Seven years ago this week, the music world lost an absolute giant. According to his colleagues and admirers, Frederick Fennell was “arguably the most famous band conductor since John Philip Sousa.”
It’s safe to say that without Fennell’s work at Eastman, many of us would not have the jobs that we do today. Fennell was instrumental (HA!) in developing the modern wind ensemble. His passion not only helped create an entirely new type of ensemble, it helped develop a repertoire of music for the ensemble from master composers as well. Any teacher, student or enthusiast of wind ensemble music today owes Fennell a debt of gratitude.
I was fortunate enough to have my own experience with Fennell just weeks before he passed. When I was a freshman at Michigan State, I had the pleasure of playing under Fennell’s baton. I don’t remember many specifics about the rehearsal other than it was an 8AM rehearsal on a Friday morning, and everybody was really excited to be there, which was odd. Most of us even showed up a half-hour early, such was our excitement to be conducted by a legend.
I don’t remember what we played, other than it was a Fennell march. But the thing that sticks out in my mind is that in a room full of career musicians, none of us could even hope to approach the enthusiasm and passion of Mr. Fennell. This 90-year old brought as much energy to the rehearsal as the 20-year old musicians that he was teaching. It was a moment that showed how music can truly be a lifelong experience.
Just a month or so after his visit, Fennell passed away. Even in his very last moments, he remained a passionate musician, saying, “I cannot die without a drummer…I hear him. I’m O.K. now.”