West, South Salem take top honors at state music competitions

Despite losing half their members during the pandemic, West Salem High School’s musicians are again state champions.

The school swept the Oregon School Activities Association competitions held mid-May, taking first place in 6A band, string orchestra and symphony orchestra.

“I cannot be more thrilled,” director Todd Zimbelman said. The school’s band also won state in 2022.

But, he said, the honors don’t signify the pandemic’s impact on Salem’s music programs is over.

“We are nowhere near recovered. It’ll be another 5 to 6 years of recovery,” he said.

Other district music programs took top honors in OSAA choir, orchestra and band competitions, and the Oregon Music Education Association’s jazz band state championship held over the weekend.

McKay High School took second place in 5A choir and first in 5A jazz band.

West’s choir also took second place, and the school’s jazz band placed third.

South took first in 6A choir and second place in both string orchestra and symphony.

McNary High School placed second in 6A band and third in string orchestra

Sprague placed fifth in 6A orchestra.

Zimbelman said the ensembles’ successes this year are due to the dedication of students, who returned from pandemic online school eager to perform, as well as a supportive booster club.

“The students came back and they really wanted to get that culture of excellence going again,” he said.

That meant playing new pieces for every performance or competition this year, a challenging task.

“You have to start rehearsing a set of music while you’re polishing another set for a performance,” he said. “It was a really difficult set, one of the most difficult sets we’ve played at state.”

Zimbelman said the pandemic’s biggest impact on music programs will be seen in the next few years, when kids who started band on Zoom age into high school programs.

During the pandemic, participation in music was down districtwide. Because of scheduling changes intended to keep students in stable groups during the school day, ensembles like band and orchestra were grouped by grade, rather than skill level.

Zimbelman said that change means Salem-Keizer music programs have more to rebuild than in some other districts, which kept students in the same ensembles and simply moved them online.

Some students didn’t come back. Zimbelman’s wind ensemble, normally over 50 students, had just 40 this year, and just one trombone instead of the usual five. He had to change pieces to compensate, replacing some trombone parts with euphonium, which doesn’t sound the same.

“I’m not negative about it. I’m like let’s just go,” he said.

Stephen Lytle, the district’s coordinator for music and drama, said despite challenges, there are good signs for younger musicians in the district.

“This year’s beginner recruitment was strong and we’ve also sought additional opportunities to start beginners at later ages, under the assumption that some students who otherwise would have started, were unable to do so during the pandemic,” he said in an email.

Zimbelman said he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“When those fifth graders are 12th graders, we should be back in the swing of things numbers-wise,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.