Caitlin Parsons '02: Singer, Songwriter, Scientist

Caitlin Parsons '02 hamming it up at age six.

Like many of her young peers in the 1980s, Caitlin Parsons '02 was a Madonna junkie. But unlike most six-year-olds mugging before their bedroom mirrors hairbrush mike in hand, Parsons practiced for real. Punked up with hairdos by her professional coiffeur dad, and outfits sewn by Mom, Caitlin belted out versions of “True Blue” and “Everybody” onstage—well, the old proscenium stage at Woodlin Elementary in Silver Spring, Maryland. But those early talent show successes set her on a path of accomplishment in music—including playing the bass at the Kennedy Center and at Carnegie Hall with the National Youth Orchestra in 1996 and 1997—that continues to earn her high praise today.

Parsons, a talented singer/songwriter and bass player, produced her own compact disc, In My Distraction, last year, and is now working on her second. “She's just amazing,” says Mark Gionfriddo, MHC's Catholic music director and instructor. “I was completely blown away by her CD.” Distraction's dozen songs narrate confessions of friendship, desire, love, and loss, and are performed in a soothing melodic alto evocative of today's folk-rock females, such as Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos, both significant influences for Parsons. Her father, Doug, plays backup on guitar, but she provided other instrumentals for the CD, everything from the keyboard to the drum machine.

Parsons also sings with the MHC jazz band, where her vocal versatility is manifest in a smoky torch song style reminiscent of artists from the 1940s and 1950s. Gionfriddo notes that this work summons up Julie London and Linda Ronstadt's Nelson Riddle phase. Ronstadt has provided Parsons with much of her inspiration, says Gionfriddo. “That torch singer quality endears her to the audience,” he says. “She's got that unique ability to connect with the audience that most professional musicians strive for.”

In addition to performing as a jazz vocalist—she's active with the V-8s a cappella group as well—Parsons is a proficient instrumentalist. She plays bass (both acoustic and electric) on her CD and in the jazz band (which Sarah Russo '01, a pianist, and Parsons started in the spring of 1999). She also plays bass for MHC's symphony orchestra and Euridice, the College's chamber orchestra ensemble. “She's just a great musician all around,” says Gionfriddo, who recounts a practice during which Parsons sat in on the drums when he needed some percussion for a swing tune. “She's not even a drummer, but she started playing the part and figured it out,” he says. The piano became for Parsons the “distraction” for which her CD is titled.

Last summer Caitlin Parsons '02 participated in an internship in Hawaii, during which she backpacked on remote beaches collecting data on an endangered turtle species.

A natural with the microphone, Parsons is every bit as comfortable with the microscope. She is majoring in biology (her minor is music), and by all indications she has what it takes for a career in the sciences. Stan Rachootin, professor of biological sciences and Parson's adviser, is impressed not just with her versatility but with her keen memory. “She is equally at home observing the feeding behavior of a leech, or connecting its movements to its anatomy, or measuring its biomechanical properties,” says Rachootin. “And, having taught her over three years, I am haunted by what she quotes back to me from her first year, or even before that—a lecture she heard when she came for Preview [an MHC program for prospective students].”

Last summer Parsons participated in a unique internship in Hawaii, in which she backpacked on remote beaches of the Big Island collecting data on an endangered turtle species. From 6 am to 2 am she measured and tagged hawksbill sea turtles and observed their nesting habits. And she spent plenty of time simply waiting for the creatures to come ashore. “It taught me how to be okay when I wasn't doing anything,” she says. “I've been overcommitted my whole life.” But “doing nothing” in Parsons parlance means keeping active nonetheless. Parsons wrote five songs during this period and tapped out tunes on her portable keyboard back at the base camp situated at the mouth of the Kilauea volcano. These songs will be featured on her new CD.

Back at MHC, Parsons decided she needed to limit her commitments, which meant leaving the MHC equestrian team—she's been a riding actively for a decade—where Joy Collins, instructor and assistant program director at the equestrian center, says she is noted for her “can-do attitude.” Parsons says she could not have done all that she has without the encouragement and support of her parents, with whom she has special bonds. While her father has been her mentor in the music world, her mother has become a sister in the sciences. Cathy Parsons is now a biology major and Ada Comstock scholar at Smith College.

While Parsons remains dedicated to science, her primary passion is music. “My immediate goal is to keep my hands and my voice in the best shape they can be in.” She plans to spend the summer in New York City with the hope of finding venues for performance.


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