Alice Parker

Alice Parker, the First Lady of American choral music, invited me to her farm-home in New England, on a crisp Autumn day, to spend time together in an interview. What follows is the beginning of her account of what makes music important in our lives.

When I walked into her living room, scores were piled high on tables and piano, at which point I noticed that she did not have a computer in the room, nor does she compose using one.

JD: I am intrigued that you write out your scores by hand. That reminds of a time when I once had the good fortune of seeing  a page from a manuscript of Johannea Brahms. As I looked at it, I realized I was looking at one of the great moments in musical history: that moment, in his First Symphony, when the lower brass play something akin to a chorale, and then the ‘cello section enters with that extremely beautiful melody we all love. Brahms, himself, had once been leaning over that exact piece of paper, just as I was at that moment! And as I was standing there with goose bumps, I  wondered, 100 years from now, what will people be looking at from our generation of composers? Computer screens?

AP: You’re right! It’s definitely not the same thing. And there’s such personality in the handwriting.

JD: Absolutely! You can see where the cross-outs are.

AP: But you can also see where the phrasings are. There are little, imperceptible spaces where the composer is thinking: “Breathe here.” That’s why the computer stuff looks so awful! It’s too regular.

JD: On a different subject, it was about 38 years ago when I first met you. While I was a student at Oberlin, and the Organist at First Church, you came and led a workshop for that congregation. I’ve got to tell you that, unbeknownst to you, that workshop subtly changed my musical life. The ideas you spoke about, regarding the meaning of music, and why we do it, and who owns music (not just the professionals) – although I knew these things intuitively, to have it voiced was really helpful. You were so nice to me! I asked you, before the service, how I could help you; and you replied: “Well, actually, I was thinking of doing all of this a cappella!” That felt so logical and natural to me. It also opened up, for me, the naturalness of the human voice. I think you embody what makes choral music American – it’s the beauty and simplicity, the non-complicatedness of melody and harmony.

AP: Any group I’m with, I always ask: “How many have had a course in melody?” And not a single hand ever goes up. Everybody has had harmony – as if harmony is the foundation of music. And it’s not! Children don’t sing harmony when they first learn to sing. We have overlooked the study of melody for a couple hundred years.

JD: Another one is: How many have had a course in rhythm?

AP: That’s true, too. And how many rhythms are derived from the way we speak! We can’t really notate what we speak; but we harness music into what the page can do.

JD: Our lives have intersected several times over the years, but currently, you may not know that I’m working on a new nonprofit, called The Resonance Project, which seeks to use music in international conflict resolution. It’s about using music as a tool rather than as entertainment. And in a very significant way, this is the fruit of the seed you planted in me many decades ago. I’m working with a great neuroscientist, Dr. James Prichard, looking at how music (and it’s crucial that it’s LIVE music) can function as a catalyst to create neuroplasticity – a change in brain patterns – that can result in increased altruism or empathy. And on the other side of the equation, if two negotiating people have the same catalyst, what’s the likelihood that they can reach common ground faster? I want to put this on the highest possible stage, namely between world leaders.

When I first tried this out, at Living Room Talks in San Francisco (between Israelis and Palestinians), everyone in the room started crying! And the first thing they said to me was that they had never been in an intimate room with professional musicians making music for them! I must admit, I was shocked by that.

AP: It is so mechanized now. We’re so used that “screen” between us and the music (speakers, usually). And that’s just like writing music in the computer: There’s a screen between you and the music.

JD: The second thing they described was the feeling of vulnerability. Many said: “This music made me want to connect.” Others talked about being transported. Some talked about feeling a healing quality in an otherwise tense environment.

The reason I’ve been wanting to talk with you is that I’m interested in how you wrestle with the meaning of music. What actually happens when we make music? What’s it about?

AP: I’m so lucky that I’ve just had one real job. And it was for two years, right after I had graduated from Juilliard. The last paycheck I got was in 1951! Although I had training as a composer, I felt like I wasn’t a composer because I couldn’t go on to graduate school in composition. In those days, it was all 12-tone music – something that held no allure for me. So that’s why I did choral conducting and went to Robert Shaw. (Which was the luckiest thing in the world.)

I graduated from Juilliard in choral conducting and thought: Well! I’m ready to go out and conquer the world. And the only job I could get was in a high school. That was a huge shock, and a wake up call to what I had thought my future was going to be. I stayed for two years. But I realized I could not be a teacher. (I’d be just exhausted when I got home each day.) And, secondly, I was going to have to learn how to teach if I wanted to pursue that path. So, I went back to New York and continued my piano studies with Julius Herford – a huge influence on my life. He put me in touch with a woman in Summit, New Jersey who was running a music school. This woman, Helen Bender, was a genius of a teacher! And I worked with her for ten years. Every student that studied with her had to attend classes, as well.

Then I got married and had five children in 7 1/2 years, and was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years. My only connection, in those years, with the professional, musical world was doing arrangements for Robert Shaw. I was with Shaw, himself, for one week just before the recording sessions. We would go through the sketches that I had made. He sang them through, every line! He had an approach to music that I had had no idea of from my composition classes.

I got to the point that I would sit down to write a solo for one of the people in the chorale, and the piece of paper I was composing on would become transparent. I could actually see the singer singing the line. I was composing for a specific person, sound, and personality. Sometimes people would say to me: “Oh, I just love that line in such-and-such a piece.” And, of course, I just said “thank you, very much.” I never said: Well I wrote it for you!

I look back at those 15 years, now, and recognize that I hadn’t found my compositional voice until near the end of that time! There I was, working with marvelous melodies, and making arrangements for Robert Shaw. And I realized that, if it’s a great melody, all you have to do is get out of its way! It will carry you. I was learning, from Shaw, the craft of composition (that I wished I had learned in college). For example, can you write a counter-melody to “Oh Shenandoah” that is as strong as the melody, itself? And I’m not talking about harmonizing! One has to get out of tonality and return to modality. That way you’re not harnessed with all of those chords.

So, at one point, I felt like I had failed as a composer, failed as a choral conductor, failed as a teacher. All of my training seemed worthless. I was sitting at home giving piano lessons to small children, being a cub scout den mother, and teaching at Riverside Sunday School, etc.

But then I was invited to lead a choral workshop in Illinois, for 700 kids, and discovered that I could handle that! That’s when I began to discover what I had learned from Shaw that was incredibly different from what everybody else was doing. It’s about getting released from the page [of printed music].

JD: What was it, exactly, that you picked up from Shaw, that was different?

AP: He had a conception of vocal/choral sound that was absolutely incredible. It had all the possible ways you could play with it. (Just the opposite of what one gets from the computer play-back.) He kept asking for sounds from the chorus that nobody else had ever asked for. And the reason he could get them is because he had the concept in his head. This was the big thing I got from him. You really have to listen! I call it ‘Primary Listening.’ You’re listening through all the other stuff that’s going on – the pitches, the rhythms, the history, the personalities of the people, and the abilities of the chorus that you’re working with, or the singer that you’re listening to, etc.

What is the right vocal sound that brings this text to life? Music springs from the way we speak. But, of course, music comes first in the development of the brain, and words come later. (Nobody teaches a baby how to sing! I love that. And they breathe exactly right, too!) Everything comes from the human throat, informed first by the heart, and then the mind.

JD: Can you say more about how music is “informed first by the heart, and then the mind”?

AP: When I teach my Fellows Programs, it’s around this very table with 8 or 9 people. The first thing we do is tune. I sing a pitch, and we hold that for two minutes. I say: Listen to this. There’s a composite sound that we’re making in the middle of this table. It’s like a prism that the light catches. It’s not the same all the time. Listen to the differences within it, just when we’re holding it. What happens when you cut out to breathe? Can you hear the change? Or when someone else cuts out? Can you feather-edge those breaths so that they don’t disturb the composite sound? Then I change the vowel and ask them what’s different. I ask if we’re all singing the same vowel, if the transition between the two vowels was smooth, if it feels differently in the head.

So often singers don’t start at the beginning! Working with one note warms up your ears and your mind, and probably your heart, too.

Music is exactly like food. You have to compose for the people around you, the same way you’d cook for the people around you. Music is food for the soul – not just the mind, nor just the heart. (Those are two extremes.) I want to be right in the middle.

JD: I actually think that the Prologue to the Gospel of John is wrong. It says, “In the beginning was the Word.” But I think: In the beginning was the Sound!

AP: The Alaskan Inuits say: “In the beginning was the Song.”

So what music is, going back to your fundamental question, is the language of the emotions. What happens when we sing together the right way – so that we’re giving ourselves to the song, and we become the song? Our personal egos melt. We feel, together, the emotion which the song asks for.

JD: Community building.

AP: Yes. The language of music is designed to help us cut through barriers of hate or disagreement. All too often music is used to numb us rather than enliven us. Dorothy Sayers has a wonderful phrase: ‘to exert power over us instead of awakening the power which is within us.’

I always say that the heart has to come before the mind. We have to feel our community before we let our minds dictate war and destruction. We, as a society, tend to measure things in terms of science and calculation. The Arts are too often absent from the equation. An educator should be the person who opens a door in another person’s mind. It is not about facts. We have failed there!

I was just in Chautauqua leading an event for 5000 people. They were shocked that I didn’t want to use the piano or the organ. But you should have heard the gorgeous singing! All too often, we don’t allow the human voice to communicate. Most people sing hymns by reading what’s on the page, with its four-part harmony. They think that once they’ve done what’s on the page, they’ve done the piece. But they haven’t read the text as a poem!

Here’s my criterion: If I had written the poem, how would I want it to be read? Then that informs what the music should be. Read the words as if you were reading them to a three-year-old child. You have to do it with your whole body. And you have to believe it.

I encourage congregations to read hymns, with the right affect, then sing them. They ‘get it’ immediately that way. You want to make the words work with the tune.

When I worked with Shaw, he might disappear for an hour trying to boil down a counter-melody to the absolute simplest structure. That’s the secret! Use what’s right there inside the melody!

I can take a Spiritual, like “Every time I think about Jesus,” and take it apart so that everyone is singing in different parts, and everyone will start to cry.

JD: What is that emotion?

AP: I think it’s heavenly hurt. Beauty awakens the sense, in us, of our vulnerability as human beings. It’s why you feel like crying when you see a gorgeous sunset, or hear a Bach solo cello suite, or a gorgeous melody, or a little kid singing. So, the first thing you look for in any piece of music, whether Beethoven or Bach or Palestrina or whatever, is: What are these words saying? And what does the music reinforce? Does this give me a hint of what emotions we’re needing to tap into? If I, as a conductor, have clarity as to what emotion I wish to evoke from the group, I can get it. If I’m not clear, or just teaching notes and rhythms, then it won’t happen. The beginning of conducting is intentionality. A person cannot possibly sing a song unless they become the song; and they can’t become the song until they’re in line with what it attempts to evoke.

So that’s what you want for your Resonance Project. And your idea of having them listen to a duet or trio is great; but I’ve long believed that our House of Representative should sing folksongs for ten minutes at the beginning of a session.

JD: I agree with you, but I think that might be a very hard sell!

AP: Likely impossible.

JD: What’s the difference between how music affects the listener, the conductor, and the ensemble? Is that something you’ve thought much about?

AP: Heavens yes! It’s so important to talk about these important things. When we are born into this world, we are totally dependent on other people. We’ve already had a chance to learn in utero. The main way of communication that we have, at that stage, is vocal. They have to learn how to see; the brain has to learn to process vision. But what they hear goes directly to the central nervous system, and then to the brain. Emotion! Look at how most people talk when they talk to babies. They use their voice differently. They use a gentler, cajoling voice. The baby can’t speak for a couple of years, but it can sing right away! This is its main avenue of communication.

We may be the first society, in human history, where people no longer sing at home. A lot of mothers no longer sing lullabies to their babies, largely because they weren’t brought up in a family where this tradition was so ongoing, that you couldn’t possibly miss it.

So, the basic thing is that people need to get back in touch with the urge to sing. There is no “audience,” in a way; there are only singers! But, if you need to draw that triangle of composer/performer/listener, the most important element of those three is the listener because everything we learn, initially, is through our ears. And if we’ve been fortunate to have been brought up in a family where there is lots of singing (and it doesn’t matter what is being sung) then we learn the most natural means of expression.

JD: I grew up in a family that had multiple uses for music. One of those was, when we got mad at each other, we had to sit in the corner until we could sing a song. The idea was that you can’t sing a song when you’re mad!

AP: I love that! And it’s so true.

JD: Being someone who has spent a lifetime trying to create the possibility of transformation through music (I basically see myself as an Alchemist). And I realize that it’s only been within the last few hundred years that we’ve had the notion that someone is the performer and others are the listeners – as opposed to everyone being the performer.

AP: Yes, we’ve separated everything; music and dance, music and literature. Think about it: Old stories were sung, improvised!

JD: But the transformative nature of the Brahms Requiem, or Mahler’s Eighth, or a Bach Passion, is something that cannot be communicated as well by amateurs.

AP: When I worked with Shaw, and the old melodies, I had a turn-around about my ideas of the pinnacles of Western music. I believe that the great masterpieces are the folk melodies that get carried from generation to generation. They last, because they are exactly “right,” in a sense. The tunes follow the same laws as energy. Our job is to follow these laws of Energy which underlie the whole physical universe.

As a composer, I try to listen to where a melody wants to go, as opposed to pushing it somewhere. Typically I have no idea where it’s going to lead.

The leader of a choir should know the affect of the piece of music he/she is leading. You have to become the song, yourself. The conductor should project what s/he wants and allow the musicians to buy into it, with their own understanding of the needed affect. When I’m singing, I’m using every aspect of who I am: my mind, my emotions, my breath, my imagination, my spirit/soul, my concentration. What can compare with that? Nothing!

I often feel that I cannot write a piece for “concert” performance because I cannot figure out the need for it. Churches I can understand. With community groups, it’s easy; there’s almost always a reason for the commission. I’m really more focused on chamber music (singers or instrumentalists) than on concert hall settings. I gravitate to these “human” environments. And I strongly dislike lights coming down before concerts. It’s not natural!

When I’m composing, I need to know who the piece is for, the context, the environment, the personalities. I have often said that the vibrant choruses were the Gay Men’s Choruses because they sang as if their life depended on it – and to a certain extent, it did!

JD: As we move more and more into a world of amalgamation (Lutherans don’t “own” Bach cantatas any more than a Catholic person does, and vice versa with Palestrina motets), I often wonder if we’re not losing the ‘thorn in the side’ that gave the music its original character.

AP: Absolutely! 98% of the music we hear over the airwaves has been standardized. It’s been recorded over and over, and edited over and over, and is based in a financial economy. It has very little to do with things that are lasting! The language of “What’s the big hit this year” is a case in point.

I think there will always be a wild number of musical styles available. If we don’t have an artificial standardization going on, there’s a far more likely chance that something real can come through. But I think we really need to cherish the individuality of each national music style – the folk music. (Far too often in this country, we don’t recognize the rich heritage of our folk tradition for what it is.) We also need to harness the standardization process so that it helps the character of the music, and doesn’t serve to create a sameness from genre to genre.

I have a question for you: With your Resonance Project, will a leader from China and a leader from the United States react to the same piece of music?

JD: That’s a question I’ve saddled our neuroscience advisors with. I don’t know the answer as to whether there are universals in the brain that every human being will react to.

AP: There are universals, but I don’t think it’s something that music theorists will be able to discover. When I’m in conversation with people in different countries, I often ask them: “What’s the earliest song you can remember being sung to you as a child?” The human experience is the same everywhere, but the tunes are different because the language is different, the shape of the nasal cavity is different, etc. We need to preserve those differences; but the thing that is universal is the reason to sing.

JD: Do you sense that you are in a spiritual realm when you compose?

AP: I would say that I am channeling. I’m not making up any music. I am listening for what’s going to come through. I can’t start writing until I hear that.

The purpose of religion is to unify us to see that we are very small parts of a much larger whole. Music gives us a glimpse of that. Our words are too limiting. The more we try to define things, the further we become removed from its essence – because you have to leave out the emotional part of the brain.

JD: Thank you, Alice, for sharing your wisdom with all of us!