate Artistic Director Melissa Keylock, who also directs the Giocoso and Brioso choirs, wrote about the upcoming show, “Concert attendees can know they will walk away inspired by the joyful, beautiful, and caring faces and voices of our young people.”

Photo by Tristan Quigley Photography

After 26 years at the helm, Dean will be stepping down from San Diego North Coast Singers at the end of June. She’s been running the organization long enough to have taught two generations of singers from the same family.

One former student, Michelle Risling, grew up singing for San Diego North Coast from the age of 7 to 18 and is now the director of the organization’s Capella choir.

“Many of the students who come to this choir don’t have access to music education in their schools,” Risling stated in an email. “I was one of those students in 1994 when I joined, as the public schools I attended never offered choir classes. Directing Capella is so meaningful to me because I know exactly what it felt like to have a supportive, nurturing place to make music.”

Risling designed the choral program at Temecula Preparatory School, where she teaches music, partly based on Dean’s influence. “As my mentor, Sally taught me how crucial music is to fostering understanding between cultures, how it can break down language barriers, and cultivate the desire to explore the world.”

Dean feels confident in the ability of staff members like Risling and Keylock, as well as the board and families, to continue her legacy and to grow into a new future together.

Keylock, who joined the organization in the fall of 2018, said, “My dream for the future of San Diego North Coast Singers is that families in our surrounding communities are aware of our choral program for its excellence in music making, and understand the growth their children experience through gaining confidence and stage presence.

“When our young people study music from around the world, from other countries and from other time periods, they gain an understanding about themselves and a respect for other people, even when they come from different backgrounds.” 

Working together is an important part of being in a children’s choir, as every voice needs to be present to give the music its full effect, as Dean explained. “A choir is one of the last remaining avenues where you truly need to have people gathered together in a room to make it work,” she said.

And make it work they do — in various harmonies and musical arrangements.

For information on joining the San Diego North Coast Singers or learning more about their performances, visit