High school musicians take on state

Bremerton High School music teacher Cassie Gillis groaned loud enough to receive glares when they called third place and it wasn't her student.

When her student wasn't called for second place either her heart fell. But when Judges announced Bremerton student singer Shannon O'Brien the number one bass soloist in Washington State Gillis couldn't hold back.

"I think I was so excited I screamed in front of an entire group of strangers," Gillis said.

O'Brien took first place in the bass category of the State Solo and Ensemble Contest in Ellensburg, April 27.

The event takes place once every year the last weekend in April. It is the culmination of an entire year of work — where the best singers and musicians from high schools around the state gather to compete against one another.

The contest is invite only. Washington is divided into 22 regions and only one student from each category is invited to the state level.

"Every kid that goes over there is a winner because they've won their region," Gillis said.

Once at the state level, each performer must compete against the other 21 regional winners in his or her category. There are 29 solo categories and 14 ensemble categories.

For the event, students perform a classical piece they have worked all year to perfect. Three judges preside over each category, ranking every performer and deciding who comes out on top.

"This is not a track meet where whoever crossed the line first wins," Gillis said. "You're singing in front of three judges who are looking for what they want."

Because of the subjective nature of the judging process, student performers need not only skill, but the luck of having the right music at the right time for the right judge, according to Gillis.

"If we're delivering oranges and they want apples … we can be the best orange deliverers and not win," Gillis said.

A number of students from Bremerton and Central Kitsap advanced to the state level. Bremerton sent six groups and two soloists to Ellensburg. Four of those groups received honorable mention — meaning they received an overall superior rating.

A Central Kitsap High School ensemble, "Rhythmically Challenged," took second place in the small group percussion competition. The school also had seven soloists and one ensemble receive honorable mention.

Michael Woods, who teaches band and Orchestra for Central Kitsap, praised the way his students performed in Ellensburg.

"It's pretty rare to get that many groups get recognized at that level," Woods said.

The State Solo and Ensemble Contest is the musical equivalent of the football or baseball state tournament. But unlike sports, where schools only compete against other schools of similar size, every high school musician in the state competes on the same stage.

"You're all lumped in together," Gillis said. "You're against schools that have money — you're against schools that don't have money."

Bremerton falls squarely into the second category. It's a small school without much money. But when Bassist Shannon O'Brien stood on stage and sang, none of that mattered.


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