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Drake's Beckmann-Collier On 30 Years of Choral Flourishing And On Retirement As Redefinition Of Self

Drake University Choirs

Aimee Beckmann-Collier jokes that she “had a plan for every minute of her life since junior high.” By age seven she knew she would be a teacher, and by age thirteen she was sure her focus would be high-school choirs. But plans can lead to unexpected vistas. When she went to Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, for her undergraduate degree, she met a teacher who “saw something in me that I did not or could not at that time see in myself, and helped me to actualize that.” (This is, she says, her definition of a good teacher.) This mentor encouraged her to publish research, join the fledgling American Choral Directors Association and earn a doctorate in music.

We are supposedly connected to everybody all the time, but we're not... I think choral singing has something valuable and relevant to contribute .... it's really something to stand shoulder to shoulder with people and and be aware of their very breath. - Aimee Beckmann-Collier

After returning to her native Iowa for few years of high school teaching, Beckmann-Collier did indeed earn the doctorate at The University of Iowa. She also published research on Renaissance music and Mozart, served as president of the Iowa Choral Directors Association, founded its Iowa Comprehensive Musicianship Project and conducted and taught choral music around the world, winning numerous major awards and honors. Most centrally to her professional life, she has since 1989 built the choral program at Drake University in Des Moines, where she is the Director of Choral Studies and the Levitt Distinguished Professor of Conducting

Beckmann-Collier's thirty years at Drake culminate* with a concert this Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. at Sheslow Auditorium. Characteristically, it has a title, the Create/Re-create Choir Concert. It came about when a Drake choral music supporter asked her how he could honor her service to the University. She replied, she told me, “What I’d really like is to commission a piece, because that would be such a growth experience for our students.” She developed the project into the opportunity to commission four pieces, one for each of the Drake choruses. Beckmann-Collier is held in such esteem that her wish list was fully realized. That esteem is shared by her students, who affectionately call her "Dr. ABC." Here's a tribute they surprised her with during a Drake choral tour of Ireland and Wales:

The composers she chose for the Create/Re-create Concert are Jocelyn Hagen, John Armstrong, Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, and Des Moines composer Elaine Hagenberg, each of whom has been in residence at Drake during the past month in preparation for this weekend's premieres. Beckmann-Collier, who has commissioned many works, spoke to me in fascinating detail about how the choral genre has developed and flourished in recent decades. She described new sounds from a wider range of composers than ever before, as well as the importance of cultivating knowledge of the genre's ancient roots: “Not having ever read Shakespeare, that's not a good thing. But at the same time, the canon is, is growing, because history goes on. And we have many more composers, and we're paying much more attention to the music of many different countries." 

Aside from this creative blossoming, she believes, the choral genre itself is more timely than ever because of its inherent humanity and its focus on building community. “We are supposedly connected to everybody all the time,” she says of the Internet age, “but we're not. I think choral singing has something valuable and relevant to contribute to this time in our nation's history and in our world history. I often comment to our students that it's really something to stand shoulder to shoulder with people and and be aware of their very breath.”

If you've had a plan for every minute, retirement poses new concerns. “I think retirement is really a redefinition of self," says Beckmann-Collier. "Redefining myself when I’m not making music every day and teaching every day is going to be kind of challenging.” She has a number of short-term commitments in choral conducting and teaching, but then? She’ll volunteer, as she has done actively for years in many fields. And perhaps it's not surprising that she brings up her first commitment, teaching: “I think there’s probably a second-grader who needs to be read to or a sixth-grade girl who could use a mentor. I’m interested in just pursuing some different ways of helping with community needs. And gosh knows there are community needs!” It's safe to predict that when Beckmann-Collier retires, inspiring vistas will emerge unexpectedly, without planning.

*Postcript and update: "Dr. ABC" will conduct the Drake Choir and Chamber Choir in another concert on Tuesday, May 21 at 4:00 p.m. at St. Ambrose Cathedral, 607 High St., downtown Des Moines. Admission is free and the concert will be followed by an ice-cream social. It's a preview of the program they'll be taking on tour to Italy and France.

Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host