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The Vigorous Frederick Fennell

Kim Scharnberg | April May 2023

Instrumentalist Classic

Note: In our work on this issue, we took a journey through our well-loved but short-lived publication for younger musicians called Accent. Bernie Dobroski, whose life is remembered on page 3 of this issue, served as an editor of the publication for several years beginning in the late 1970s. Among the gems hiding in these dusty magazines was this charming interview with Frederick Fennell, published in the Jan/Feb 1977 issue.

This interview with Frederick Fennell (1914-2004) was conducted by Kim Scharnberg, a member of Accent’s National Student Advisory Board. Kim, a high school junior at the time, had played trombone the previous summer in a three-day conducting workshop at Coe College in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After two days of playing under the well-known guest conductor Frederick Fennell, Kim decided to ask Fennell for an Accent interview.
Fennell was agreeable, so Kim and his friend Phil Hodgin talked with him that evening. “He kept up a constant rapport with us,” Kim says, “and filled the interview with such intense discussion that we were exhausted by the end. It was very exciting to be able to play under and interview Mr. Fennell. I gained much insight into the art of conducting as well as the art of being a musician by talking with this incredible man.”
The next day Kim’s friend Tim Burke took some photographs of Fennell at the workshop. “When he was getting ready to photograph Fennell,” Kim says, “Tim asked me if he was looking at the right guy because he didn’t think Fennell looked like a conductor. He said that Fennell seemed more like a swimming coach or maybe a retired-but-still-active professional athlete because Fennell seemed “too invigorating” to be a conductor.
Frederick Fennell, often called “the father of symphonic wind ensemble,” was at the time of this interview, the conductor-in-residence at the University of Miami in Florida. He was previously on the faculty at the Eastman School of Music, where he founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble. As you can clearly see from his lively comments to Kim, Fennell was an extraordinarily dynamic person.


What do you feel is your greatest challenge as a conductor?
I think any conductor’s greatest challenge is to remain open, enthusiastic, informed, and in a state of constant curiosity – to have a mind always open to all musical styles. I feel that I can’t afford the luxury of having my mind made up and being tuned in to only one certain kind of vibration since I do most of my life’s work with young people as well as professionals. I think that just by being around the young people of today, I have to stay more alive and keep more avenues of communication open.

How do you get your message across to the players?
Anyway I can – by any way that is legal or moral. Whenever there’s any possible way that will help make music come alive. I’m ready for it.

What is one of the most common problems that you find in young conductors at your workshops?
I think my biggest challenge with young conductors – and their biggest challenge with themselves – is the fact that they are not yet really conducting. They’re busy beating time, which is, as far as I’m concerned, not conducting. But the making of music is infinitely more important than the automatic beating of time. It must transcend that perfunctory physical or merely functional role.

I’ve heard that you have your conducting students conduct underwater. Could you tell us about that?
Well, it’s really not “conducting underwater,” It’s actually getting conducting students to feel the same sensation of the resistance that the water gives to the arm and the hand as it makes its way through the water – the thought of water makes that kind of resistance very vivid to a person. As conductors we have to feel that same resistance and intensity when we conduct in the air – from the shoulder on down to the hand and fingers, all the parts that are active in the physical act of conducting. For some people, this experience is like a light that turns on in their head – “Oh yeah, maybe that’s why I can’t conduct legato music as well as I do staccato music!”
I also use the underwater image because I like swimming! Now in Florida my home has a swimming pool, and it’s a great thing for keeping my conducting physically free. All alone in my pool at night there’s no need to worry what my form looks like, whether my flutter kick is good or whether my feet are together on the dive. I am convinced that people are much too inhibited up on that podium. I was never really too inhibited, but there must have been some times when I stood up there like a dumb stick. I felt that my “water treatment” was one way of getting the students off the podium and into another medium, to enable them to look at conducting in an entirely different, physical way. Then, they don’t spend as much time worrying about how many sharps there are in the key of Ab and what finger should be used to cue the snare drum!

So you feel that physical fitness is really important in conducting?
Well, yes. I am very careful to keep myself in good physical shape, so for me it’s not any problem. Having thousands of kids to make music with every year really keeps me in shape – you can’t mess around with kids and not know what you’re doing! Plus the way I conduct is a kind of calisthenics, I suppose.
The aspect of using the body physically, just learning how to walk correctly and filling the body with oxygen – that’s so important. No musician can play a wind instrument without being filled to the brim with oxygen, and maybe that’s why lots of good musicians live so long. Oxygen is such a vital part of the health of the body, and it’s a vital part of conducting, at least for me – the whole body is involved in it, and I can’t do it any other way.
A lot of my colleagues share this attitude with me, but I also have many conductor friends who are just the opposite, and I have boundless admiration for them, too. They can stand extremely quiet with almost no body motion and still maintain magnificent control and achieve marvelous performances.

What advice would you give to an aspiring young conductor?
Just work like crazy, and study like mad! The first specific bit of advice I’d give is to play some instrument, whatever instrument you like – mine was percussion. You might choose an instrument that fits well with a symphony orchestra or a wind band or a jazz group or whatever type of group you’re hoping most to conduct some day. Or choose the piano, which fits everything and gives the player a passport to a great many things that sometimes other instruments can’t grant. Or choose singing, since the voice was the world’s first instrument.
But whatever instrument you select, run with it as far as you can. Not everybody is gifted enough to play an instrument as well as one of the great genius performers, but you must try to learn all you need to know about your instrument, its discipline, and its literature. After this, go to the best music school you can and study with the best teachers possible. Start studying scores as quickly as you can. Study theory, composition, form, analysis. Get into the whole bag of it just as fast as you can and as deeply as possible, and let nothing get in the way. You have to be a combination of all sorts of things – you must have the dedication of a doctor, the wisdom of a judge, and the heart and soul of an artist. If you don’t have these things, forget it.

What do you like to see in young players?
I like to see enthusiasm. I like to see students being absolutely knocked out and excited to play – like they can’t wait to do it. Obviously, I am a very enthusiastic individual. I know a lot of people who are very cool and unenthusiastic but who play marvelously or conduct wonderfully – and that’s fine, too. But most kids have the great ability to be so enthusiastic, and that’s the way I like to be.
I’ve been all over the country for almost all of my conducting life, and in every state I’ve conducted young kids who are so much better than I was when I was a kid, and much more informed and sophisticated. These kids know what they’re doing and where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. Young people are not just a future part of the arts scene in this country – they are the arts scene today. They used to pat young people on the head and say, “Well, when you grow up” and “later.” That’s all gone – everybody’s in it now. A student who wants to get completely immersed in music by going to live concerts, instead of just by buying records, will find that it’s all there waiting for him. Just go, and don’t worry about what you know or don’t know about it, because none of us really “knows” anything about it either. There’s just no substitute for the chemistry of being in the auditorium when it takes place. You can sit on the edge of the pool for years and watch the most magnificent color films on what it’s like to swim – but until you really get in that water, you’re not swimming!