“The Melodic Voice” by Cameron LaBarr and John Wykoff

  • “The Melodic Voice” by Cameron LaBarr and John Wykoff (GIA Publications, 243 pages, $29.95). Contributed photo—

For the Recorder
Published: 6/6/2019 8:50:31 AM

Western Massachusetts singers are lucky enough to be able to attend sings with composer/conductor/teacher Alice Parker on a regular basis. Parker, who lives in Hawley, recently received New England Public Radio’s lifetime achievement award. 

At her sings, she leads participants of all skill levels in exploring the history of music and the unique sounds a group of people in a given room on a given night can create.

Even the most loyal followers of Parker’s sings will find a lot to learn about the 93-year-old national treasurer in the book “The Melodic Voice: Conversations with Alice Parker.”

I have known Parker all my life and I found some new information in it.

The book is co-authored by Cameron LaBarr, director of choral studies at Missouri State University, and John Wykoff, an associate professor of music at Lee University. Both authors are composers as well as teachers. The book is the product of extensive interviews they conducted with Parker about her life and her work.

The book thus invites the reader into a conversation with its subject. Parker speaks informally and wisely about her personal life and professional achievements. The reader quickly learns that she doesn’t separate those two realms. 

As LaBarr and Wykoff note, “One of the aims of the book is to show all the strands of Alice’s life and work as an interconnected whole. ... The different strands of her life are woven together in a natural unity so that you cannot look at one aspect without the light of another.”

Parker is so accepted as a major American composer today that many musicians don’t realize that she faced challenges as a composition student in school. 

As the book reveals, while her professors were looking for modern, atonal compositions, the voices in Parker’s head were steering her toward her own melodic style, much of which eventually drew on older musical forms.

In fact, when she attended The Juilliard School of music, she ended up bypassing the composition program and enrolling as a conducting major. This led to her to study with famed choral conductor Robert Shaw. Ironically, Shaw pointed the young woman back toward composition by hiring her to help him write arrangements.

As she worked with Shaw, raised five children with her singer husband and taught whenever she could, Parker almost unwittingly developed what she and the book’s authors call “the three-legged stool” of her career: composing, conducting and teaching.

“The three of them interacted in a way that I never could have foretold,” she says at one point in the book.

The last few chapters of “The Melodic Voice” deviate a little from biography to focus on lessons for singers and song leaders. Like the rest of the book, they emphasize Alice Parker’s message that music is a natural human activity … and demonstrate why she is one of vocal music’s ambassadors to the world.

“People want to sing — need to sing — in a way that we don’t begin to acknowledge yet,” she tells LaBarr and Wykoff. 

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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