With a new director and new ensemble name, students are determined to make it to state

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Choir director Eric Stearns (left) leads students in Chor Leonis through a piece called 'Tshosolosa,' an African composition featuring soloist Keifer Linden, during a choir class in early March. The students have held several rehersals after school to help prepare for festival competitions.With a new director and a new ensemble name, choir students at St. Helens High School are setting their sights high this year — a spot at state championships.

The choirs at St. Helens High are growing in numbers this year, and students said they feel more determined than ever to pursue a title at state in May.

At the start of the school year, Eric Stearns joined the St. Helens School District as the new choir director for the middle and high school programs. Stearns wanted to create a new image for the choirs and went through the process of rebranding each standardized name.

The concert choir became "Chor Leonis," or Choir of the Lions, and the SoundFX choir became "Vocé." Stearns said the idea was to give the choirs their own unique identity and character to set the groups apart.

"We wanted something that meant something to us, and not just go with tradition," Stearns said.

As a new teacher in the district, Stearns said his goal was to bring a new perspective to the music program and inspire students to pursue excellence. He has been working hard with the students to push them musically to perform at a higher level.

Many students in the group said that, while they feel challenged, it's rewarding to work hard to earn recognition. Senior choir member Julianna Robbins said she has felt more individual determination from group members than ever before. For the first time, she thinks the group has the chance to do well at a state competition.

On Tuesday, March 14, at a festival competition at Scappoose High, Chor Leonis earned performance scores of 83, 83 and 92, all well above the 81 point threshold to qualify for a state championship spot. The Scappoose High School choir also qualified at the same performance.

The group is also working toward earning a spot at two league competition performances in early April. One is hosted by the Northwest Regional Oregon Conference and the other is hosted by the COWAPA League.

Vocé traveled to the state capital and perform at the opening of the legislative session of the Oregon Senate on March 17.

On March 3, Chor Leonis performed at George Fox University and was able to get feedback from festival judges on areas the group could improve. The following Tuesday morning, the group practiced a full run through of its set list and noted the minor improvements they're focusing on at this point in the school year. The group added one new song to the mix and is working to perfect the piece.

Stearns allowed the choir to sing through a piece fully, before stopping them and commenting. He used the analogy of pushing a boulder to explain how the students need to sustain their voices across a musical bar to get the full sound it needs.

The set list this year includes a variety of musical pieces, including African folk freedom music, 19th century Russian romantic-era songs, 17th century classical pieces and an Afro-Celtic Diddle. The students have learned to sing in Russian and several African dialectics to perform the pieces.

"It really does take musical ears to be able to switch from song to song," Stearns said.

Stearns hopes that by asking the students to be more in sync with one another, they will grow as a group. As he explains, choir is more about listening to those around you than anything else. By developing those skills, students create lasting and meaningful relationships with one another.

Students in Chor Leonis already seem to understand that. They describe choir as their second family, a judge-free zone, a support system, and so much more than just a class.

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