Marianna Parnas-Simpson is the chorus teacher at Parker Elementary School, a founding member of the Houston Chamber Choir, and the founder and artistic director of the Treble Choir of Houston. Yet, when she was 17, her life was on a very different path.
“My parents wanted me to be an engineer, [so] I went to school in engineering. Then a couple of years later I realized it was a grave mistake,” says Parnas-Simpson with a laugh.
Parnas-Simpson now embraces her passion for choral music, which will be celebrated during the Houston Chamber Choir’s 23rd season opener, This Is Why I Sing. For Parnas-Simpson, the answer to why she sings is clear, but the road to get there has been long.
After earning a master’s degree in Choral Conducting and spending ten years directing a girls’ choir in St. Petersburg, Parnas-Simpson emigrated to the United States in 1990. But unable to speak English and with a 13-year-old daughter to support, she decided to go to school for radiology. “I graduated from there feeling such a void in my heart,” says Parnas-Simpson. “I knew I was doing something wrong to my soul, but I had to support my daughter. Then, a lot of luck came down my way.”
Parnas-Simpson says there were two great “lucks” in her life. The first, she says, was meeting Robert Simpson, her husband and the founder of the Houston Chamber Choir, which just brought home this year’s Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence. The second is Parker Elementary, a school she describes as “unique, not just in Houston, but in the country,” hiring her for her first real music job in the United States.
“They believed in me, this nobody from Russia. I was nobody from Russia, a suspicious woman,” laughs Parnas-Simpson. “It’s not really easy to be a foreigner and start making your way.”
Established almost 40 years ago, Cynthia Ann Parker Elementary School is an HISD magnet school for music with nine faculty music teachers. “Music is the center of attention [at Parker],” says Parnas-Simpson. “Every day at 3 o’clock if you walk in the school you hear music from different classes.”
Now in her 19th year at Parker, Parnas-Simpson says she has about 250 students, grades one to five, in her chorus program. She’s proud to say that the nine- and ten-year-old fourth and fifth graders that make up her Advanced Chorus, the group that will join Kinder HSPVA Chorale and the Houston Chamber Choir for This Is Why I Sing, will sing a repertoire similar to that of middle and high school students by the time they graduate.
“Part of the magic of teaching children is you can teach them anything,” says Parnas-Simpson.
Though she admits her students tend to favor jazz and contemporary music, and songs with movement or funny words, they also appreciate the old masters and can recognize good music when they hear it. She also picks compositions from all over the world, so her students occasionally sing in Russian, Latin, German, French and more.
“They don’t know these languages, but they know the soul. They know what is it about and it gives them a great pride to say, ‘Oh, I know how to speak Russian.’ Of course they don’t, but they sing it.”
Parnas-Simpson argues that such exposure further expands her students’ horizons. “If they learn Russian music they know where Russia is on the map. They know a little bit of history. They know geography. This kind of education comes with it, too.”
Despite her belief that early musicianship makes students smarter, better organized, and better prepared to make good choices, HISD’s cuts to arts programs have hit Parker for the first time in 40 years this year. Parnas-Simpson says the district cut one music teacher position at Parker – but expanded the number of district officials. Parker’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) is now funding one music teacher position, but Parnas-Simpson says she won’t be surprised if they cut another.
“But I’m still here. We are all here,” says Parnas-Simpson. “We’re all doing this for the love of art and the love of children. That’s all we’re doing it for, not for the appreciation of the district’s politicians and not for the glory and not for money.”
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So, when Parnas-Simpson’s Advanced Chorus joins the Houston Chamber Choir for This Is Why I Sing, she sees the concert as “passing the torch of choral art.”
Each group will take a turn on stage and at the end join together to perform “This Is Why We Sing,” a song Parnas-Simpson describes as “the sound of hope, the sound of peace, the sound that celebrates” which “speaks what we believe.”
“It’s nice from time to time to just explain it to yourself, to the world, just why [we sing],” says Parnas-Simpson. “It brings a lot more than just art. Art is for changing lives. It brings people perspective and hope and pleases their spirits. Only art can do that.”
The Houston Chamber Choir opens their 23rd season with This Is Why I Sing scheduled for 7:30 p.m. September 29 at South Main Baptist Church, 4100 Main. For information, call 713-224-5566 or visit houstonchamberchoir.org. $10 to $40.