Members of the McNary choir rehearse earlier this year. (File)

Of the Keizertimes

When the McNary High School choir wasn’t state champion, its members used their underdog status to get fired up. But, after a year in the spotlight, they’ve had to figure out new ways to up their game.

“You’re expected to perform well when you get to that level. The judges aren’t going to be basing their scores on what we did, they’ll be basing it on what we could have done,” said Jesus Gomez, a McNary senior and a student leader of the group.

The choir will defend its title at state competition Saturday, May 5, at George Fox University. The Celts are scheduled to perform at 5:40 p.m. Expectations of judges and students have both changed, but the work ethic hasn’t, said Jim Taylor, McNary choral director.

“It’s been a weird year with changes to our department and the make-up of the choir, but they stayed strong throughout a year of change. It’s a testament to their desire to still be good,” Taylor said.

For evidence of the fact, look no further than the choir’s recent capturing of the district title, a first for the school. Taylor was confronting medical issues at the time forcing students to take the reins of their destiny.

“They handled it, they assigned student leaders and they did well. They didn’t fall apart and they sounded great and it’s been awesome to hear all the people report back to me about how well they did,” Taylor said.

The Celt’s line-up for the event also looks a bit different from year’s past, which typically closed with a raucous gospel number. This year, the program commissioned a reinterpretation and rearrangement of the Irish folk song, The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

“It’s a driven song and it’s completely different, but I like it,” said Gomez. “It’s about a man trying to bridge the gap between two loves, his girl and his country.”

The piece divides the choirs into three parts, two for women and one for men.

“One of the women’s choirs is the voice of the wind, the other is the voice of the lover and then the mens choir is the voice of the man telling the story in his old age,” Gomez said. “The idea is he (the narrator) hasn’t been able to open up and tell this story.”

The song list also features fewer solo performances. Not because the singer are any less capable, but because they are a different breed than years past.

“Instead, we have a choir that is able to sing cohesively and can create a huge sound without standout solo performances,” Gomez said.

The state performance will also be the debut of Gomez’s first choral composition an original piece featuring the text of the 23rd Psalm, the passage in the Bible that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd …”

Inspiration struck as Gomez played around on the piano and arrived at a chord progression that seemed to be the jumping off point for something more.

“I picked the 23rd Psalm because it was reflective of a period I was going through in my life. Once I had that, the song had some sort of driving force behind it,” Gomez said.

After completing the piece, Taylor suggested making it part of the song list for state and they introduced it to the choir.

“It was kind of like a workshop after that. It was great to work on it as a group and try new things vocally and by moving notes around,” Gomez said.

As the big day approaches when they have to defend the title, Gomez is most astounded by how much he and his fellow students have managed to accomplish despite packed schedules.

“We have track students and tennis students and drama that can’t always come to rehearsals, it might mean that we’re missing 20-30 people on a given day,” he said. “When you realize how much stuff everybody is doing, it’s amazing that we’re doing so well.”