Alice Parker Week: Alternative Voice Lessons

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.

In today’s reflection, Alice writes about her experiences developing her own voice and vocal technique. She describes her voice at 16 as “soft, breathy, no support, limited range” and says that after four summers at Westminster Choir College Summer Vocal Camp with John Finley Williamson, she had a voice “about the size of a pinpoint.” She says that when she auditioned for Robert Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale, he “said ‘fantastic intonation’ – and said that I could come sing if I always sat in the back row and never intruded on his ears.”

She concludes her writing about “the variety of sounds the human voice can produce” with her discovery of song leading and how to “line out a song” so that a group could follow.

The surprising discovery was that when my whole attention was on communicating the song – ‘becoming’ the song, in a way – my voice really began to flowery, and I could enjoy listening to myself.

It’s still not great shakes as a voice – but it can do honor to a song, and I do love the feeling of singing: of channeling my whole being into that stream of sound that can so affect the listener.

So – I have an alternative to voice lessons for people scared of the idea: learn from the songs. The songs will teach you how the voice should sound – listen, imagine, and try it.

The more different songs you song (and folk songs are the foundation), the more sounds you’ll have at your disposal. If you are teaching, listen for idiomatic performance of the song, and lead with our own voice, not a keyboard. Don’t dominate with a loud voice: actually sing more softly, with a ‘listening-singing’ attitude. This promotes a light, flexible tone which can be wonderfully expressive. I’m convinced that’s what released my voice. Such as it is!

From Reflections on Song: My Musical World, page 115-16 (March 2005)

When I say to my students, “I want you to keep singing after high school”, I must remember that this is what I should be facilitating. Not soloists with the symphonic choir. Not fronting a big band or mastering Mozart arias. Those are important, too.

But what I want all my students to find, is the ability to listen to the song, and find a way to express the melody with heart and connectedness.

Learn to understand the song, and keep making the sounds for yourself, and the people around you. It’s what I aim for in my own slightly-unreliable singing. It isn’t about mastering the song with your voice – it’s about letting the song master your voice, and guide it into expressing the meaning inside the melody.