Many choir directors today have fond memories of the times they have worked on arrangements by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. Who could help but admire not just the quality, but the sheer quantity of music from this creative team – and in particular, of a female composer and arranger in the middle part of the 20th century? We are many years removed, and yet there are few female arrangers and composers who can claim even a portion of Parker’s creative output during this time period and beyond. Well over 600 works bear her name and creative footprint.
Parker was the primary arranger for the Robert Shaw Chorale, a prestigious professional choir that toured and recorded albums from 1948–1967. She produced hundreds of arrangements for the Chorale and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. Her primary role was to arrange folk songs, hymns and spirituals that the Chorale recorded.
Since then, Parker has worked tirelessly as a composer, conductor and educator. She founded Melodious Accord, Inc., which presents concerts and provides training for composers and conductors. She has also been recognized by numerous groups over the years, including Chorus America and the American Choral Directors Association.
Parker’s Formative Years
Parker remarks fondly on her early influential years, saying “Nobody ever told me I couldn’t be a composer.” Raised in a family that treated boys and girls exactly the same way, Parker’s open-minded upbringing allowed her to form the skill set to be a strong and confident composer. She studied a variety of instruments and even composed music for her high school orchestra.
Parker went on to study composition and organ at Smith College, and then studied choral conducting at The Juilliard School with Shaw. It was there that she learned a much more practical approach to choral composition – as she calls it, “the nuts and bolts” of writing for singers – with a focus on the words.
“When you’re actually working with the singers, you hear breathing and diction and phrasing. When you’re taking a composition class and thinking about theory, you don’t think about those things,” Parker said. “Theoretical thinking has no sense unless it grows out of actual sound. I still believe in that – sound first, and then theory.”
Working alongside Shaw changed the course of the rest of her life. “He taught me to hear vocal sound. He was marvelous to work with. Discussing possibilities with him was like fencing with someone who just wanted me to be honest and direct in my comments,” Parker said.
During this time, she also met and married Thomas Pyle, a baritone soloist in the Chorale. They had five children, and Parker says she learned a lot by watching her children react to music as they grew.
“Children are a great learning experience for parents – more than the other way around,” Parker said.
The How-Tos of Music Education
Parker’s advice for music educators is fairly simple: focus on singing hundreds of songs. She says teachers shouldn’t be overly concerned with the page or on assessments that really can’t measure the long-lasting effects of music on a child. Parker says the focus should be more on the joy of music and less on mechanics, such as key signatures or vocabulary.
“All this stuff is about music – it’s not music. Music is communicative sound,” Parker said.
For choirs, Parker believes they should be taught primarily by imitation. She suggests teaching by rote – the way babies and small children learn. Parker says if children hear a well-sung phrase, that’s exactly what they’re going to repeat.
“I really think that it is backwards to teach people to read music and punch out notes and rhythms like a computer. It’s almost impossible to get the words to flow after you’ve learned them that way,” Parker said. “The only way you can teach the whole is by doing it all. You can’t teach diction, pitch, rhythm – all those separate things – and then add them together later, because the song is much more than the sum of its parts.”
Parker also recommends teaching the melody and bass parts of hymns to everyone in a choir, so members hear the soprano-bass relationship. And she emphasizes using quality choral repertoire including genuine folk songs that allow voices to soar.
“Singing good songs trains your voice almost more than anything else,” Parker said. “The voice grows in the environment that feeds it.”
She goes on to explain that it’s not just about the songs, either, but about the collaborative and cooperative experiences of creating music together.
“Each classroom should be a chorus. And the emphasis in teaching music should be on getting that class to work together, creating a working ensemble so that everybody in it loves to sing,” Parker said.
“I think that having fun with music and words should be part of a child’s early training. I remember my kids would play with changing words in nursery rhymes. That’s exactly what composing is. You play with those materials, and you make up new songs.”-Alice Parker
The Road to Composing and Arranging
Participation in a quality choral ensemble can lay the foundation for future composers, too. Parker says that the practical experience gleaned from singing and playing with tones is very valuable.
“I think that having fun with music and words should be part of a child’s early training. I remember my kids would play with changing words in nursery rhymes,” Parker said “That’s exactly what composing is. You play with those materials, and you make up new songs.”
She goes on to suggest that we do a disservice to our creative young students by telling them that they have to be grown up and have lots of advanced training to become a composer.
“You learn by writing for a group that you know, and hearing how it sounds in real voices,” Parker said. “I think studying an instrument or voice – or being a conductor – or being a school teacher at any level and singing with your class – that is much better preparation than all the theoretical background. The theory can come later.”
As a composer, Parker is renowned for her emphasis on the importance of melody, and many of her books and choral resources drive this point home. Her compositions and arrangements focus on beautiful melodies that perfectly fit the flow of the text.
“Can you make the melody come alive? And, if you make the melody come alive, then the whole arrangement will fall into place easily,” Parker said. “Melody is text, rhythm, pitch – in that order.”
The Marriage of Text and Melody
Like many directors, Parker’s musical experience transcended school, community, and professional organizations to include church work. Many of her settings of hymns, spirituals, and carols are used by church choirs and directors, as well as her original sacred compositions. Paralleling what she said about the creation and importance of melody, she believes that the marriage of text and melody is of crucial importance.
“The music has value in itself. It gives mood. It gives context to the words,” Parker said. “When they do go together, it enriches both. When they don’t go together, it kills both.”
Parker says each song should have a natural rhythm that dances at its intended tempo. An example is her popular arrangement of the song Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal. She says songs like this may have a written tempo that is faster than what you end up doing in a performance because to Parker, “Sound adds a dimension that needs time to develop.”
The Melodic Voice
To hear more, choral aficionados can check out her newest project, The Melodic Voice: Conversations with Alice Parker by Cameron LaBarr and John Wykoff. The book covers these topics and many more, gleaned from conversations that the authors had with Parker.
The real gem in that resource is the video content where Parker discusses 20 of her most popular compositions. These tidbits are extremely practical and helpful for anyone planning to perform any of Parker’s pieces.
To learn more, view The Melodic Voice: Conversations with Alice Parker here.
To see Parker’s works, view the Parker-Shaw arrangements and her numerous other compositions here.
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