Alice Parker: Reflections on a Life Lived in Song

Alice Parker, one of America's most beloved and respected composers, conductors, and educators in choral music, reflects on her long and productive life in music—one decade at a time.

1st Decade: Beginnings

I can only wish for each of you the kind of childhood I had: loving parents who set ideals and patterns for us to live by and educated body, mind, and soul. Add lots and lots of music: singing at home and at church, games and dances and instruments, piano lessons and encouragement, taking for granted that I could be a composer if I worked at it.

2nd Decade: Learning

The middle of the education years: moving through high school and into college, hearing and performing all the music I possibly could. School and church choirs, accompanying and singing, writing songs for them. Playing clarinet in the orchestra (because I sat right in front of the conductor) and writing two suites for them before I'd ever seen an orchestral score.

Exploring choral music at summer music camp and conducting a work written just for them. Going to college to study composition—finding wonderful stimulation from teachers in many disciplines (I value highly the liberal arts spread), but also finding it almost impossible to combine my intuitive composing with any kind of rational criticism or discipline.

3rd Decade: More Learning and Teaching

I graduated from college thinking that I couldn't go on in composition—I was not attuned to the 20th-century music aesthetic. So I changed to choral conducting and had the great good fortune to arrive at Juilliard while Robert Shaw and Julius Herford were there.

I felt as though I had never truly listened before, and was challenged to learn and perform at a very high level. Intoxicating! I couldn't find a choral conducting job after graduation, so ended up in a progressive private school, teaching music to grades 7-12.

I had no preparation for or experience in this field (and no wish to continue), so after two years I returned to my private studies in New York, and, to support myself, began teaching piano under a very gifted woman who taught me to teach. ("Alice, it must be pleasant!") The arranging collaboration with Robert Shaw began while I was still his student and became my true education in the craft of composition—a medieval apprenticeship in renaissance vocal techniques. I've drawn on it ever since.

4th Decade: Life Learning

My next stage of education was in "Life Class," with marriage and motherhood as the curriculum. I could wish for you, too, that you found as congenial and charming a partner as Tom [Thomas Pyle sang with Shaw during all the years of the Robert Shaw Chorale].

Five children joined our lives, with plentiful opportunities for me to learn new disciplines and enjoy the pleasures of seeing and hearing how completely music was woven into the early years. I learned that there are almost no limits to what children can absorb and give back when they grow up surrounded by song.

5th Decade: Synthesis

I taught piano and gave music classes at home for my own and neighbors' children. I volunteered at Sunday school and Cub Scouts. I became mature enough to shake off the constrictions of my college years and to begin composing again, based strongly on what I had learned about melodies, singers, and concert life from Mr. Shaw.

When he moved to Atlanta and stopped recording, Tom was home from touring and I was free to travel. I discovered that I loved meeting groups of students and adults and making music with them in brief workshops. I also discovered the ease of encouraging lovely music-making through improvisational SINGS. Somehow, composing and conducting and teaching had merged into one occupation.

6th Decade: Full Functioning

Tom died one month after my 50th birthday, and I had to redefine myself once more, as an individual, and also try to earn enough to educate the children. Friends helped me re-evaluate what I was doing and find more fulfilling workshops and performances. I was now active almost equally as a composer, conductor, and teacher, and wouldn't have wanted any other kind of life. Self-employment might be defined as "creative insecurity."

7th Decade: Focus

The last child was now through college and I realized that I longed to work again with professional singers. So I founded Melodious Accord, Inc., which brought my many activities together under one umbrella.

The board was a great help as we gave annual concerts in New York City and made several recordings. We brought together talented and interesting people in symposia, fellowships, and composer workshops, and kept in touch with a large group through our newsletter. I wrote books on arranging and improvisation and we made videos documenting my teaching.

8th Decade: Gaining Perspective

I returned to my childhood home in Massachusetts, keeping an office and annual commitments in New York, and gaining a sense of new possibilities in the rural hill-country. The sense of coda allowed me to look back at what I had been doing in those very busy middle years when there had been little time for reflection.

I find that I consider music a humanity rather than an art (for humans' sake, rather than arts'). Music is basic to our lives, giving us a language for our emotions and a healing sense of order. Singing is the quintessential bringer-together: Songs and choruses unite us in unique and mysterious ways.

Composition is as functional as cooking: I'm feeding people's ears. Folk music is the fountainhead of song, and improvising and arranging teach us about the nature of melody. The union of words, rhythms, and pitches is an inexhaustible spring.

Conducting is the ability to make music with a group. Orchestral conducting is one part of the discipline; choral is similar in its professional guise, but that's still only half. A true conductor should be able to lead song in churches and homes, in classrooms and hospital—wherever song can bring its healing. And my kind of teaching is the verbalization of musical process: discovering what is going on in one's own ear, mind, and voice, and opening others to discover their own abilities. It's passing along the whole-life experience, seeking to unite disciplines rather than separate them.

9th Decade: Distilling My Thoughts

I'm traveling less and writing shorter, simpler pieces. I enjoy teaching inordinately and distilling my thoughts about life, song, theory, aesthetics, theology, culture, and you-name-it into nourishing draughts. My long-worked-on book, The Anatomy of Melody, was recently published, and Melodious Accord is flourishing. The recording of my works continues to be challenging and satisfying.

I have good health and energy, a beautiful place in which to live and work, close ties to my church and community, and many bright young people around to keep me thinking. My family provides a web of loving support, and the delights of my grandchildren are manifold. The state of the world seems lamentable on many levels, but the blessings of life are just as present, and I give daily thanks for them.

This article is reprinted from The Voice, Winter 2005-06.