My 21st birthday, many years ago, was a strange day. I was a junior at Yale, and the entire East Coast had just suffered a freak early-April blizzard. I remember trudging through piles of snow in the morning to get to my my painting studio, and then clumsily tipping over a jar of turpentine on the bench where I sat in front of my canvas. I was wearing layers and layers of clothing (the studio, maybe to make us feel more like real starving artists, wasn't heated), so barely noticed at first. But turpentine is evil. It seeped through all the fabric and suddenly, an hour later, the skin on my left leg was in agonizing pain. I left the studio and made it back across town in blinding snow to my dorm, where I stood under a shower for many minutes in hopes that cool water would ease my distress. It didn't. I then hiked over to the undergrad health services building, where I joined a long line of sniffling students with hacking coughs. I gave up after an hour and instead headed to a local pharmacy, where I bought every kind of aloe and salve I could find, slathered it on my thigh, and went back to my room for a fitful nap.
That evening, leg wrapped in a bandage, I limped over to the Yale Glee Club office where 80 people sang "Happy Birthday" and then voted me in as their next manager. I heard their voices and forgot all the pain. (And my leg ended up being just fine.) Thus began a year, culminating in a tour of Europe with the group, my first time overseas, that would teach me how to start being an adult--and that music was as necessary as breathing to live life fully.
I remembered this moment in the wake of great sadness: Fenno F. Heath, Jr., conductor of the Glee Club during my tenure, and anyone else's who was lucky to be a member between the years of 1953 and 1992, passed away peacefully last Friday at 6:12 pm at the age of 81. I never before realized how much his philosophy was similar to that of the rabbis at my synagogue: give music freely, and it will repair the world. So much of my spiritual life--chanting Torah, helping lead services--as well as my work life, has its origin in what I learned from Fenno: work hard and be good at what you do. And do it with your whole heart. I'm pretty sure the voice I often hear in my head when chanting ("Don't go flat!") is his.
Forty years' worth of Glee Club members have been sharing our memories, and I added a few of my own:
I loved how Fenno would begin "'Neath the Elms." Just a little flick of the wrist in our direction--"Go!" As if to say: I gave you all the tools, and now it's your job. Don't worry, I'll help. But you lucky people get to do most of it.
Singing, since Yale, has remained my biggest hobby--in 25 years I've never been without an opportunity to raise my voice in the company of others, and owe much of this addiction to my Glee Club experience. I've had some terrific conductors, but can honestly say that none came close to Fenno for the passion and drive to excellence he managed to instill in us all, always with good humor and the reminder that this was, above all, fun. From Fenno I learned that a well-lived life must have two often-overlapping parts: singing, and everything else.
I spent an hour last Friday afternoon reading the beautiful words everyone has shared and then, as usual, went to Friday evening services at my synagogue. I belong to a congregation where prayer is always in the form of music--they subscribe completely to Fenno's exhortation that there's too much talking going on. But as I walked in, a little after 6:00 pm, my heart was heavy with the loss I knew this world would soon bear, and I wondered how I could sing of the joy that the Sabbath brings. Then I heard everyone's voices in harmony around me, and realized that if I learned one thing from Fenno it was that when given the chance to sing, take it. The outcome would always be good and healing. I bet Fenno was standing in front of the heavenly choir at that very moment and telling them the same thing.