Second in the state: McNary band soars

The wind ensemble of the McNary High School Band with their second place trophy from the state competition (Submitted).

When you walk into the McNary band room, it’s easy to see the numerous trophies and awards placed prominently on the top shelf in the far side of the room. 

After their performance on Saturday, band director Chris Nelson will be adding to that collection. 

The McNary band (wind ensemble) took second place with a final score of 321 at the OSAA State Band Competition on Saturday, May 11 at the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University. 

This event features 20 of the best bands that the state has to offer, so just getting into the top five is a huge honor.

“I can’t emphasize how hard it is to place at this event,” Nelson said. “To be recognized with a second place finish is fantastic and we celebrate it. It means that we had a high-quality performance. There is no one that is placing that isn’t absolutely stellar.”

The Celtics band received state qualifying scores at every festival they have played over the course of the school year. And, after sending in a pre-recorded set, they received one of 20 invitations to the state competition. 

McNary has been no stranger to the state meet in recent years, earning a fourth place finish in 2017 as well as a pair of third place finishes in 2014 and 2016. But after not placing in 2018, this crew was ecstatic to earn second place recognition. 

“I don’t think anyone thought that we would place that high,” said Eryne Ige, who plays the flute. “When they announced McNary, everything was a blur. I’m pretty sure I jumped over my parents sitting next to me, then jumped over the people sitting in the aisle.”

“I was just so excited that we placed second, especially with it being my senior year.”

While Nelson was also pumped about the placement, he was more excited about the fact that the band put on their best performance on the biggest stage. 

“The real reward for us as a program is to know that we had a phenomenal performance, and we knew that when we came off the stage,” Nelson said. “We really define success based on our performance, like the one we had on Saturday, more than the trophies that we receive.”

“In my opinion, it was the best performance we had all year and that is what we chase.”

McNary gave the fifth performance on the day, which took place at 10:15 a.m. in front of a trio of judges. After a 30-minute warm-up, the Celtics gave a performance that lasted just over 20 minutes. 

But considering that the McNary band has been working since September for this moment, the pressure for everything to all come together smoothly is real.

“The preparation process is usually way more than people anticipate. Band kids, and fine arts in general, put in so much work for a performance that lasts 20 minutes,” Ige said. “There are hours and hours that go into hoping that your one shot is enough for the judges.”

After their time on the stage came to a close, the band was required to go to a separate room and show their sight reading skills.

Each student was given a piece of music that they haven’t seen before. The band was required to work together to look at the problem areas in the sheet, rehearse the piece for about seven minutes, then perform the music together in front of a single judge.

“The idea is that we value both the highly prepared performances on stage, and also the skills necessary to read and execute music right off the bat,” Nelson said. “The philosophy is, we don’t want teachers just handing out music in September and doing nothing, but work on that music until May. That would deprive kids of a quality education.”

It can be very difficult for high school students to perform a random piece on the spot, especially after performing in front of hundreds of people. But the McNary band showed the ability to roll with the punches.

“With the adrenaline pumping from the performance, it’s always really hard to judge how hard our piece of music will be,” said bassoon player Cole Branson. “This year, in particular, we were met with a pretty difficult piece with strange time signature and a key signature that didn’t work well … But we worked together well and just played through the piece.”

The final results were tallied later that night, and the McNary band went into celebration mode when their second place finish was announced.

“We were honestly shocked that we placed so high. When we heard our named called, everyone was almost questioning what was going on,” Branson said. “It was so fun to be a part of.” 

Nelson, who graduated from McNary in 2005, is in his first year as a band director at the school and is pleased to carry on the great tradition of the Celtics band. 

“I have greatly benefited from wonderful teachers that have been here before me,” Nelson said. “To achieve at this level is not something that happens overnight. They have been well prepared and the middle school teachers at Whiteaker and Claggett Creek Middle School were terrific educators for these kids before they got to high school.”

“I view it as continuing a tradition. I’m a very small piece in a program that is set up for success.”