Choir director shows students ‘what love is’

Local News

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Sunday night’s Foreigner concert at the State Farm Arena featured a retiring teacher singing on stage, together with her choir students, for the second-to-last song of the night, “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Thirty-year veteran teacher and choir director Marian Wyatt donned a blue robe and sang alongside 31 of her students from Centennial High School.

Before taking the stage, Wyatt reminisced on her career with fondness, and said emphatically, “Music makes a difference.”

“I am so fortunate to know that my very last day of employment in Champaign Unit 4 schools that our choir had the lifetime opportunity to sing with Foreigner,” Wyatt said.

The legendary 80’s rock band regularly recruits local community choirs to help them perform on tour as they travel the country.

“I especially do enjoy the part where the choir comes out, because you get to witness their enthusiasm,” bass player Jeff Pilson said backstage. “You’re sort of living it through their eyes. And that’s a real powerful thing.”

No one was more excited than Wyatt herself, whose eager energy lit up each room she entered.

“Did you see the kids faces? They know that when they’re singing, they’re going to touch someone’s life,” she said after a brief rehearsal on stage. “And they’re making a lifetime memory tonight.”

“Some of them, you can see it,” Pilson said. “They’re connecting. ‘Wow, I get it. This is great.’ And I wonder, are we maybe launching a career somewhere down the line? I hope so.”

Stage hands walk the Centennial High School choir through a brief rehearsal

In addition to enlisting the help of local school choirs, Foreigner also donates $500 to each school’s music program to help assist their production.

Pilson says he is “a product of public school music education, so I believe in it a lot.”

As an Illinois native from the Chicagoland suburbs, Pilson knows how tough it can be for some schools to keep their music program up and running.

“Schools get hit with funding problems, and the first thing that goes is usually the music program, which is really unfortunate,” he said.

But in Champaign, with Wyatt at the helm for the last three decades, the music program was in good hands.

“It means so much,” class of 2019 graduate Allison Leman said. “She’s influenced so much. She’s like a mom to me.”

Centennial choir director Marian Wyatt embraces one of her former students, WCIA3 photographer Ethan Young

“I was in her class for four years,” WCIA3 cameraman Ethan Young said. “I don’t regret a second of it.”

Young learned how to edit audio and video files in Wyatt’s class — skills he used to shoot and edit the very story about Wyatt’s final musical act on stage.

“It was something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Wyatt’s ability to develop a personal bond with her students extended even to the ones who were once reluctant to sign up and sing out.

“She definitely helps the kids get into something they never thought they could,” 2019 Centennial graduate Thomas Green said moments after filing off the school bus at the concert.

Green said Wyatt taught the class to “put everything into every song, and treat it as if it will be your last.”

Sunday night’s song may have been her last song on stage, but it’s one she, her choir, and the band itself won’t forget anytime soon.

Right before the concert started, Wyatt hugged Pilson, and he offered her this word of gratitude — one rockstar to another:

Foreigner bass player Jeff Pilson hugs retiring Centennial music teacher Marian Wyatt backstage before her choir joined his band at the State Farm Arena in Champaign

“Thank you for all you do, because it is very, very important,” he said. “It’s really important work.”

Wyatt said she will have no regrets when she turns in her classroom keys on Monday morning.

“Be happy that it happened,” she quipped, quoting Dr. Suess, “don’t be sad that it’s over.”

Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of Ben Tschetter.

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