Alice Parker is a highly recognized name as a composer, conductor, and educator in the choral world and it was an honor to be able to hear her speak in this session. Alice Parker spoke about the fundamental importance of teaching melody. Melody is what creates musicality—it is about the vertical lines, not about the horizontal harmonies. The horizontal harmonies fall into place through the melodies created in music.
“There is no music on the page.” My favorite analogy she gave was that sheet music is like a recipe: you have to make it. You cannot eat the page. In the same way, music is not on the page—it is made through us. Alice Parker truly believes that teaching melody is the most effective way to teach musicality. Many teachers teach music theory with Bach chorales, but she pointed out that Bach did not think about what each chord to chord was—he focused on counterpoint and the interactions of the different melodic lines. His language of harmony, then, is derived from the counterpoint.
Teaching melody focuses on sound before sight. Ms. Parker strongly stated that focusing and teaching how to read notes and rhythms first before expression creates ”unmusic,” not music. She cited that, all too many times, she has heard the folk song “Shenandoah” performed by a choir note-to-note, rhythm to precise rhythm. She led the audience in singing “Shenandoah” with her, as she conducted in a way that gives us the freedom to sing a song in a way that sounds like what the words mean. “We don’t have freedom written into our music,” she said. While we were singing it, she gently showed each phrase with the rises and falls of the words and music, like the rolling rivers the song sings of. Phrase, she defined, is “a beginning, middle, and end”—I love this simple but meaningful perspective. She then had us sing the song in a way that each person would come in a little later or earlier so that we would create a rippling, echoing effect. It was amazing: it sounded like the river! Especially on the word “Shenandoah,” the rippling “sh” created a crashing-waves sound. What we sang was creative, unique, and something you cannot notate exactly on a page.
My favorite moment of the session was when it was close to the end, and she finished her statement, paused for a moment, and then started singing the hymn, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Everyone joined while she showed the rise and fall of each phrase. People started to harmonize, and I felt everyone truly connecting and feeling the music. I wasn’t too familiar with the tune but was still able to follow along and create musical lines out of it. It was incredibly organic and natural. After the last line, Ms. Parker said, “Isn’t it a miracle that we can do that? Why don’t we, all the time?” This session was truly powerful and inspiring to me as an aspiring music educator.
Her books, “The Anatomy of Melody: Exploring the Single Line of Song” and the sequel “The Answering Voice: The Beginning of Counterpoint” (both through GIA Publications) delve more in depth about these topics. I know that I am definitely going to check them out for myself, and would recommend them to you if you would like to know more about her methodologies and philosophies!
-Sunhwa Reiner (Junior and ICACDA President-Elect)
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