Alice Parker: The Belle of Hawley

This peripatetic Jenny Appleseed of melody continues to traverse the country as a distinguished teacher, coach, conductor, and advocate for words and melody

There is a woman on a hill in Western Massachusetts who hears music all the time: in the singing brook that runs beside her house, in the chilly kitchen where she prepares her meals, in the sunlit study where she brings melody to life. For this woman, Alice Parker, the muse is ever-present.

To reach this songstress one follows an odyssey of ever-narrower roads over rivers and through woods to Hawley, a hamlet settled in 1760 which, according to the 2010 census, now boasts a population of 337.

Parker’s father, a mahogany importer who traversed New England to source wood for the Navy during World War I, acquired the land and established it as a family summer home for his wife and five children. It has been an idyllic retreat for Parker, first from her childhood home in Winchester and later from the apartment in New York City where she and her husband, fixtures in the choral community, plied their trade and raised their children. In 1995 she gave up the city apartment and made Hawley her full-time home, residing in a cottage-style 1850s house fashioned from the town hall.

Hawley and its environs are still recovering from the damage of Hurricane Irene and an early winter storm, which swelled local rivers and streams beyond their banks, felling trees, clogging damns, washing out bridges, and leaving the town without power and water for days at a time. At the foot of the steps to Parker’s home a measuring stick awaits the inevitable heavy snows. Already the wood-burning stoves throughout the house must be filled and stoked. The nearby trails where she takes her daily constitutional are a hopscotch of rocks and roots. In the distance there is the sound of a hunter’s rifle.

And there is the occasional visit from a bear.

“They stay out of my way and I stay out of theirs,” she says with a smile and a shrug.

A visitor cannot resist concern. Her skin is smooth with the ruddy glow of a hearty New Englander, her step is sure, her voice is full and mellifluous—staccato with factual recollection one moment, sotto voce with reverent memory the next—but she is, after all 86 years old. Does she worry being alone on the side of a hill at the end of the road on the edge of a forest in a perilous climate?

“Heavens no!” she says. She may sleep and cook and write and compose in solitude, but there are wonderful neighbors, friends who call on her regularly, and a church community of which she is a vital member. She also sports a Life Alert button just in case. One has the strong sense that if she were to push it a legion of faithful would respond.

Assuming, of course, she is home, for this is no Dickinsonian recluse. Her hair may be white, but the cherry-red Subaru out front reminds you that this is a working woman on the go, a peripatetic Jenny Appleseed of melody who, as she has for decades, continues to traverse the country as a distinguished teacher, coach, conductor, and advocate for words and melody. A passionate pragmatist in the composition, arrangement, and performance of choral works, she is an evangelist for the pure unplugged sound of the human voice, and will carry that message wherever she is invited.

The two-hour trek to the Hartford airport, the changing of planes to reach remote communities, the hotel meeting rooms, the drafty churches, the obligatory social events, none of it fazes her. “Once I start working and making music with people I have tons of energy,” she says.

Retirement? “Bosh!” she says.

“The whole idea of retiring on a fixed income and not having anything else to do as the way to end your life I find weird,” she says. “People only retire from something they don’t like doing and I can’t imagine spending your life doing something you don’t like doing.” She acknowledges that not everyone lives that dream. “I’ve been fortunate,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to write music. I had no choice in the matter.”

Foundations and Frustration

Neither of Parker’s parents were musicians, but they were active churchgoers and she and her siblings could be found every Sunday singing hymns in the front row of their Congregational church. At home there were requisite piano lessons, but more importantly there was singing. Her mother, a successful businesswoman, would cut up songbooks and paste on cardboard those tunes she could readily accompany on the piano. Parker says as a result of her mother’s sensible approach to music she could sing some 200 hymns by the time she was three.

At Smith College she learned the technical foundations of music, and though she studied piano and organ and led all manner of college vocal ensembles, she knew her path was not in keyboard or voice. “It was very clear to me that I was a composer,” she says. She had hoped to attend Eastman to study composition but a “fatal interview” dashed her plans. She had learned nothing at Smith, she was told, and if she were to come to Eastman she would have to begin as a freshman, but since she didn’t really have talent there wasn’t really much of a point.

“I was crushed,” she says, even though she had no affinity for the intellectually conceived 12-tone music that was then in fashion. “As a result of the Eastman interview I couldn’t compose for 15 years. I was totally blocked because every time I tried to write something it looked too simple.” She was, she concluded, born in the wrong century—the 18th if not the 19th—and thus a contemporary composing career was not to be.

Her alternative route was the choral conducting program at Juilliard, where she flourished in those post-war years when, under the leadership of William Schuman, Julliard’s faculty boasted composers Peter Mennin, Vincent Persichetti, Robert Ward, and a young choral conductor named Robert Shaw, who would go on to found his eponymous professional chorus and become Parker’s mentor and collaborator.

After a post-Juilliard teaching stint at a private school outside of Chicago (“The main thing I learned was that I didn’t know how to teach and that I was going to have to learn.”) Parker returned to the New York choral scene and to a friend and colleague, Thomas Pyle, who would, several years later, become her husband. “There are very few people who I could have shared my life with because I was so directed toward music,” she says. “It had to be someone who totally understood that, which Tom did because he was the same way. We had an understanding that if either one had a chance to do something professionally the other one would help make it possible.”

Motherhood and Music

“We hadn’t really planned on having five children but that’s what we got,” she says. “And they were marvelous kids and Tom was a marvelous father. I loved being with them and I was learning so much from the way they learned language and music and songs as they were growing. It was a continual astonishment to me how much they knew that we didn’t give them credit for. No one teaches a baby how to sing. They are born singing. It’s the first sounds they make. They have to learn to talk but they are born singing.”

Like her mother she eschewed orthodox approaches to early music learning. “My kids would sing whatever they heard their father singing. Nothing was closed to them. I always thought they came with a little slit down their heads like a piggy bank. My job was to drop songs in there. They knew a hundred songs before they had the basic material to apply their rational minds.”

For Parker there was no having-it-all hand-wringing or second-guessing motherhood while she pursued her music. “My mother had worked all the time I was growing up so I simply escaped all that feeling guilty,” she says. Yes, there were five children between 1956 and 1964, but as an arranger she also gave birth to 17 Shaw albums between 1951 and 1967. With Pyle touring 18 weeks a year with Shaw’s Chorale she was a single parent much of the time, leaving limited time.

“You simply cannot find a babysitter to take care of five kids,” she says. “They don’t exist. I couldn’t sit down and think about music, I couldn’t go to the piano or use any other kind of aids. I really had to think it through until I heard the whole piece. If I had something to write down I’d wait until Tommy was home and could take care of the kids. He always said the house could have burned down when I was writing because I wasn’t going to pay attention to anything else. I learned to get it all ready in my head and write it down as if I was taking dictation.”

Parker first met Shaw the summer before Juilliard when she attended Tanglewood’s summer music institute, a graduation present from her parents. Between a subsequent summer at Tanglewood and her classes with him at Juilliard she says “somehow he discerned that we could work together.” Shaw had established his professional touring chorus and, as part of his mission, wanted to record great choral literature, but the powers that be at RCA Victor told him that for every serious recording he had to give them one that would sell.

“And that’s where I came in,” says Parker. With his hectic schedule Shaw needed the help of an arranger to prepare the popular choral albums. She would journey to the New York Public Library, copying potential repertoire from traditional songbooks and hymnals, and bring them to Shaw for approval.

For their first album there was a strict triage—he tossed any tune or text he thought unworthy— but as time went by she was to became his trusted collaborator, even as she continued to learn from him.

“It was the kind of teaching I should have been getting in composition but nobody had ever made me think that way, how to place the words on a melodic line. Lesson number one: You start from the words. The words have the grammar and the syntax and the accentuation. You can’t just jam words in with a shoe horn into music that is already there.

“What I was learning was the craft of writing for voices, how to clearly make them better or fix the voicing or change the note. One of the basic things Shaw said was that if we did our work right a good singer could pick up the music and never have a second’s hesitation about what was expected: where to breathe, final consonants, dynamic markings, color markings. It was our responsibility as the arrangers to have this done. The last two albums he didn’t change anything I had done.“

As an accomplished arranger at a time when choral music was flourishing in all media, why didn’t Parker pursue film, theater, or commercial work? “It never opened up that way and I am not the kind of person that goes hunting for things,” she says. “I was doing all I could with the kids at home and my responsibilities there. It was almost keeping my sanity to have the Shaw stuff to work on, my one way of keeping in touch with the professional music world in those years.”

Parker attended each Shaw recording session, offering comments and collecting all of the parts afterward to prepare clean copies for immediate publication, the goal being to match the published editions to the recording and release them simultaneously. The popularity of the published editions took her by surprise. “We were just writing for the Robert Shaw Chorale,” she says. “We were never thinking of anybody using it after that.” She believes the secret to the endurance was the adherence to traditional form.

Arrangers were typically paid a flat fee—the going rate was $100 per title—but in a rare business arrangement Shaw provided Parker a portion of the royalty on print sales. “They never ever amounted to what it what cost to send one kid to college for one year,” she says, but she still gets an annual check. It has dwindled over the years as a generation of singers and teachers have entered the field for whom Shaw’s recordings and publications are no longer basic tenets.

The last Shaw recording was made in 1967 but Shaw and Parker remained collegial. Several years later she would share her compositions with him, which led to several arrangements for chorus and orchestra for the Atlanta Symphony. “He was a difficult person,” she says. “A very driven person. He was never satisfied with his own work. I never spent much time with him at all that wasn’t directly related to musicmaking one way or another. My husband was as good a friend as he had anywhere.”

Breakthrough and Loss

In the late 1960s, after several years of working together, Shaw asked Parker to teach arranging at a summer institute he had organized. “I had to get a wardrobe because all I had were housedresses,” she says. “I hadn’t been out of my house for all of those years.”

After a week of teaching melody, harmony, and arranging she began to realize after all those years working with Shaw and raising her children and giving piano lessons and teaching Sunday school and leading Cub Scouts that she had honed a unique pedagogy of melody. It was a personal watershed and soon her dormant music came out of hibernation. A choral director friend was desperate for a Mother’s Day work for children to sing that didn’t make him “want to vomit.”

“I said to him, ‘I can do that. I can write a piece that the kids will like to sing and the parents will like to listen to and it won’t make you vomit.’ And it just flowed out easily. I was using all I had learned from Shaw. It was like opening a dam. I had all this music inside of me. I was amazed at what I was writing in a couple of years.”

During the 60s she and Pyle nurtured close musical friendships in the Mennonite community. “The Mennonites were the only people who saw me as I saw myself: as a composer, a conductor, and a teacher. Shaw saw me as a good arranger and a musician. And the people who I was teaching saw me as a teacher. I had no chance for people to think of me as a composer because they hadn’t heard anything I had written.”

This mid-life affirmation of her talents was, sadly, accompanied by sorrow when, in 1975, Pyle died suddenly of a heart attack at age 57. Parker was 50 with no full-time job and five children to raise and educate. “I had no steady job in New York City and there was no chance of getting one,” she says. “I needed security but I had no experience. I was on my own but I began to realize that I had learned something enormously valuable, that I had something to offer people. I was beginning to learn what I knew but I was also beginning to learn how to teach it.”

The children learned quickly to take care of themselves, the older ones helping the younger, and so she was able to accept invitations to teach and coach. There would be short-term and longstanding teaching gigs at schools, summer programs, and clinics.

“I didn’t have a chorus of my own. My everyday chorus was anyplace in this country that there was a group that wanted to invite me to lead them.” She soon found herself on the road, away from home half the nights each year, and slowly becoming a better businesswoman even as she continued to fulfill more and more commissions for original choral works.

A Chorus of Her Own

When her youngest child graduated from college in 1984 Parker asked herself, “What is it that I haven’t done in these last 15-20 years that I wish I could have done?” What she missed most was performing and recording with professional singers, but to do so required money beyond her means. Her solution was to form Melodious Accord, a nonprofit entity dedicated to performing and recording choral music.

“I went to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and found out from them how to go about setting up a board,” she says. “I told them I didn’t know any lawyers or accountants. They said not to worry. All you need on your board are people who would kill for you. I said ‘That’s easy.’”

What she envisioned as a five-year project has now endured for 25 years, engaging a geographically and musically diverse board composed of friends and colleagues who have offered stewardship for Parker’s dreams. More than just an ensemble, Melodious Accord has become an umbrella organization facilitating all manner of teaching and advocacy for choral music: composer workshops, melody studies, residencies, a newsletter, and an infrastructure for facilitating Parker’s busy schedule of community sings and weekend residencies. This year she will lead events in New York City, Providence, Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Houston, Burlington, and Cary.

Once More, With Feeling

Her teaching style continues to reflect the values she acquired as a daughter, as a mother, and as a student of Shaw. In the beginning is the word, and only with a grasp of its meaning and meter can the music flow.

She offers an only-sings-in-the-shower visitor a lesson.

“Swing low, sweet chariot,” she beckons, drawing the melody in the air.

The visitor responds hesitantly.

“No, no,” she corrects. “You must feel the ‘swing,’ you must taste the ‘sweet.’ Like honey on the tip of your tongue.” Her teaching style with adults is no different than the approach she used to teach her own children, without condescension or orthodoxy. “It’s like playing ball,” is how she describes it. “I’m tossing a phrase at you and you’ve got to toss back.”

The methodology is extensible to the muse within. As she writes in her 2006 book The Anatomy of Melody:

I can see myself in my kitchen, singing to myself as I do dishes; then the communication is between the song and my voice. Then imagine that a three-year-old girl enters. If I sing to her, I’m enlarging the circle, singing it differently, moving the focus to her using my whole body to communicate. The final step is getting her to join in, singing in a way that invites her participation. Singing less, inviting more, giving her the song. That is when the circle grows, when the song is passed along. That is when music is most present, when it captures us in its spell, when it transforms us by its presence period. Anything less is not enough.

Among her favorite composers are Schubert, Gershwin, and those brilliant tunesmiths known as Anonymous and American Traditional. She bemoans the waning of melody in composition, fearful that “we have lost touch with this primal means of expression.” The primacy of visual stimulation and the constancy of electronic sound has rendered a world in which “silence means disconnection.” Lest one forget the importance of silence she will gladly remind you that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” both begin with a rest. Try launching them on the downbeat and you’ll hear exactly what she sees.

Though she is a traditionalist, she is no fuddy-duddy. She boasts that her 14-year-old grandson plans to be the world’s first jazz violist. “What a marvelous idea!” she exclaims. Nor is she cynical about today’s choral field. On the contrary. “We’re in good hands” she says of the “young turks” who lead the choral scene. “They are committed and passionate and well-educated and they have fostered a vision of what choruses can be. We are a much more demonstrably vocal choral nation than we were in the 60s.”

Present at the creation of Chorus America, the founding of which was due in great part to her late husband, she has been a longstanding board member and advisor to the organization, witnessing the “histrionics” and “tenderly amusing” moments as the organization, originally established to nurture professional choruses, expanded to include amateur and community choirs, independent church choirs, and children’s choirs. Her voice softens as she recalls the emergence of gay men’s choruses during the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. “They were literally singing for their lives,” she says in a hush.

“I’m not interested in art for art’s sake,” she says, thus she composes only on commission. “It seems to me absolutely idiotic to sit down and work on a piece for a long time and never know who is going to perform it,” she says. “I have a much more pragmatic view of the process. My writing is like my cooking: I’m not going to prepare a big meal and get it on the table then go around looking for people to eat it. If I write a piece I want to know who I’m writing for and exactly what the situation is and what they need and where it goes on the program and the acoustic of the church or performance space. I am like a carpenter making a cabinet that fits in exactly one spot.”

"I've still got some good years ahead of me and I know something about melody that hardly anybody else has focused on the way I do, so that's my big mission now: to spread that as widely as I can to anybody I can."

In addition to her writing and her journeys to the hinterlands she hosts an annual gathering of fellows in her home, no more than can fit around the table in her studio. These students are composers, conductors, teachers, church musicians, men and women of all ages.

“I don’t have any limitation on who can apply—except for those who are still in school. Their heads are too full of theory. They haven’t had enough experience to knock some of that out of them.” At any given class a Mennonite songwriter may sit next to a seasoned church musician next to a young electronic composer.

“I find that people who don’t have the technical training always have so much to offer the people who have too much technical training and have lost touch with what brought them into music,” she says.

In recent years there have been honorary degrees, plaques, and medals, all of which have been a boon for a composer who was rejected by the mainstream academy and continues to be relatively unknown outside of the choral field. “It’s a kind of acceptance of the world in which I am moving and I really appreciate them,” she says of the accumulating honors. And yet she is not complacent: “Every time I do a workshop I can hear myself saying something that I haven’t said before.”

Parker’s plan for the next decade is more of the same: more commissions, more writing, more teaching, more traveling. Her mother lived to age 93, her maternal grandparents to ages 96 and 98. “I’ve still got some good years ahead of me,” she says, “and I know something about melody that hardly anybody else has focused on the way I do, so that’s my big mission now: to spread that as widely as I can to anybody I can.”

One comes down from the mountain as the sun passes over the hills of Hawley with a heart full of melody, a stomach full of comfort food (there has been a lovely lunch of strata and salad, with a slice of apple pie), and a head full of awe in meeting someone so focused, so perseverant, so kind, and so accomplished. “I am a practitioner of an ancient form of magical religion,” she says, and her magic is contagious.

She hands her visitor a recent recording of Melodious Accord for the journey home and he dutifully pops it in the disc player, but after a few minutes of listening to the luxurious sound he decides to save it for later.

Four hours in the car?

Might as well sing.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2012.