Alice Parker Week: Lessons from Shaw

It’s Alice Parker Week: In addition to being a living legend as a composer and arranger, Alice is a beautifully polished author. Her writings exhibit the same clarity and parsimony of her music. I’ve selected some quotes from her books as meditations for this week.

Today, a few choice lessons Alice describes in her lovely memorial to the legendary conductor Robert Shaw.

The memories are crystal-clear: his pointing to a coda of a sketch, saying: “That’s the first idea you’ve had.

Changing one note in a phrase; adjusting one duration; listening always to breathing so that it is built into the song; speaking text aloud to capture vowels, consonant, diphthongs, accents, colors; recognizing which elements which would unite the whole; “one idea per verse”; enormous care with exact durations and cut-offs; learning that if you have a great melody to work with, you mostly need to stay out of its way (you can afford to be clever with the less-great).

For Tom’s (Alice’s husband & Shaw’s right-hand man in the RS Chorale) memorial service, Robert came to New York and conducted a volunteer choir of 500 […] in the Brahms Requiem […] (I remember being completely transported by the service). Who can do the same for him? I know there have been and will be many tributes. I know how many lives he touched through his unique genius. I will miss him as a good friend, a tireless pursuer of excellence, a delightful raconteur, and a wonderful teacher.

What did I learn? There’s no holding back – throw yourself in, without counting the cost or time. Be your own harshest critic (I was never as good at that as he.) Listen all the time: the specific word,accent, mouth, voice, person, composer. Capture the sound on the page. In the last analysis (and the first) one can’t separate the text, the melody, and the setting: it’s all one. […] And the music is one of the greatest gifts and sternest masters. When we enter its world, we must submerge our individuality in its surge and ebb, only finding our own voice through the mastery of its demands.

It’s a lot to live up to. Thanks, Robert – and rest well.

From Reflections on Song: My Musical World, pages 78-79 (March 1999)

Learning from Alice’s words, from our time together, and of course from her music, has made me feel like a small part of a long chain. Parker, Shaw, Herford, Waring, and on and on, backward through time, connected to the song.

For me, there might be nothing more inspiring than to read an expert writing about their mentor. Alice’s words on Shaw speaks volumes about their connection, about both him and her.

I am blessed to know Alice, and the last week spent reconnecting with her writings has been a great pleasure. Tomorrow I’ll have a brief bibliography of suggested readings.