In-Depth: Kerry Ryer-Parke and the Bennington Children’s Chorus
BONNIE J. ROSS
Special to the Banner
BENNINGTON -- Kerry Ryer-Parke lives on a dead-end, dirt road in Shaftsbury with her husband Nat Parke (cellist) and their son Tristan. Kerry is a professional singer who performs classical music -- when she’s not rocking out in a local band called "The Prescription." Ryer-Parke also offers private lessons and is an artist associate in voice at Williams College. To top it all off, Kerry has worked with the Bennington Children’s Chorus since 1993 and has been director since 1995.
Kerry grew up to the strains of folk songs and traditional ballads. Her father was a semi-professional folksinger. Ryer-Parke and her twin sister, Kelly, heard him practicing around the house.
"He would forget the words. And we would always chime in," Kerry remembered with a smile. At the age of six, Kerry and Kelly made their debut singing at the Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburg, N.Y.
Ryer-Parke’s parents ran a folk music club near Boston, and there were always musicians traipsing in and out of the house, and post-concert singing parties, which would go until the wee hours of the morning.
During these parties, Ryer-Parke remembered that she "would be falling asleep somewhere on a pile of coats," drifting off to folk songs and sea shanties.
"It was an unusual, but great way to grow up," she said.
Kerry leapt into classical music studies at Bennington College, learning how to read sheet music and conduct while taking on high-level pieces of vocal music.
"I took one semester of conducting with Louis Calabro," she said. "I wish I’d taken much, much more. If I’d only known I would be conducting. Twice this year, the Chorus will be singing with Louis Calabro’s own Sage City Symphony."
Kerry’s unique childhood and education contributed to her work with the Bennington Children’s Chorus. The founder of the chorus, Barbara Kourajian, took a sabbatical, and asked Kerry to take on the junior chorus -- temporarily. Later, Kerry was asked to take over both groups.
"And then (Kourajian) never took it back," Ryer-Parke said with a laugh. "So it ended up being offered to me almost 20 years ago."
Kerry never imagined herself as the director of a children’s chorus. Aside from her brief "temporary" position with the BCC, she didn’t have much experience working with kids. She struggled to make it work, formatting pedagogies and lesson plans . . . but as she settled in and relaxed, she began to enjoy it.
"I’m not sure how good I was when I started," Ryer-Parke reflected, "because I was trying so hard to make it educational. And I squelched a lot of my natural quirkiness . . . But as it evolved, I found the more fun I had, the more fun they had. I wish people knew that about teaching in general, because you can’t not be yourself."
Walk in on a BCC rehearsal and you’ll soon find that funny accents and creative analogies are part of the creative technique that Ryer-Parke employs.
Once, to get the choristers to sing from their bellies, Ryer-Parke had them get down on hands and knees and bark like St. Bernards -- assuring them that she used the same trick with her Williams College students.
Once she had a good, deep, barking chorus going, Ryer-Parke asked the choristers to sing their piece. Then they stood up and sang -- with the deep, belly-powered voice.
This is how she works.
Ryer-Parke brings a unique side into the chorus as a performer. She finds it important that the choristers see her as an active musician. In addition, she believes her performance experience carries over to the chorus. She’s used to communicating with a large group of people, and being sensitive to their responses.
"If somebody’s having a bad day it’s like a little dark spot on my radar," Ryer-Parke said, noting she can then "bring them out a little bit."
Kids & Music
Ryer-Parke challenges her choristers with real music. She believes in the kids’ abilities and, although some of her methods might appear unusual, she would never dumb the music down. She knows her choristers, noting they always prefer "the hardest, most sophisticated" music -- and can handle it.
Ryer-Parke mentioned the time the choristers memorized dozens of Latin phrases for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. "Few adults would be comfortable without that score in front of them. I feel really strongly that people have no idea what kids can do."
Ryer-Parke frequently sees deep understanding in her choristers, noting, "They’ll figure out that a word in Latin is really almost the same as a word in German, or comment that a section of music feels like it is being braided together. I see that kind of light bulb go off all the time."
In 2011 the chorus sang music based on children’s poems written in Terezin (WWII concentration camp). Ryer-Parke saw that even the youngest choristers took seriously the profound nature of the music.
"They are serious musicians at a young age," said Kerry. "They create a high quality of art at age 8 or 7 that can move people. It’s pretty mindboggling."
Ryer-Parke finds kids often approach music differently than adults.
"They (the kids) have a freshness coming to it that is really wonderful," said Kerry. "And they tend to like things that are not as pretty as adults like -- they like weirder stuff -- strange harmonies. I learned long ago that the last things kids want to sing are lullabies and that a lot of ‘children’s music’ is just plain insulting to them."
Ryer-Parke understands that about kids.
She feels that some children’s chorus directors often strive for either an angelic sound -- or the darker sound of English and European choruses. She’s made an effort not to "force" either, noting, "because of that we can’t really compete with (the) Vienna Boys’ Choir, but we can make our own beautiful American sounds!"
The Bennington Children’s Chorus: Challenges and Benefits
Directing a children’s chorus has its share of challenges -- which often requires creative solutions.
"Rhythm really helps kids find their center," said Ryer-Parke , who chooses rhythmically strong songs that kids, even those with ADD or other issues, can "grab onto." "Once they’ve connected their bodies with the sound they make . . . I rarely have any problem with those kids. And they often have more energy for good."
Parents are usually supportive of the chorus -- many serve on the Board of Directors or help in other ways. Occasionally, though, parents chatting in the back don’t realize that they’re being disruptive, forcing Kerry to jokingly remind them that she can "make them sing at any time."
Then there’s the commitment factor. The chorus meets weekly for rehearsals, with extra rehearsals added as concerts draw near. This requires strong commitment from parents.
"I can’t get the kids if the parents don’t think it’s worth doing," Ryer-Parke explained. "The kids can’t do it on their own. As they get older there are more sports, more demands on their time, just as they are able and experienced enough to do the really good music."
Despite these various challenges, Ryer-Parke finds that there are many more pros than cons.
"When I see the kids from chorus they’re always quoting the songs they associate those songs with eras of their lives . . . It’s just woven right in there with their whole experience of themselves," Ryer-Parke noted with satisfaction.
"With any non-profit," said Kerry, "you have to think: is it about the process or the product?"
Kerry related situations where choristers going through difficult experiences have found comfort in chorus songs.
"That’s what I want: music to be there for them," Ryer-Parke said, "So that when you need it, you have some way to express yourself."
While Ryer-Parke feels all choristers retain a life-long love of music, she notes that some have taken that love to the level of musical careers. She spoke of former chorister Katie Beck, who is "poised to have a major opera career" and is currently home -- between college and graduate programs -- and assisting with the chorus.
When asked which she would choose over all the others: performing, teaching or the chorus, Ryer-Parke admitted that "every time I get overwhelmed with how many things I have going on, I always think, ‘I have to quit something. I have to quit something. What can I quit?’ and I never, ever can come up with an answer."
To learn more: The Bennington Children’s Chorus, visit: www.benningtonchildrenschorus.com
Kerry Ryer-Parke’s Rock band, "The Prescription," visit: www.rxbandvt.com.
Bonnie J. Ross is a journalism student and a graduate of the Bennington Children’s Chorus.
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