Mildred West Wiseman Packard — Milli, to friends and family — has always had a song in her heart.
Lots of them, actually, says the Mesa octogenarian, who grew up in the 1920s in a sheep camp in Lakeside.
“I’d go out in the woods and create these melodies, always wishing there was a way I could record them or write them down.”
Saturday, she’ll get to share her music with a larger audience, when Symphony of the Southwest plays her original song, “Holy Child,” at its annual holiday concert.
“It’s just a lovely piece of music. It fits the Christmas bill perfectly, and it should be heard,” says Cal Stewart Kellogg, the orchestra’s music director.
He discovered the song in a misplaced folder this fall, four or five years after Packard, who will be 90 in February, first put it in his hands.
“She came up in this line of well wishers after a concert and said she was a composer and had a piece, and maybe I could use it. She’s quite a live wire and a vivacious lady,” says Kellogg, who arranged the three-and-a-half-minute song for orchestra.
Packard wrote “Holy Child” in the early 1980s. By then, the mother of eight had written scores of tunes, setting poems she liked to music to entertain her children, writing funeral songs in memory of friends and relatives, and composing hymns for church concerts.
Ever resourceful, she published much of her music herself, using an old Olympia typewriter with keys that typed musical notes instead of letters and hand-gluing lyrics and notes in place to form sheet music.
“I never thought I’d be able to have a recording of one of my songs, because I didn’t have the money. I used to have the idea about money that if I didn’t have it, I couldn’t do things,” she recalls, sitting at her piano, a prized possession from local shop Milano Music Center.
But a seminar challenged her to think creatively to achiever her goals, and she printed cards asking for contributions. She promised dinner and a cassette tape to anyone who gave a donation, and slowly but surely, she scraped together enough to start recording her music.
“Just because you don’t have the money doesn’t mean you can’t do something. You have to find a way,” she says.
Turns out, she’d already been doing that a long time, even if she hadn’t realized it.
‘Music was a top priority’
Around 1939, Packard had her first exposure to “formal” music education, a five-week chorale clinic at Arizona State Teachers College, now Northern Arizona University. It cost $25, due upon arrival.
“My parents were having a tough time right then. The store went broke, and they were in Chino Valley, raising pinto beans. They agreed to send me $5 a week, and to get there I hitchhiked. My dad taught me how, because I didn’t have any other way of getting there,” she says.
When she arrived without the money to pay her tuition, Packard was sent to the university president. The teenager worked out a deal to pay as she went — and she ended up winning the clinic’s soprano solo.
“I still wonder how my parents got that $5 every week. They must have played music for money, at dances, to do it. I’m still amazed by their generosity and kindness and support, their belief in me,” she says.
Her mother, she says, had “the purest” voice, and her father made his first fiddle out of a baking powder can.
“Music was a top priority in our house. As long as you were doing something with music, you were excused from your chores.”
Packard went on to earn teaching certification from the college in Flagstaff and took jobs at places like Safeway and bookstores. More than 30 years after graduating — after raising kids, singing in choirs and leading community arts groups — she went back to school, studying music for three years at Mesa Community College.
“One of my favorite things was percussion. And I loved the bassoon. Over there, they let you try everything, all the instruments. I gave my first and only violin concert after that,” she says.
Packard breaks into song easily, her voice bright and happy. She describes music as a gift — but not one that was ever hers to hoard.
“(My songs) don’t do anybody any good sitting in my closet. I want people to sing them, to enjoy them.”
She says music has blessed her in return. She remembers the names of music teachers, friends and acquaintances whose words and deeds had an impact on her.
“Feedback and ideas from people who are interested in giving their help, sharing their ideas, is one of the great treasures I’ve been given,” she says.
‘I’ve come a long way’
Kellogg, who will conduct Symphony of the Southwest when it performs “Holy Child” amid a slew of other Christmastime songs, says it’s not often that the orchestra performs unknown music.
“You have to find the right way to program a piece that nobody knows. In this case, we have a number of standard holiday and Christmas fare, and to insert (this piece) with the others makes perfect sense. I was enamored with the subtle beauty of it, and I was a champion of it the minute I read it. There are so many lovely holiday tunes out there, and this one could take its place right among them,” he says.
Arizona State University graduate Allison Stanford will sing Packard’s song, with the backing of the symphony.
These days, Packard, who counts operatic singers Maria Callas and Rosa Ponselle among her favorite voices of all time, still sings in the church choir, though she’s careful to only mouth the words when she feels her voice might wobble or be off key.
And she still makes music — though she’s traded the typewriter and cassette tapes for computer software, iTunes and an iPod.
Next, she wants to work on forming a group of singers, like the Wiseman Singers she and her late husband organized in Mesa in the 1970s and ’80s.
“By now, I’ve been able to soften up on some things about myself and sharpen some others, but I still feel like a beginner. I’ve come a long way, but there’s so much I have to learn still ahead of me,” says Packard. “I used to think 90 was old, but now that I’m here, I have plenty of reasons to get up every morning. That’s how I live my life. I’m glad to have things to do.”