McNary High School’s concert choir captured the state title in competition Saturday, May 6. It’s the first state title in music programs for the school. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

To understand what earned the McNary High School concert choir the title of best concert choir in the state, it’s helpful to take a look back at the current seniors’ freshman year – and their relationship with their teacher, Jim Taylor.

“It’s like the weirdest relationship ever. As freshmen we came down on freshman day and he tells us I’m not your friend, I’m your teacher,” said Damaris Escobar.

Then Kyle Kuhns chimes in, “But then the next day with everybody at school he stands the same students in front of the class and tells the rest of the choir we have the talent to be better than all of them.”

To which Tabitha White recalls, “We were freshmen, I didn’t want to be challenged by anybody.”

Looking back, it might just be that Taylor saw in them the potential they possessed. Their freshman year, the choir took eighth in the state, their sophomore year they took fifth, their junior year they took second, and they capped it off with a state title last weekend.

“He expects a lot from us, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best singer. He just wants hard work because hard work is worth 10 great singers. I work harder for choir than anything else. I want to work hard. I feel good being here,” said Dylan Martinez.

It’s the first state title for the school in a music program and it comes in a year when members of the group contributed to the school first-ever CD of choir music, but the secret to their success lies deeper still.

“We knew the music, but we also had to believe that we could be the best,” Escobar said. “We’d been doing everything over and over again, but it didn’t pop the way I knew it could. Once we started believing we could do it, everything was different.”

Emotional connection with the music and each other paid off as they connected with the audience and judges at the state competition, Kuhns said.

One aspect of the way they prepared for the competition likely helped put them over the top. Unlike most choirs that spend all year perfecting a handful of songs, McNary’s choirs churn through at least a few new songs for every performance.

“We learn a song, perform it, leave it and we’re onto the next one,” White said.

“We’ve probably seen double the music literature of most of the other choirs in the state,” Kuhns added.

That voracious consumption of new material paid off when they choir had to perform its sight reading at the contest. In the sight reading, all choir members are given a song they’ve not performed before and asked to sing it in four parts.

“One part is rhythm, one part harmony, two-part harmony, and then four-part with words,” Kuhns said.

“It’s the part that really tests our understanding of music,” Martinez said.

In addition to a more refined understanding, they said they’ve all discovered new abilities within themselves as part of the choir.

“Leadership is something I never would have picked up if it hadn’t been for this. You have to learn how to handle a large group of people and put them in line to achieve a common goal. We have to think for ourselves a lot. Mr. Taylor doesn’t spoon-feed us anything and that’s a life lesson, to think for yourself, that will get through anything,” Escobar said.

“You also learn independence and how to hold your own in a group,” White said.

While those two qualities stood out for the quartet, they also learned what it means to be part of something greater than themselves and how crescendoes aren’t only borne of music.

During the interview, Martinez was struck by the recollection that during their final song for the audience, the risers were swaying in time with the movements of the choir.

“Did you guys feel that?” Martinez asks the others. “It was really high energy and I felt the risers moving.”

They all nod in agreement.

“It was like you felt connected on a different level. That’s when you know,” Kuhns said.