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The Gospel according to Alice Parker

Alice Parker (front) and Tinky Weisblat were neighbors in Hawley, Massachusetts.
Peter Beck
Coutesy of the author
Alice Parker (front) and Tinky Weisblat were neighbors in Hawley, Massachusetts.

Composer and conductor Alice Parker died last week at her home in Hawley, Massachusetts, at the age of 98.

Just about anyone who has ever sung in a choir or chorus is familiar with the spirituals, hymns and folk songs she arranged over the years.

Alice was my neighbor and honorary aunt. I recently heard a woman at my church eulogize her as sweet and gentle.

Well ... no.

No one manages to carve out the kind of career Alice had, maintain a marriage, and raise five children by being sweet and gentle. She was determined and forthright and sure of herself.

She was also extraordinarily charming, which mitigated her forthrightness. And she was often kind, funny and generous.

She was my official taster when I developed recipes for articles and cookbooks. She was also for many years my pianist when I sang. She didn’t do this for the money; we never got paid much. She just had fun making music.

She often asked me to sing for the composers and song leaders who came to study with her, not because my voice was extraordinary — it’s not — but because I sang with heart and humor. I think she hoped I would help her students bypass their fancy musical education and recover the joy in singing they had experienced as children.

Alice Parker (front) surveys one of Tinky Weisblat's creations.
Peter Beck
Courtesty of the author
Alice Parker (front) surveys one of Tinky Weisblat's creations.

Listing everything I learned from Alice would take days. Here are a few key points:

  • Music is a natural mode of expression that connects us to other people.
  • Musicians are excellent cooks. Alice was famous for the bread she started making in large quantities when her children were small. That bread was as almost as much a gift to the world as her music.
  • What we do for a living, particularly if we are lucky enough to work in a creative field, isn’t separate from our personal lives. Alice’s songs and her life bled into each other and enriched each other.
  • The notes on a page of music aren’t the music. The music is created only when people perform it.
  • Music should be something we make, not just something we buy.
  • Finally, "When you get up each morning," Alice said, "ask yourself what you can do that day that will make a difference in a year. Then do it." (Hint: It’s never cleaning the house!)

Thank you, Alice.
Tinky Weisblat is a writer and singer who lives in Hawley, Massachusetts.

FROM THE NEPM ARCHIVES: At 90, It’s Still All About The Melody For Hawley’s Famed Alice Parker

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