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Choral Groups Honor Composer Alice Parker On 90th Birthday

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to the story of a woman who has composed more than 500 pieces of music. Her arrangements of folk songs, hymns and spirituals are sung all over the world. She's even been on the cover of Time magazine. And at 91 years old, Alice Parker is still at it. Charlene Scott of New England Public Radio has this profile.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

CHARLENE SCOTT, BYLINE: On a summer night at a small white church in western Massachusetts, Alice Parker leads a group of amateur singers through a familiar hymn.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SCOTT: At first, she says they do what many church congregations do. They sing loudly and not very musically. But after just a few minutes of guidance from Parker, they get better.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible) Hallelujah.

SCOTT: Parker uses a technique called lining. She demonstrates by singing the opening line of a folksong.

ALICE PARKER: (Singing) Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you.

SCOTT: Then she'll ask the singers to reproduce what they've just heard.

PARKER: And if they sing back to me (singing) oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you...

I know they're looking at the page and what they're singing are those black blobs. Music isn't on the page. It can't be correct on the page because there's no sound on the page. It has to be correct to the song, correct to the ear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHENANDOAH")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) 'Tis seven long years since last I see thee.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #2: (Singing) Away you rolling river.

SCOTT: Alice Parker began singing as a young girl. But she focused on piano and went on to study composition and conducting at Smith College. After graduating, she went on to Julliard where she fell in with Robert Shaw. And that led Parker to a 20-year collaboration as principle arranger for the Robert Shaw Chorale.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING - SING - MUSIC WAS GIVEN")

ROBERT SHAW CHORALE: (Singing) Sing, sing, music was given to brighten the gay and kindle the loving. Souls here, like planets in heaven, by harmony's laws alone are kept moving.

SCOTT: The role put Parker on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. Shaw disbanded the chorale in 1965. And after Parker's husband died unexpectedly, she was left to care for five children in New York City. Then she moved to western Massachusetts where she founded Melodious Accord. In the summer, the program brings young musicians from all over the world to study with Parker at her home. South African choral conductor Gerrit Scheepers says the most important thing he learned was sincerity.

GERRIT SCHEEPERS: Just being true to yourself and listen to your inner voice and literally just listening to what emotion that evokes in yourself and see if you can put it into music.

SCOTT: Parker's teaching methods and her unassuming personality have made her a much-loved figure among singers, conductors and composers, says Wayne Abercrombie. He's professor emeritus of choral music at the University of Massachusetts, and he's performed and conducted Parker's works.

WAYNE ABERCROMBIE: She's just so rooted and she knows it in her bones. So every time you hear Alice do her thing, you see her conduct, you hear her talk about singing, you're renewed and refreshed by what she says because it's so right, so deep.

SCOTT: Alice Parker's still composing for a commission she receives from community organizations, schools and church choirs. At 90, she's had to cut back a bit on her traveling from one trip a week to one a month. But she says she plans to continue sharing her love of music for as long as she can.

PARKER: I think it is meant to unite us as human beings in a way that nothing else can. If we're arguing with our rational minds, we're talking about which divides us. If we are singing with our intuitive minds, we are concentrating on what unites us. Our common human experience and all life experiences can be sung about.

SCOTT: To celebrate Parker's birthday, choral groups from around the country are posting performances of her work on YouTube. It's part of a project called Alice Is 90. For NPR News, I'm Charlene Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #3: (Singing, unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.