Dear family and friends of Fenno Heath –
I will always remember Fenno as the first person who gave me a chance to sing in a school group. I used to sing in the kids’ choir, then graduated to being the youngest member of the adult choir in several churches. However, when I tried to join my high school choir, they said I couldn’t because I couldn’t sight read. I could read music and play piano and flute, but I couldn’t match notes without at least one listening time through the music. When I changed high schools for my senior year, I was so defeated by the previous rejection, that I didn’t even try. When I got to Yale and tried out for the Freshman Chorus (then directed by someone other than Fenno), the same thing happened again.
Finally, I tried out for the Glee Club with Fenno – he said he couldn’t understand why I didn’t get into the Freshman Chorus and welcomed me into the Glee Club, despite my lack of sight-singing expertise. Over the next three years as I sang under Fenno twice a week on serious (and some fun) music, I finally learned how to sight read. All I had needed was a chance and Fenno was the first person to give me that. In the 30+ years since I graduated from Yale, I have had the opportunity to sing for a Revels recording, for a performance of the Fauré Requiem as the soprano soloist for the Pié Jésu, and in numerous church choirs. I have been a tenor for Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, an alto for a chorus in Livermore, CA, and finally back to the soprano Fenno first placed me in. His custom of insisting the Glee Club sing in a mixed format gave me practice and confidence in holding my own among different parts which has never failed me. I make myself useful in my current choir by being able to learn the ATB parts as they practice, so that I can support or supplement as needed. We are very small – only about 10 members in my church choir – with a wide range of singing and sight-reading ability, so our rehearsal times are full of parts practice. Thus it can happen that on Sunday morning the choir director/organist notices one of the hymns has a descant, which she asks me to sing 30 minutes later! Again, what Fenno gave me in the Glee Club holds true – be willing to try to sing anything and when you practice sing even your mistakes loudly so the director can hear and correct any problems.
Fenno was kind and gentle, and demanding and fierce. He was teacher and guide and had a great sense of humor when the situation called for it, as well as the capacity for serious annoyance on occasion. I remember when the Glee Club and the Whiffenpoofs did a European tour the summer of 1977. When we got to Copenhagen, we were taken on a tour of the Tübingen beer plant and finished with a red carpet tasting room full of all the beers in all their variety of colors. The bottles were carefully stacked upright in several piles on each table with one or two bottles of orange juice and a few sodas in each pile. It was a measure of the self-respect the Glee Club had for their performances and their desire not to let Fenno down, that the juices and the sodas went very rapidly and much of the beer was untouched or people had just one. Following the tour, we were taken to the main city park and treated to a smorgebröt luncheon with beer in kegs. Again, the Glee Club people didn’t indulge much. The same could not be said for the Whiffenpoofs and Fenno was LIVID, when he had to deal with drunk Whiffs right before the concert was due to begin. I found out from another student, as Fenno gave no sign during our performance that anything was wrong. Besides – you could tell they were having a hard time as we watched during our intermission as they sang. I have no idea what Fenno said, but I know he was most angered by the way they were letting Yale down.
Another incident was during a winter tour, when the Glee Club was travelling from a concert in far western New York state to our final tour concert at the Yale Club in New York City. We occupied two tour busses, driving through a blizzard so bad that the only way to get through was for the busses to follow immediately behind the slowplows on the New York Turnpike. We ended up traveling through the night and when one bus broke down, we crowded as many from the second bus onto the one that could still drive. Of course, we made sure that Fenno got on, even though he was making noises about needed to stay with the students left behind. Some people managed to get up onto the luggage racks to try and nap, but no one got much sleep. We arrived at the Yale Club with just enough time to wash up and change before going on stage. There was a suggestion we not do the concert which was cried down by all. So, tired and rather hungry, the show went on. It wasn’t without its moments, though. One of the sopranos, who sang in the back row because she was so tall, fainted during a song, toppling forward into the two rows in front of her but sparing the very front row. She was caught and carried off stage by one of the basses, still singing his part as he disappeared into the wings! Fenno never batted an eyelash although he must have seen it, so we followed his cue and kept on singing as people picked themselves up off the risers and took up their parts and places again. I think it happened during one of the Yale football songs, which we knew so well we could sing them without our full attention.
That’s another thing Fenno taught me - With the exception of the Bach B Minor Mass, Fenno insisted our concerts be completely memorized. I have never stopped doing so in all the years since. It’s a great habit and I’ll always be grateful to the man who taught me and coached me during my years at Yale.
Goodbye, Fenno, and rest well.
Jodi H. Benson
F F Heath Jr. 12-30-1926 to 12-05-2008
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Thank you. Your letters bring us joy.
~Carol, Sarah, Lucy, Peggy, and Terry Heath