How does All State help prepare me for Solo & Ensemble?

In Texas we have a system that always provides a project for the young solo singer to be working toward. Broadly, there are two seasons: “All State Season” which goes from about May 1st until the Area Audition (or however far you advance) and “UIL Season” which tends to pick up right around the time your All State journey ends and goes all the way to the State competition (TSSEC) which is at the end of May (again, if you advance.)

We want to assert from the top that the difference between these two journeys is not found in the manner of singing. For us, beautiful and healthy vocal production is applicable to both All State and UIL Solo & Ensemble (S&E).

We also don’t believe, as some students will assert, that people tend to be inherently “better at” one or the other competition. We believe that these are two contests which stretch and broaden your skills! Though, there are some differences…

Performing vs. hiding behind a screen: For S&E the pressure to perform is at the forefront. Whether or not your judge explicitly looks for it and comments on it, your performance (ie: emotional output, treatment of the text,) is top of mind. We are ALL visual creatures and so the mere fact that your judge can see you will color their impression of your singing immensely.

However, you are not absolved from being an engaged and emotional performer in an All State audition simply because your judges cannot see you. The judges can tell your emotional connection to the text in your All State audition although they cannot see it. The difference is less about the judges and more about your comfort level singing in front of people…and whether not being able to see your judges is helpful or hurtful in your own mind. For as many people who feel pressure when eyes are on them, the same number come alive with an audience, even an audience of one.

Choosing your own Music….or not: TMEA prescribes the music for the auditions each year and you can’t exactly walk in and sing something different so you are stuck with the same challenges as everyone else. This may slightly change the outcome of the auditions year by year….especially if there’s  a really specific skill set that is hit hard that some singers may not have mastered… like some crazy Bach piece that absolutely requires flexibility in the voice that a singer just doesn’t have, (we are still mad at you, 2015.)

Conversely, for S&E the singer, along with a voice teacher or choir director gets to sift through a pretty extensive list of song options to find the perfect song for your voice, both showing off your strengths and hiding any weaknesses.

Everyone gets a trophy: All State is an elimination process. Only a certain number of people can advance at each round, and in early rounds you don’t even get the benefit of comments to help you grow! This does foster some competition between singers, though, singers themselves cannot effect the outcome, except by attempting to sing their best.

At S&E, there is room for everyone to receive a top rating (1). There is no direct, overt comparison to other singers and the only real ranking sorts itself out in the first round, when it’s decided who gets to advance to TSSEC, though, again, there is no limit to how many people advance!

What’s the benefit in S&E for my All State Audition? 

You’re working on your voice! And hopefully you can get some real, concrete feedback from your judge so that you aren’t just improving your song but also your vocal technique. Each Region should work hard to hire truly competent and experienced judges for the first round. In my experience, too often those judges don’t give enough concrete feedback and the students have very little to improve on before TSSEC. Then the TSSEC judges, who tend to be University professors, give much more, and much harsher comments, making it very difficult to score a “1” at state. By building on your vocal technique through the S&E process, you will have a bigger “toolbelt” so to say, to reach into when you need to utilize a different vocal skill during All State. Also, singing year-round keeps you in shape in the, shall we say, “off season”.

You’re practicing your audition skills – If you think of yourself as better off hiding behind a screen, as in All State, this is a great challenge for you! Pushing yourself to constantly experience those nerves and anxiety is a great way to inoculate yourself against the same fears during All State the next time around.

One Big Difference

Are you the type of person who loves a good formula and hates open-ended essay prompts? Well, I’m here to say you might be frustrated by the transition between All State and S&E.

It’s partly the fault of teachers… we get into really formulaic teaching during the All State Process. “You need to spread this crescendo out over four measures as indicated in the score.” “Your consonant goes right on this beat.” “Yes I know it doesn’t make sense/is clearly a typo but the judges want to hear everything on the page, so do it.” Students find so much comfort in their little, tiny, All State cage :).

Then we transition to S&E where the whole point is to be unique and show your personal connection to your song. Judges want to experience your performance and not be looking at the score at all!

Pro tip: If you’re singing a song that’s 100+ years old, the composer probably didn’t even write those dynamics. The editor did! Heck, depending on how old the song is, the composer may not have even been using the same system of musical notation at all. Instead of checking off all the requests of the score, for S&E we want colors and dynamics that are motivated by text. We want precise and fluent diction. And we want you to pick the song, the key, the tempo that makes you sound great. There are no extra points given for barely accomplishing something really difficult. You get to play your strengths, it should feel easy to you!

So while we are still aiming for beautiful, artistic, healthy singing, S&E is so much less about being correct and much more about being captivating. 

Full Disclosure… 

We are on-campus voice teachers at a wonderful high school here in the Austin area. The choir director there, with our consultation, decided that UIL S&E was not the best fit for the program, and we stopped competing in the UIL-sanctioned process. We actually got the inspiration to go out on our own from the band program at the school which had been doing it for years. Over the past few years, we have curated a competition that involves all of the students in the choir program and culminates in a public finals competition with prize money. Some day, I may write a post that talks more about how and why of this process, but suffice it to say that it has been really beneficial for the whole program. One other large choral program in our area actually piloted their own “Solo Contest”, modeled, in part, after ours. Putting on your own competition is a TON of work and a hassle (and money, to some extent) that is probably not viable for many programs around the state. With TSSEC already in place, it’s hard to argue that one single program can or should try to do it better. And why bother? Our goal isn’t to be better, just different. If you have questions, feel free to message us and we can chat about it!

That said, we do have many students who attend other schools and consequently, participate in TSSEC through their choir programs. So we aren’t completely unplugged from the process. And anyway, many of the points made above can be applied to any solo vocal competition or audition!

While we wait these last few weeks until All State begins again, I encourage you to savor your time with your solo music and see what skills you can gain in this time!


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