Like any self-respecting choir director, Matthew Pierce decided to tell his students some difficult news by singing a song.
He asked the students to pay attention to the lyrics: What did they say? What advice did they offer? Then he sang “Everything Must Change” by the late singer and songwriter Bernard Ighner.
“Everything must change / Nothing stays the same / Everyone will change / No one stays the same.”
“OK,” Pierce said after he finished singing and the students had discussed the song, “now here’s some news.”
He was leaving the Astoria School District, where he’d acted as choir director for the high school and middle school for 17 years. He was moving to Bend, his hometown, to take on the position of choir director at Bend High School, his alma mater.
Pierce had long known that if there was an opportunity to teach at his old school he couldn’t let it pass by. It doesn’t make the decision to leave Astoria any easier, though.
Because of the coronavirus, he ended last school year and started this school year online, encouraging virtual talent shows and passing along YouTube videos of interesting musical performances to create something like a normal classroom. He took up jazz piano lessons, delighting in being a student again.
Now, with students back in school buildings for limited hours, he is leading far fewer students than normal through songs in the gym, a place where they can spread out and safely sing together.
Astoria High School is under renovation, but Pierce will never teach students in the brand new choir room being built.
These have been among the strangest months of Pierce’s teaching career, and he’s not leaving on the note he’d prefer.
“I really think the closure I want is to be able to stand on that stage with my kids behind me, raise my hands and say, ‘Thank you very much,’” Pierce said. “And I won’t get that.”
His students haven’t performed on any stage since December 2019. They had a spring concert planned in 2020, but schools — and everything else, it seemed — shut down abruptly right before the event. With students back in school buildings for a limited amount of time this spring, no one is singing at their full strength anymore. They’re out of that kind of practice.
Schools are expected to return to more normal operations in September. One of the challenges for Pierce will be to work with his Bend students to sing fully without fear and hesitation. To remind them: Remember how much we loved doing this?
Pierce was introduced to choirs and music in the sixth grade. His father had died before he’d entered the fifth grade and music and musical performance became a way to process difficult, heavy emotions — or to escape them for a while.
For Pierce, the voice is intensely personal. Any mistakes or mishaps can’t be blamed on an instrument’s mechanical failure or poor tuning. It’s just you. And this personal experience translates beyond the singer. It weaves through a choir. It stretches out until an audience gets a hint of it, too.
“You can meet and have a meal and part as friends,” Pierce said, trying to explain it. “But once you’ve sung together, you’re family.”