Camas choir students branch out, work with music pros

CHS teacher Ethan Chessin hopes to expand students' minds when it comes to 'multitude' of music-related careers

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Camas High School (CHS) choir teacher Ethan Chessin (standing behind piano) conducts his first-period choir on Friday, March 17, 2023, while 2022 CHS graduate Brian Bishop (seated at piano) plays a piece he composed for the class, and singer-songwriter Brenna Larsen (far left), also a former CHS choir student, watches. (Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

It’s the first period of the school day, and the students in Camas High School choir director Ethan Chessin’s only all-male choir have immersed themselves in a song, “Down to the Bottom of the Sea,” composed by 2022 CHS graduate Brian Bishop and inspired by Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, “Frankenstein.”

Although the subject matter is somber — “The piece is about the monster near the end of the book … who decides to basically commit suicide (and is) ‘borne away by the waves and lost in the darkness and distance,'” explains Bishop, a Clark College student who has returned to his alma mater to work with Chessin’s current crop of singers — the students are having fun with the material, encouraging one another and belting out the last line of the song, “down to the bottom of the sea,” in unison.

By the time Chessin’s next guest, local singer-songwriter Brenna Larsen, joins the fray, the CHS choir singers are warmed up and ready to tackle a completely different sound — Larsen’s jovial “Don’t Let Life Pass You By,” an optimistic song encouraging listeners to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

“Don’t let life pass you by,” the choir students sing. “Just enjoy the ride and take your time.”

Like Bishop, Larsen, a 2016 CHS graduate who started writing music at age 12, and earned her bachelor’s degree in music business management from Berklee College of Music in 2020, returned to her alma mater this month to work with Chessin’s current choir students.

Larsen recalled fondly her own days with the CHS choir, when Chessin first started to incorporate local music professionals into his high school choir classes.

Inspired by the wealth of musicians and music professionals who call the Portland area home — and wanting to help his students see how varied music careers really are — Chessin began bringing music professionals into his classroom in 2015.

“That was unique. I can’t remember that happening in my other classes,” Larsen said of the CHS choir teacher’s push to connect his students with music professionals working in the Portland-Vancouver metro area.

Chessin’s students have worked with singer-songwriters like Larsen, artists-in-training and composers like Bishop, members of well-known bands — including Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba — and, especially when students were attending remote school during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, music professionals who taught the students how to produce and market their own unique music.

Chessin said he wants his students to get a taste of the rich music world happening outside the sometimes insulated realm of high school choirs.

Working with the local artists has given his choir students “a much greater connection to music,” Chessin said, and led to the types of public performances other high school choirs don’t typically get a chance to experience.

Chessin’s choir, for instance, is set to perform with Portland-based indie rock band, Pool Boys, on Saturday, April 15, at the Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland, and will showcase their talents alongside local musicians and CHS choir alumni, including Bishop, Larsen, Garrett Monroe, Grace Sommers, Rose Flores, Ryan Deardorff, Mandy Hansen and Cassandra d’Armand at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, at the Camas High School theater. The March 28 concert is free and open to the public. Tickets to the April 15 concert cost $10 in advance or $15 the day of the show.

For students like Thomas Hatch, 18, a senior who has taken Chessin’s choir classes since the second half of his freshman year and who also plays the piano, drums, ukulele and guitar, said working with music professionals has helped shape a vision of what is possible after high school.

“I will do music every day of my life, if I can,” he said.

Bishop, the 2022 CHS graduate who composed the Frankenstein-inspired piece, also has his mind set on a music-related career.

“I am planning to go to (Washington State University) to become a piano major,” Bishop said. “… having a career in composing would be nice.”

Bishop said Chessin, his former choir teacher, helped open his eyes to the many music-related careers available.

“Usually, when people are on the fence about (a career in) music, even though they like it, it is because they are worried they may not make enough money, but there are so many things related to music — teaching lessons, composing, being a music teacher, taking gigs like working in an ensemble … transcribing, starting a music channel on YouTube. … I know people who aren’t world famous musicians but make money while having a full-time music job. and all it takes is to be great at it,” Bishop said.

Even students who don’t want to pursue a career in music say Chessin’s classes – and the introduction to local musicians and music industry professionals — has helped them look at how they might incorporate music into their post-high school lives.

CHS sophomore Liam Hillyard, 16, another member of Chessin’s first-period, all-boys choir, for instance, doesn’t want to work in the music industry — he’s more interested in pursuing a medical career — but said he still enjoys playing venues with his band whenever possible and that he expects music will always be a part of his life, even if it’s not his career objective.

Chessin said he wants to expose his students not only to a variety of musical styles but also to the infinite options available to them if they do choose a music career.

“There are so many jobs under the umbrella of ‘music,'” Chessin said. “There are a multitude of paths they can take.”

Bishop agreed.

“My message is: if you love music, then nothing will be in the way of your career because with music, the ones who are at the top are the ones who really love what they’re doing and that’s all it takes to be successful as a musician,” Bishop said.