Rehearsal Insights from the Iowa All-State Chorus

With all of the different things going on right now, I am very thankful to have been able to attend the Iowa Music Educators Conference for a couple of days this past week.  The conference is held every fall in conjunction with the Iowa All-State Music Festival, which includes the Iowa All-State Chorus, Band, and Orchestra. The chorus is made up of 600 high school students from across the state, and is led by a guest conductor.  This year’s chorus was led by the fantastic Dr. Aimee Beckmann-Collier.


Typically, the members of the All-State chorus prepare the All-State literature ahead of time.  However, the past few years, the members of the chorus have learned one piece of music once they arrive at the festival (which only lasts two days).  The majority of the learning of this new piece has typically been by rote. However, this year Dr. Beckmann-Collier decided to try something new–the new piece would be taught using handsign solfege.  


Having seen the “new piece” taught by rote, I was glad that solfege was going to be used this year at the festival.  As someone that does at times use hand signs as a literacy teaching tool, I was curious to see how many students would be proficient enough at using the hand signs to make their use beneficial.  Would the use of handsigns have that much of an impact? I was able to watch the first three hours of rehearsal to see what Dr. Beckmann-Collier’s approach would be. In a nutshell, here was the process:


1–As part of warm-ups, there were melodic patterns that were taught using hand signs.  The singers learned it together, and then one person from each section came up on stage and “led” their section as the excerpt was sung as a round.  This allowed the singers practice and gain some confidence with the hand signs.


2–in the next step, Dr. Beckmann-Collier (also known as Dr. ABC) wrote solfege syllables on a board; as she pointed to a syllable, the choir sang the syllable and made the accompanying hand sign.  This allowed singers to practice singing different intervals.


3–The singers were then given “readers”–handouts created by John Armstrong, who is also known for his “Bel Canto Solfeggio” workshops.  These handouts including numerous sight reading examples, which the singers would first use to speak the solfege syllables while doing hand signs.


4–Another step that the singers tried was to audiate (think without speaking/singing) their part while doing hand signs, snapping on the rests.


5–Finally, the last step was having the choir sing the examples while doing hand signs.  During this process, one thing that Dr. ABC had the choir do was to put a box around every “do”, and a triangle around every “mi”–visually identifying the notes without actually writing the syllables in.


After the singers had gone through this process, you could sense that the choir was ready to move forward.  While there were many that were not yet fluent with hand signs, there were quite a few that were–and maybe more importantly, the vast majority appeared comfortable singing with solfege.


At this point, the chorus started working on the “new piece”–”As Imperceptibly as Grief”, by Timothy Snyder.  This was a wise choice by Dr. ABC for many reasons, among them: 


1–no key changes

2–little divisi amongst parts

3–text is in English (poem by Emily Dickinson)


The chorus worked on a few measures before breaking up into sectionals.  I sat in on a tenor sectional, during which I observed that in 30 minutes, the singers were able to sing through the whole piece with little difficulty using solfege.  However, I noticed that the majority of the singers did not consistently practice with the hand signs–only when the group reviewed a difficult interval would some of the singers use hand signs.


In the end, I’m not sure the lack of hand sign usage really mattered.  Using only solfege (no assistance from the piano), the tenors, and then the chorus as a whole, was able to put the piece together relatively quickly.  While many might say–”Well, sure–these are 600 of the best singers in the state. Of course they were successful.” But if these singers can do it in a span of a few hours, I am convinced that any choir can use solfege, including hand signs, as an effective learning tool.  


If you are interested in diving deeper into the topics of music literacy, solfege, as well as Takadimi, these are topics that I cover in my online course, “Building Music Literacy Skills”, which is available as part of our Choir Director Corner TRIBE Membership Group.  You can find more information about the TRIBE here.


Other great rehearsal nuggets that Dr. ABC used with the All-State chorus:


-If you are isolating one or two vocal parts, have the other parts hum on an “ng” while the other parts sing.  This helps to build part awareness, and also keeps singers engaged in the rehearsal.


-Can’t get the vowel to align?  Ask the singers to “breathe in the shape of the vowel”.  This gets them thinking about how to form the vowel right from the get go.


-Singers late on an entrance?  Ask them to “breathe together”!


-Dr. ABC referenced her conducting gesture, saying, “This (her gesture) tells you when, your music tells you what.”  A not so subtle reminder to our singers that, yes, they do need to watch the conductor 🙂


-To get the singers to feel text stress or a crescendo, have them lean forward, and then back away as they release/decrescendo.


I hope that you find these insights from the All-State chorus rehearsal helpful, and that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!




Have questions about using solfege, hand signs and/or Takadimi with your choirs? I am here to help!  Feel free to email me at:

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