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The Wind Ensemble and Chor Leonis choir received Superior ratings from the OSAA.

COURTESY PHOTO: ST. HELENS HIGH SCHOOL - The St. Helens High School Wind Ensemble grabbed a Superior rating from the Oregon School Activities Association. The Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) awarded top honors to the St. Helens High School band and choir programs this spring.

Superior ratings go to the school's Wind Ensemble and to the choir group known as Chor Leonis.

St. Helens' director of bands and activities, Noelle Freshner, said the COVID-19 pandemic changed the rules for the competition.

"OSAA this year was unable to do their typical state contest," Freshner said. "So, they came up with this idea of a recorded submission culminating event. Any bands or choirs that felt they were able to compiled recorded submissions and sent them to OSAA for evaluation."

Superior is the highest recognition a school can receive, Freshner noted.

"We were the only 5A high school band in the state to be in the Superior category," she noted.

The St. Helens High School Wind Ensemble has 31 members. There are 25 members in the concert band.

Like many student activity groups, the Wind Ensemble has had a challenging time with COVID-19 restrictions and school closures. Yet they persevered.

"We worked really hard during the closure and took every opportunity outside of the school day to get together in person the moment we could, doing weekly rehearsals since early January," Freshner said. "We did Zoom classes during the day and had really great participation from the Wind Ensemble students."

She added, "It was very strange on Zoom, because I couldn't hear the kids individually. I couldn't hear them as a group."

Getting back to in-person practices was valuable.

"The technical exercises we worked on, the music we learned and the skills that we focused on, it immediately transferred to when we got back in person," Freshner said. "From that point, we were able to play great music together as a group and develop our ensemble skills."

The choir director for St. Helens High School, Eric Stearns, is pleased that his choir has received a Superior rating as well.

Chor Leonis, as well as other choirs throughout the state, had to submit videos for the competition.

The St. Helens High School choir has qualified five years in a row.

"We've been one of the top 12 5A schools for the last five years," Stearns said, noting only one other 5A school received a Superior rating, South Albany High School.

Normally, there are about 140 students in the St. Helens High choir program, spread across four choirs.

"Here at St. Helens High School — we're very proud of this — 30 percent of all students in the high school are either in band or choir," said Stearns, who has been choir director at the high school for nearly six years. "It's extremely high participation rates, and we're very proud of that fact. We work very hard to try and provide a strong, quality education that's also fun and engaging for our students."

Stearns continued, "This year, however, kids that are in this program are the ones who stuck it out even through distance learning, when it was very hard to make music online."

Normally, around 45 kids make up Chor Leonis, which translates into "choir of the lions" from Latin. This year, about 35 participated.

Chor Leonis is the choir that travels to festivals. Next summer, Chor Leonis is scheduled to visit British Columbia for an international competition.

"We're the first public high school to be invited," he said. "It's kind of like the Olympics of choir. It's an international choral competition. There are only a few choirs from the United States that are invited at all."

Stearns is quite proud of the members of his choir.

"They have overcome quite a lot of adversity this year in order to make music at a high level," Stearns said. "I've seen their dedication to continue to persevere even in the face of COVID."

He added, "I couldn't be prouder of these kids. Every single one of them are wonderful individuals. This is a strong group of kids with strong work ethic. As far as being choir director, I love my job. I love being able to work with students and help them achieve their best."

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