African-American classical singer settles in Spokane
Derrick Parker's love of music drew him out of a predominantly black middle school in Atlanta, Georgia, into a magnet performing arts high school, where half the students were black like him and half were white.
That shift included adding classical music to his childhood repertoire of pop and gospel music, singing and playing piano by ear in black Baptist and Church of God churches. One day, the school's white music director introduced the choir to Mozart.
Today, Derrick is music director at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, responsible for music at an early contemporary service with a band and at the traditional service with organ and a 40-member choir.
His career as a classical opera and concert singer has often meant he is the only black person in the room, he said.
His horizons for that career were stretched by his high school's singers, dancers and technicians traveling during spring break for performances in Europe, Russia and the Caribbean Islands. They earned $5,000 for performing at business conventions to raise money for the school and to supplement students' travel expenses.
"Traveling abroad was life changing, exposing me to different cultures and giving me the confidence to venture outside my comfort zone," he said. "I wish more Americans had such opportunities."
Derrick earned a bachelor's degree in voice in 1996 from Florida State University in Tallahassee and a master's in voice in 1998 at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where he met his wife, Heather, a Whitworth University graduate who grew up in Spokane.
After a two-year internship with the Houston Grand Opera Studio, he and Heather moved to New York City. From there, they sang professionally for six years in operas and concerts, and from a home in the Poconos for three years. They traveled mostly around the United States and in Europe. He also sang in South Africa and the Canary Islands. Occasionally they were hired together. For an opera, he might be gone several months, or for a concert, several days.
In 2009, they moved to Spokane to care for Heather's grandparents. After their first daughter was born, Heather phased out of performing, and now has a private voice studio and a photography business. Derrick continued to perform. He also taught voice lessons and a vocal class at Gonzaga University for a year.
After her grandparents died, Heather and Derrick stayed in Spokane to be with her mother.
Committed to living in Spokane, they began attending the 9 a.m. contemporary service at First Presbyterian Church, with their daughters, who are now 11 and six.
In 2012, Garth Hangartner, the music director, asked Derrick to help with playing piano and the Hammond organ, and singing for the contemporary service.
In 2015, Derrick became an elder.
In 2016, Garth moved to Alaska, and Derrick became interim musician for the contemporary service. Organist Bonnie Robinson was interim music director for the traditional service, and Ann Benson was interim choir director.
In January 2017, Ann asked Derrick to fill in for a rehearsal.
"I had fun running it. That planted a seed. I began thinking I could do the job of music director," he said, connecting to his experiences working "with amazing conductors and amazing choirs."
He interviewed and was hired.
Derrick said leading music for worship "prepares people's minds, hearts and souls to hear from God through music, the word or even a conversation with someone at church.
"Music clears our minds of stress and challenges from the week," he said. "Music unites us and penetrates deeply into the soul in ways words cannot do."
With a background in lively worship, Derrick invites the congregation to be comfortable with "a varied" worship style that includes lifting their hands, clapping and stretching into gospel music.
"Songs are carefully selected to support the message of the day. My hope is that the music lives within the people throughout the week as they experience the ups and downs of life," Derrick said.
For years, First Presbyterian has had a contemporary and a traditional service. In the last decade, more members have been attending the contemporary one.
"We have stabilized the traditional service by improving the quality of the service and the choir, which has also grown in numbers. About 30 to 35 of the 40 members are there each week," Derrick said.
For the traditional service, music includes the choir, organ and handbells. A children's choir sings throughout the year.
For the contemporary service, there is a pool of 25 volunteers, so different groups of people play in different bands each week—pianists, guitarists, bass guitarists, cellists, drummers and singers.
"I love teaching, and I teach as I lead the choir and band," he said. "As the choir improves, we will draw younger people. In the summer, I also give voice lessons to choir members. Part of my role is to shepherd the choir and worship teams to be a community, a family."
While Derrick continues to sing around the country and world, he accepts fewer jobs. Last year, he sang with the Seattle Opera, and this fall he did two concerts with the Spokane Symphony.
"My family is important. I want my daughters to know me. It's worth the sacrifice of singing fewer engagements," he said.
Derrick said First Presbyterian is predominantly white, but there are some refugees, people of different cultures and a few African-Americans who attend services.
Living in Atlanta, which has sections where blacks live and sections where whites live, people had stereotypes about people of other cultures and races.
"Our high school group broke through stereotypes," Derrick said. "A white family hosted students before shows. Everyone was together and worked together. We cared about each other genuinely.
"It gave me the courage to pursue a career path where I would see few African Americans and feel comfortable among white people," he said.
"I hope my presence here in our community as an African American in a leadership role at a predominantly white church helps break down the stereotypes that exist about people of color," Derrick said.
First Presbyterian presents a community sing-along performance of Handel's "Messiah" each year.
About 27 singers will join the regular choir for at least four of five rehearsals and the orchestra dress rehearsal. The day of the sing-along, about 350 others come early to practice the hard parts for an hour.
The rehearsal is at 1:30 p.m., and the sing-along begins at 3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14, at First Presbyterian Church, 318 S. Cedar.
"Messiah is one of the first major pieces I learned in high school. It's cool to circle back to it," he said. "Our church offers it as a gift to the community."
For information, call 747-1058 or visit fpcspokane.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2019