Music News & Reviews

Despite broken leg at 90, there's no stopping voice teacher Phyllis Jenness

Even after breaking a leg two months ago,  Phyllis Jenness, 90,  continues to give voice  lessons, but from a rehab center, not home, where this photo was taken in 2010.
Even after breaking a leg two months ago, Phyllis Jenness, 90, continues to give voice lessons, but from a rehab center, not home, where this photo was taken in 2010.

Phyllis Jenness stepped off the podium a long time ago.

As founding director of the Lexington Singers and longtime director of the voice program at the University of Kentucky, Jenness set many things in motion that have made vocal music one of the primary artistic genres in the Lexington area. Those programs are now under the batons of others, but Jenness has not stopped developing the region's voice.

Her "Be a Better Singer" program has been training adults to find their voices for nearly a decade, resulting in some performers, including Andrew Moore, who staged their own concerts.

When Moore started the class, he told Jenness, "What I'd like to do is get some of these higher notes right," he recalled in an interview with the Herald-Leader last year. She said, "We can do more than that."

Jenness' devotion to her students and her craft has always been apparent, never more so than now.

Two months ago, Jenness, 90, broke her leg. She has been in rehabilitation at Sayre Christian Village retirement home. But the classes did not miss a step, moving from her home to the center, with Sayre's full cooperation. That is where she will hold her spring recitals next weekend, showing off a group of singers whom tough critic says is worthy of being heard.

"I have really been pleased so many people are singing much better," Jenness says from Sayre. "They are much more sophisticated singers than when they started."

Some completely discovered their voices.

Jenness recalls one man who accompanied his wife to a lesson.

"He was told as a child he couldn't sing, and had believed that ever since," Jenness says. So they started with singing exercises, "and you could hear a voice wandering around. By the third lesson, that voice was coming out."

That student will be singing the Leonard Cohen standard Hallelujah next weekend. Other students will be tackling music by the likes of Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Rossini and Carl Orff — "things I wouldn't have thought about when we started," Jenness says.

The class started with a dual purpose, she says.

After her retirement, she became involved in InterCultural Connections, a group that raises money to help children in distressed communities around the world.

"We were trying to find ways to raise money, and I said, 'Well, I could teach a voice class,'" Jenness says.

That was nine years ago.

She still does not take a dime for teaching the two classes, one of which has been going the whole nine years, and the other for three. All of the $40-a-month class fees go to InterCultural Connections; the Saturday class specifically supports an orphanage in Guatemala.

"We are doing better singing and making the world better," Jenness says. "The rewards are so much more than financial. Here I am at 90 years old finding a way I'm useful to society, and I'm enjoying it."

Inadvertently, it has brought music into the Sayre community.

"She practices down the hall in the afternoon when I'm working, and it's really nice," says Ann Phillips, administrator at Sayre Health Care Center. She said Jenness's level of activity at her age is "extraordinary. She's very talented, and her classes have provided great entertainment and stimulation. Music is therapy for our residents."

In particular, the Saturday morning class has been visited by residents with Alzheimer's disease who have listened and participated.

Phillips noted that Jenness has offered to give free voice lessons to any resident who wants them.

Jenness says she is two months through what she understands to be a three-month recovery period. She plans to return home, though Phillips says she hopes Jenness will "come back and volunteer."

Considering her history, that wouldn't be surprising.


'Be a Better Singer' recital

What: Concerts by students in Phyllis Jenness's voice classes. The recitals are open to the public.

When: 10 a.m. May 25, 3 p.m. May 26

Where: Sayre Christian Village, 3775 Belleau Wood Dr.

Admission: Free