A collection of tributes from the NEC community to beloved faculty member John Heiss.
To submit your own tribute to John, fill out the form at this link.
"There are knowledgeable professors who possess great passion for their craft and teaching, making a positive impact in the student’s experience. Professor Heiss had this in him, combined with an unparalleled kind heart and desire to ignite the same passion for music and history in his students. In the pandemic, he kept teaching and even having phone calls to support his students. His classes were never boring. He filled them with the knowledge you needed plus funny stories you would never find in the books. What a treat it was to be your student." —Aida De Moya
"My condolences to John’s family. I had the distinct pleasure of working with John during my time at NEC on a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which remains a career highlight! His insight, expertise, passion, and gentle manner made it an illuminating and transformative experience. I’m so sorry to hear of his passing." —Laura McLean MMus ‘11
"Even before I took his class I knew about Mr. Heiss. His influence was legendary. The first thing he did in class was play the first chord of Beethoven 1st symphony and ask students to identify it. I recognized it immediately. NEC offered us many wonderful experiences and opportunities but his class was a gift. Perfectly wrapped and expertly delivers by Mr. Heiss. At every turn, a discovery. The stories were wonderful too. A most humble man with an amazing aura. Hi son Frank, whom I knew from my work with the YPO, always humanized his father with stories. He told us about how he knew that his electric razor needed batteries when the pitch flattened to a B flat. LOL. It is because of Mr. Heiss that I discovered New England through Charles Ives. I can say today that I know all 114 songs and have visited all of the places that inspired those works in New England. He ignited my passion for new sounds. Not to mention his own works. Particularly Songs of Nature, which I had the honor of performing 30 years ago. To say that he was an excellent musician is stating the obvious…but not everyone can be a wonderful human being. He was that and more. My condolences to the family. To dear Frank, hugs. My deepest condolences and warmest regards." —Carmen M.Santos ‘ 91
"I knew John Heiss, from 1969, when I joined Community Boating club. I knew nothing of his musician and teaching life. He was a sailing friend and an important person in the Community Sailing organization. Later in my Boston life I discovered NEC, and found out how important John was to your community. A great loss to all of us." —Leslie A Miller
"John and his wife Arlene competed for many years as skipper and crew in dinghy sailing races held Sunday mornings at Community Boating on the Charles. They were clearly one of the top boats and won way more than their share of races and series (months-long collections of races). I didn't get around to asking him what he did for a living and I never heard him mention music, so during the time I raced I wasn't aware of his musical reputation, nor his association with NEC. Maybe I should have surmised that this professor among the sailing buoys might be a professor in his working life." —Mark Sashihara
"John was an influence on me right at the get-go at NEC. Contemporary ensemble had a piece for seven saxophones I was chosen to play bass saxophone. The instrument was rented from Ray Burns. John’s precision and interpretation were amazing and influential. You didn’t have to be one of Jon‘s students to interact with him and benefit from his vast knowledge. I was just 16 but he treated me and the rest of us as professionals for three concert tour around Massachusetts. Thank you John." —Rob Scheps BM 1986
"John was an exceptional teacher, composer and friend. It was an honor to edit several of his works for publication. But most of all I remember his analysis class when I was a grad student. It was one of the highlights of the academic part of my time at NEC. He was always a joy to work with." —David Murray (BM '81, MM '87)
"One of the few most memorable teachers I’ve met in my life. His class on Stravinsky and Schoenberg was an eye and ear opening experience. Deepest condolences to his family." —David Gold MM Jazz Studies ‘96
"Because of you - I got to perform in the glorious Jordan Hall numerous times as an NEC student, collaborate with some of the best musicians around, and work with some of the most phenomenal composers of our time. I am forever grateful for all the incredible coachings, and stories. I cherish all the wonderful performances under your leadership with the Contemporary Ensemble (from John Greer's Red, Red Heart, John Harison's Abu Grain, to Joan Tower's Petroushkates, plus many many more!). These performances shaped my expereinces as a student at NEC during my masters and doctorate. Thank you for believing in me." —Patricia Au
"John's reputation preceded him: I knew about his legendary status at NEC always already, long before signing up for his renown Schoenberg/Ives class. I remember bringing in the latest books on Ives (in particular); John would borrow them, and then return to class a week later with a short book report, holding the relevant book in his hand. I remember somehow having John's ID in my possession, so I could take books out of the library for him (perhaps he didn't have the time, and, I worked in the library, briefly). I remember his magical ear that could hear everything; his deep love for everything about Ives (and how he conveyed that to all of us). His generosity (generally, but especially in all things music); his true passion for music, and the joy he so obviously felt from it: indeed joy and love (and concurrently, rational thought) emanated from his very being." —Adam Berenson '97
"It was my great pleasure and honor to work with John, as a member of Tapestry, on a piece he composed for our vocal ensemble. Love's Apocalypse is a setting of a text by Rumi that he dedicated to his wife Arlene. I share it today as a lovely memory of his music. https://youtu.be/io8r1YFQdtE" —Cristi Catt, faculty Contemporary Musical Arts: Voice
"Before I met John, I didn’t know that all pianos are not tuned alike. His sense of pitch was so acute. I think of John as a musical genius and master sail boat racer with a heart as big as his talent." —Arlene Lieberman
"In the spring of 1986, I rode one of the earliest subways in from Somerville to New England Conservatory to camp outside the registrar's office and reserve a space in John Heiss's extremely popular Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky class for the next academic year. The course proved to be exponentially more valuable than the trouble. I appreciated how Professor Heiss connected so much of the 20th century music and people discussed in that seminar to the then-current Boston (St. Gaudens's bronze relief sculpture, Stravinsky's Hemenway Street Apartment, etc), and I was always impressed by his sonic imagination in his compositions for multiple flutes. My favorite memory might be the solo recital he performed in the fall of 1986 after his beloved Red Sox had avoided elimination in game 5 against the California Angels in the American League Championship Series with a miraculous late-inning comeback (RIP Dave Henderson). At the beginning, Professor Heiss entered Jordan Hall and said, "I want to apologize for starting late, but I just witnessed an unbelievable baseball game!", to which the audience cheered heartily, and he held his flute aloft in triumph. Thank you, Mr. Heiss." —David Sanford (M.M. 1987)
"I enjoyed his class very much in the 1960's." —Roger Jannotta MM, Graduate 1976
"I am so sorry to hear of the death of my first flute and theory teacher, John Heiss. We have been in touch over my lifetime of music- since the age of 12 (1965) when he was the Flute and Theory teacher at a summer Music Camp that I attended, Columbus Boy Choir and Instrumental Camp. I was so fortunate to have been taught by him at such an important time of my musical development. He was able to guide me going forward from the very beginning and was an immensely supportive mentor over all these many years. He cared so very deeply. The many comments from his students over a period of more than 50 years at New England Conservatory also speak so clearly about his profound teaching and immense influence. I am sending my heartfelt sympathies to his beloved daughter, Laura, and her family. He was so proud of you all. Rest in peace, my friend. ❤️" —Andrea Kapell Loewy, Summer Contemporary Flute Chamber Music Class/Heiss
"John Heiss was as generous as he was selfless towards his students, which often made me think and feel that if God walked amongst us, then John must have been who He chose to walk with.
His peaceful departure leaves many of us in the NEC community with a profound sense of loss, especially string players and flutists for whom he held a special place in his heart, but also composers and contemporary arts practitioners. He always had something touching to say to composers and I’ll never quite forget his kind words after my orchestra reading, new music concerts or in the faculty mailroom. He touched me, and so many of us, in the simplest of words, which really was all was needed some days to turn the tide around.
John was a professor that was easily worshipped, to the point of heresy some would say, but it wasn’t hard to worship somebody who had such an endless love of music and teaching. He was in perfect company with equally passionate and dedicated faculty members.
To borrow fellow student Elias Daniel Medina’s words: ‘no one walked away from him not feeling a little better and knowing a little more about life or music.’ And indeed, everyone who walked with John felt a little wiser, and more hopeful for what’s to come.
Goodbye Professor Heiss, thank you for the rich musical treasure and legacy you’ve left us to carry. Have a beautiful walk - we’ll see you at a concert sooner or later, up there." —Bosba Panh ’2019 BM Composition (Gandolfi, Schaphorst)
"John was one of a kind, a great musician, composer, teacher, researcher, mentor and true gentleman. Many fond memories. RIP dear John." —Michael Rossi, M.M. 1986, D.M.A. 1995 (jazz studies)
"John Heiss embodied the music he so passionately taught. His classes demonstrated the pinnacle of what I strive for in my own lectures – total mastery of the theoretical, aural, and historic context of the composers and compositions. Added to that was John's knack for story-telling, and his anecdotes about Igor Stravinsky were engaging, and at times humorous in a way that made his classes flow like a great book. I will never forget this wonderful human. He inspires me to be better, to this day." —Jonathan Dimond (GD '95, MM '06)
"John was a ray of sunshine and a constant inspiration. He was so generous to students and colleagues alike, and I was always happy to have a conversation with him." —Frances Conover Fitch, MMus 1976; Conservator faculty 1980-95; Prep faculty 1995-present
"John Heiss was one of the most influential people in my life. I spent four happy years learning from him in Contemporary Ensemble, music history classes, and many hours of chamber ensemble coaching. I am so sad to hear he has passed away. He taught me to listen and think, as well as so much about the technical aspects of performing within a space and understanding that the details matter, but also just being present and aware of what is going on around me. My condolences to his family, friends, colleagues, and the legions of former students. I know he will be missed!" —Penny Ward Marcus, NEC class of 82
"John Heiss and I met when we were both studying in New York: he at Columbia and I at Juilliard. He was a seeker! His eyes always shone with discovery and he was already amassing a huge treasure of wisdom to share with all of us through the many years that followed. I have watched his life's journey with awe and gratitude, and I know that his voice will continue to resonate in our hearts and minds, urging us to remain seekers, too." —Paula Robison Donna Hieken Flute Chair, NEC
"I write this as John's student and currently as president of The Charles Ives Society, for which John was a pivotal member of the Board.
Heiss' "Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky" and "Interpretive Analysis" classes are legendary among generations of musicians. His sincerity and emotional involvement in the classroom was affecting and effective. He led the Contemporary Music ensemble and NEC composers concerts in memorable concerts that fed directly into my first professional work in Boston - work that took on a life of its own that has not stopped - thanks to John. His passion and insightfulness was compelling on a gut emotional level that overrode existential worries of crafting an identity in the music world. It was just intuitively right and freeing to play the music of Ives and the contemporaries John advocated. His keen ears and cheerful demeanor were always a bright light and he was the center of my musical home at NEC.
For the Ives Society, John was the force behind a pivotal grant that led to the publication of the Critical Edition and Performance Editions of Ives' 4th Symphony - a mammoth project for which new software had to be created and over which several scholars, including Gunther Schuller, collaborated for thirty years. Because of John's stewardship orchestras can and do now easily access the complications inherent in Ives' 4th Symphony and other works. He was a cherished colleague and we will miss him." —Donald Berman MM '88
"John Heiss was one-of-a-kind. A teacher of music. A teacher of life. One of the best there ever was. His lessons were passionate, memorable and meaningful and will live within the lives of thousands. He will be missed dearly." —Erin Amendola ‘95 ‘97
"Mr. Heiss’s class was one of the highlights of my time at NEC. His excitement and love of 20th century music was a delight and opened a door in my music appreciation that has never closed." —Maria Caswell, class of 1979
"If I’m completely honest, I don’t remember very many of my teachers at NEC. John Heiss is one of the few who I remember clearly — his joy, curiosity, and forthright yet empathetic manner made any subject he touched fascinating. I never would have guessed that music theory would become a favorite class, but I looked forward to every hour spent with him." —Charys Schuler, Class of ‘91
"He was gentle, accomplished and shared his enthusiasm for music and excellence with us and for us to encourage and spur our growth as artists and scholars." —Stanley Sagov NEC '73 jazz piano
"Unfortunately I don't have any pictures but I'm so grateful for the time I had with John Heiss at NEC. He was one of the most joyful & humble teachers and people I have ever met, radiating simple enthusiam and thoughtfulness. His theory class was the first time I had been in a theory class where he communicated so eloquently why each chord in a great piece of music had meaning and always at the keyboard. I loved that we brought our own solo pieces into the classroom to perform so that he help us communicate the structure of a work. And he was so supportive attending all of our school concerts. What a wonderful man and life he lived. RIP." —Cecilia Huerta-Lauf (MM Cello Performance '09)
"John Heiss truly showed me the way to appreciate the performance of contemporary music and was a great and gentle educator. I will miss him greatly." —Bunny Shilakowsky (aka Harris) NEC Bach Mus '77
"I've known John Heiss since the 1960's. I was honored to substitute teach for him for the Schoenberg-Stravinsky course when he was ill a few years back. He was a person of unfailing integrity and his contributions as a composer, teacher and author were immense. At times like these we are reminded that our time on earth is limited but John's legacy will last for many generations." —Herman Weiss
"It is hard to overstate the impact of John Heiss on my life in music. I arrived at NEC fairly ignorant of the world I was entering. When it came to 20th century music, I was particularly lacking in knowledge.
When the music history survey got to the 20th century, I hit the jackpot having John Heiss as my guide. Suddenly, I was able to hear the consonance in the dissonance and the power of the gesture. With his encyclopedic knowledge, first hand accounts, brilliant delivery and absolute conviction, he taught us to celebrate that musical language was finally freed from the confines of what the aristocratic society of the past found palatable. When I found that I could take more focussed classes on Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ives and Bartok, I could not sign up fast enough.
John taught me to be curious when hearing something unfamiliar and gave me the tools to deconstruct and decode it. He instilled in me a love of Ives and Schoenberg which some of my colleagues will never understand. Each time I travel to my family home in PA, I get giddy when driving through Danbury, CT imagining Ives and his father having a blast.
In my professional career which is still centered in Boston, occasional interactions reminded me that the ears of the “pitch doctor” have no equal in this mortal realm. Before I resigned from the Boston Philharmonic, he coached us on Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. He was able to quickly find the perfect intervals within what seem to most as a dissonant cluster, tune them and create clarity, transparency and blinding brilliance. This ability seemed superhuman to those who had not experienced him at NEC. A true master.
When Marjorie asked me to conduct a Rite of Spring winds brass percussion sectional for the NEC orchestra, I was delighted to do so. The day before, she called to say “John will be there.” and I said “What the hell do you need me for then!?” But that was one of the most enjoyable moments I remember with John. I relived my own introduction to this great masterpiece with the students as I conducted and watched his miraculous ears at work.
I have been fortunate enough to send several students to my alma mater and they each got the same directives “take solfege with Larry Scripp and every class John Heiss offers.” A testament to the impact of John on my career is the frame in my UMass office containing photos of my most influential teachers. There you will find my jr. high band director, all of my trumpet teachers and John. The rest did wonderful things for my ability to play the trumpet, but John paved the path to a career primarily in new music.
When performing an adventurous new concerto commissioned for me at an International Trumpet Guild Conference nearly 20 years ago, a noted soloist whom I looked up to as a mentor asked “Where did you learn to do that?! I know ‘so and so' didn’t teach you that.” (referring to one of my trumpet teachers) Nope, that was John Heiss. Thanks so much John. Rest in Peace." —Eric Berlin, class of 1991
"To this day, my ability to accurately play 3 against 4 is because John Heiss offered this simple solution: PASS the GOD-damned BUT-ter. It works!! (Start together on PASS, then capitalized syllables are the triplets.)." —Karen Harvey BM '81, MM '83
"John wrote a piece for my senior recital and played with me in the performance. But I'll never forget taking a placement exam for ear training class Freshman year, and he was writing out a Bach coral with all four parts while listening with us to a recording! He could hear all four parts and wrote them on the staffs. I never would have thought that was possible! He just continued to expand the boarders of my ability to listen and hear everything at once. Double stops on FLUTE? Yes! Thank you so much Mr. Heiss. RIP." —Jonathon Landell - B Mus, flute - 1968
"John Heiss taught by telling stories, referring to so many luminaries by first name, and had such a fluent understanding of how composers were influenced and motivated to create music. He made contemporary classical music personal and his legacy is unforgettable." —Peter Layton, Class of 2005
"I will never forget John's classes about Charles Ives - his passion and dedication to teaching were inspiring. He took us, the whole class, boat sailing with his wife- that is one of the fondest memories I will have from him." —Sara Serpa (alumni)
"I joined the NEC faculty in 1985 as a very junior member of the theory and composition departments. John was instantly my friend and champion, and this warmth and generosity continued for my sixteen years on Huntington Avenue. We had especially wonderful times sailing with Arlene! There was nothing more phenomenal than his attention to detail, combined with the natural and complete love he had for music and for musicians. He was one of a kind." —Alan Fletcher, faculty 1985-2001, Dean of the College and Provost
"How could you describe a person like John Heiss? Probably the best classroom teacher of any subject i ever had . He was able to take a complicated subject like 20th Century music and make it accessible and fun. Not so many teachers like that in a Conservatory, or anywhere. Dressed like an educated custodian. A humane, caring person. Mr. Detail. Don't try to slide even a tiny imperfection past his ears or eyes. I could go on... Rest in Peace Maestro!" —Nicholas Underhill MM Piano 1978
"John Heiss was my first composition teacher. He laid the groundwork for my life in music ;without him. I am certain that my career would' have turned out quite differently. He was an extraordinarily kind, compassionate, and brilliant man, with a wonderful sense of humor. In the many years after I had studied with him, I sent him generations of students who had first studied with me in New York . They always came back to me with the same sense of amazement and gratitude that I myself felt during my studies with him. I remember those long walks to his house on Hancock Street in Auburndale, Massachusetts, and the anticipation that I felt knowing that I was receiving a great gift. He will be deeply missed." —Richard Danielpour ( NEC Graduate , BM . 1980 )
"John Heiss enlightened me to Varese in my first coaching with him. I learned to listen to every nuance of color and sound, also in every other composer. He was encouraging and helped me have the confidence which I needed at the time. His ears confounded me. I had him coach me on the Berio Sequenza 5. He brought out many profound details in this piece. In his class, the way he would teach and model to us how to listen to music was brilliant. I came away absolutely loving every piece of music he taught. His excitement was contagious!! I'll never forget him, he meant so much to me." —Julie Josephson BM trombone -1985, AD-1987
"In my years studying flute at NEC I was often impressed by this top scientist of the flute world. Though I never took a class with him he was an important figure in my introduction to contemporary flute techniques. He once asked me to play for his students, and when he realized I could not flutter-tongue he tried to teach me on the spot, later saying in his warm way that he had never seen anyone turn so red in the face. Another time he knocked on my practice room door and asked me how I was fingering a certain high trill, made a note and thanked me. His ears and mind were always open. Later I had the honor of performing his flute trio at the National Flute Association convention in Philadelphia. John was a warm, modest and friendly presence, and a one of a kind flutist/composer/educator." —Edward Schultz BM 1976
"John Heiss taught me to really, deeply listen. He taught me that the fine detail work is where we make music really come to life. He taught me that we’re not so far removed from our musical heroes in time or space. They are rightfully exalted, but none of us are standing that far away from them. We all belong. Mostly when I think of John Heiss I think of his brilliance, but even more so his gentle demeanor, his unwavering enthusiasm, and his generosity. Wearing a baseball cap today in your honor, Mr. Heiss." —Jill Jaques ‘00, ‘03
"My memories of John are of a man characterized by an ineffable kindness and friendliness. One of my fondest memories of him was of his teaching an orchestration class I took as an NEC student. Of special interest to me was his explanation of the Harmonic Series in connection with harmonics on string, brass, and other wind instruments, and of course he illustrated the flute multiphonics for which he was justly renowned. He also explained the “math” of equal temperament in a crystal clear way, and he really knew his stuff! (I remember him whistling 12-tone rows offhand with pinpoint accuracy). And of course it wasn’t really about math, it was all in the service of increasing his fellows’ awareness, understanding, and enjoyment of music. I aspire to be like him as a teacher, and I will miss him. My condolences to his family and loved ones." —Stephen Savage, NEC Prep Theory Faculty
"John was one of the greatest influences in my life, a teacher, a mentor, a friend, an examplar." —Peter Torvik MM 1983
"What a magnificent mentor, and cheerleader for contemporary music. I'm so grateful as an undergrad composition student to have had his patient, thorough, really clear teaching in instrumentation, and he systematically drove through the details of every single imaginable instrument. And he was a great guy: always helpful, supportive, friendly." —NEC '76 (comp, vla)
"A wonderful mentor, whose depth of knowledge inspired his students beyond what they imagined they were capable of accomplishing." —Rachel Cox, 1993
"There is so much to say about John Heiss, it’s hard where to begin. He had such an incredible impact on my time at NEC especially during my Master’s. One of my very fond memories is working with him on a piece for brass quintet. He was truly a master of his craft, and an inspiration to so many. He will be dearly missed." —Bryce Gillett, BM ‘15 & MM ‘17
"John Heiss was one of the finest teachers I ever had the privilege of studying with. Mr. Heiss was the epitome of a true educator: modeling passionate life-long intellectual and artistic engagement with the material he taught, and bringing pure positivity and support to his students. His course on Charles Ives, and his Composition Seminar, were some of my favorite experiences as an undergraduate at NEC. He also granted me an interview at his home in Newton in 2012, which I filmed to create an interactive documentary exploring his relationship to the music of Ives. Thank you, John Heiss, for your gifts to several decades of generations of NEC students. You will be missed." —Nell Shaw Cohen, B.M. in Composition, 2012
"There is not a higher tier which exists of which I can put John on, & this single story which only took 1 minute will give explanation - Once before his composition class began, Ran Blake, one of the Greatest Chord Substitution Minds the world has Ever seen, was leaving the class which he had just finished teaching in the side off-shoot building of St. Botolph. Ran saw John, sat down at a piano, and began playing “Laura”, one of Ran’s favorites.
John, to my astonishment as I thought he was only legendary for his skills as a straight Classical musician, sat down at the Other piano, and began to achieve something I felt was impossible then, and still do today; Answer Ran Blake’s already extremely advanced substitutions. Shockingly, I was the only student paying attention, as all were talking and rustling between classes. I of course did not yet have the mental capacity to understand what chords were being flown around between them, other than some upper structure triadic ideas, and the Stravinsky Double-Diminished styled chords, being played around like legos in a toy box. But what John was playing in this musically dangerous call and response creation chess game with Ran Blake, it somehow all made sense. Fitting like a Finish glove. Moreover, the way John watched Ran, was as if he was peering into his soul; which was believable, since trying to figure out what Ran is playing already requires the Most elite of ear skill, let alone figure out what he will play & use Next, then furthermore be able to analytically and harmonically Answer yourself, what is being played, all within less than 1 second. It is Super Human.
I at the time, nor myself today, nor almost Any musician today not named Jacob Collier or Ran himself, would have the capability to transcribe what John played here. It seemed as if he used notes that did not exist, which is also believable since Ran is always living on the edge of Harmony as it is. At the time, it was the Most Incredible minute of music I had Ever heard, and with all the moments I have had in my career listening to and playing with legends in the field, that moment with John & Ran, Still is to this day. When “Laura” finished, I ran up to both of them to triumphantly explain how they Absolutely Needed to make a duo record; or at least an improvised duo concert. But alas, neither ever occurred. Along with this side skill of his, John Heiss had what I call “The Tape Recording Ability”, the rarest of naturally born skills, which means the ability to hear an Entire Symphony Orchestra, and write down what every part was playing As it was happening. It is no wonder Stravinsky called him “His Ears”.
John to me, deserves to be in the pantheon of the All-Time Legends of music, from Mozart to Chopin, Art Tatum to Keith Jarrett, to Wynton Marsalis & Alma Deutscher today. He was also, of course, an Incredibly kind & down to earth man, who was additionally a Massive Red Sox fan, and knowing that they won 4 World Series this century, more than any other team, all of which he could enjoy, warms my heart for his happiness. It was one of the Great acquisitions of NEC’s history to have him, and I long to see many events, moments, & physical items named after him." —Cory Pesaturo, Accordion (Class of 2013)
"I knew Mr. Heiss for one year (1967-68) and I believe he was pretty new to NEC then. I found him welcoming, intellectually super-interesting, and a fine teacher. I took his Orchestration class that year. I wish I had known him longer and better! I think of him as a particularly fine combination of mind and heart, also generosity." —Sally Buffington, NEC '68
"John's keen analytical intellect and insight always lead to a deeper love for whatever was the object of scrutiny. Music, of course. I've never heard anyone else discuss the workings of pitch relationships in a Schoenberg piece with the same affect that we're accustomed to use in talking about Mozart. I raced with him once on the Charles and it was something of the same experience - clear thinking and thorough enjoyment of the workings of wind, tiller and sail. I once found him at Fenway Park, sitting alone with binoculars and a notepad. I greeted him and asked what he was doing. "Charting pitches." I offered that I liked to just sit back and enjoy the game. He laughed. "I don't know how anyone enjoys the game without charting pitches." A generous, focused, friend and mentor." —Eric Benjamin, '76 and '88.
"John Heiss’ class Interpretive Analysis changed my appreciation of music theory. Growing up I disliked theory, and in undergrad I was ambivalent to it, but in Heiss’ class I saw the practical applications of music theory for performers. To this day, I use what I learned to inform my interpretation of repertoire and as a foundation for my teaching. Helping my students play in a way that lets the audience “get their ears around the music,” in Heiss’ phrase, and using theory as a tool to help students understand how to make interpretive decisions have become essential ingredients in my teaching. I am forever indebted to John Heiss’ instruction, incredibly grateful that somehow I landed in that class in my first semester of grad school, and immensely thankful for John Heiss’ legacy!" —Debbie Grohman, MM 1987, clarinet
"An inspiration as a music superfan and educator. Thank you so much for work that touched multiple generations of NEC students." —Steve (NEC M.M. Jazz Performance 2010)
"John Heiss had an incredible mind, and was an incredibly kind human being. I’ll never forget driving home for Christmas, and receiving a call from Mr. Heiss checking in on my final project for his class. He even made sure to wish me a safe drive, and gave me some driving advice! A wonderful man, who I am incredibly grateful to have met." —Alexis Aguilar, MM ‘21, GD ‘22
"I took John Heiss' twentieth century music class and it was my favourite academic class of my BMus degree. His energy and enthusiasm for all things relating to contemporary music was absolutely infectious. His deep knowledge of a wide range of influential works was always conveyed with passion, humour, humility, intellect, and a true love of teaching. Thank you for inspiring me to really listen, think, and care about contemporary music." —Nancy Dahn, BMus (violin performance), NEC 1990
"A special teacher, who could teach you to appreciate things that you might ordinarily not. He once coached a wind quintet that i composed, and I learned so much from watching him teach my ideas to that ensemble. Magical." —Jonathan Feist (BM '90, MM' 92 in Composition)
"I will always remember his ability to explain what we were hearing in contemporary music. He taught me to understand and appreciate “contemporary music.”He was a wonderful teacher." —Suzanne Tarasuk Kenney ‘76 and 79 BM and MM at NEC
"It was a pleasure to work with John. He will be missed." —Don Dregalla bm75. Mm80
"Professor Heiss was a pillar of the NEC community who shared his immense knowledge and passion for music with so many young musicians. His classes were a high point in many of our days and a formative part of our lives as musicians. It’s difficult to put into words just how grateful I am to have been taught by him. He will truly be missed." —Cassandra Cavalieri, class of 2020
"John Heiss was my introduction to contemporary music, exacting score study and thoughtful research. From his Stravinsky & Schoenberg class, to his individual coachings, John Heiss was impeccable, through, thoughtful, warm and welcoming. Truly a great musician and a nurturing teacher. His passing is a huge loss." —Bradley Colten, BM 95
"John Heiss’s passion for music was palpable, and his knowledge was vast. Not only did he inspire us to love contemporary music, but he taught me (and countless others) how to hear, and literally how to THINK about music in general, and I use what he taught me every single day. It makes me smile to imagine he is now chatting away in heaven with Ives, Schoenburg, and Stravinsky……rest in peace Mr. Heiss!" —Melanie Kupchynsky, violin ‘83 ‘85
"I met Professor John Heiss in 2010 at the beginning of my first year at NEC. Since the first class, his knowledge, his clarity, his care, and his sensibility made me literally fall in love with Charles Ives’s music. In every class, Mr. Heiss shared with both passion and humor all the different aspects of extremely beautiful and complex music and made it all clear and simple for us. It felt like Ives himself was there to explain it all and Mr. Heiss served as a brave custodian of this knowledge. After that semester, while taking the final exam, I remember having tears in my eyes feeling extremely fortunate for the experience and extremely inspired to see a teacher that cared so much about the music, but mainly about each one of us.
After a few years, I became Mr. Heiss’ Teaching Assistant and I proudly held that honor for 4 years. I saw him teaching Ives, Stravinsky, Bartok, Flute master classes, conducting the Contemporary Ensemble, coaching hundreds of chamber groups, advising the NEC orchestra on several occasions… He did it all with love, integrity, and respect for everyone involved. He trusted me with so many responsibilities in this whole process and always gave me constructive feedback when things didn’t go well and had a good joke ready when things went really bad.
I got to know him well, we watched Red Sox’s games together, we went sailing a few times, listened to music together, and we laughed a lot. He loved his wife and family! He loved music! he loved his students! He loved his blue hat, then the white hat, then the brown hat! I can’t express how much I learnt all those years and how much he will be missed; he truly was a brilliant generous man.
Thank you Mr. Heiss! Me and many others will be better teachers, better musicians, and mainly better humans because of you. I promise that every time there is a piano around, I will simultaneously play a C major triad with my left hand and an E major triad with my right hand in your name! Good travels!" —Lautaro Mantilla - CMA Faculty
"Very sad to hear of the death of John Heiss, musician and teacher extraordinaire. His zeal to pass on his knowledge of music and his ability to generate excitement in music was among the most amazing things I experienced during my years at the New England Conservatory of Music.
John was the coach for my wind quintet at NEC in 1976-1978, turning us from the school's Scholarship Quintet to the Quintet di Legno, winner of New York's Concert Artist Guild Competition. He challenged us technically as musicians, but not at the expense of the music's soul. He took us to the pinnacles of the repertoire of that day - for us culminating with the Villa-Lobos Quintet - and even conducted us for our performance of Mario Davidovsky's Synchronisms #8 at our Carnegie Recital Hall concert in May 1978.
I last saw John at the tribute to Gunther Schuller at NEC shortly after Gunther's death in 2015. It was the first time we had seen each other since I left NEC. When he saw me, his eyes lit up, but couldn't place me at first - forty years will do that! Once he remembered my name, however, the memories returned - the people, the quintet, the music, the performances. I could not help feeling that perhaps we had touched him in the same way he had us. A special moment I will not forget.
John, you will always be in our memory and our hearts." —Thomas Haunton NEC Class of 1977
"I took one class with Professor Heiss and wish I had worked with him more. Beyond being an incredible musician/composer he was a wonderful teacher. He was immensely inspiring and gave me encouragement and confidence in performing. I will always remember the story he told about Schoenberg and how he apologized for writing short pieces in those days (referring to his 6 short piano pieces), and if he had more time, he could have written a much shorter piece." —Class of 2016, Christopher Schoelen
"John Heiss was not a piano teacher, but it was he I sought out to help me learn parts of the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives while preparing for my master's recital. Beyond his vast musical knowledge, he was also kind and supportive. Rest in peace, Mr. Heiss." —Donna Woonteiler, Master's in Piano Performance, 1981
"John and I shared a composition teacher (Earl Kim), so I knew John through Earl and through John’s activity in new music in Boston. Anyone who is fan and performer of Earl Kim’s music, as John was, is a hero of mine.
When I started teaching at Lehigh University, I discovered that John was an undergraduate at Lehigh, so when I started giving festivals Kim’s and his students’ music I, of course, invited John to have music played. That led to John making several visits to Lehigh to have pieces performed, to coach and conduct those pieces, and to serve on our visiting committee. He was terrifically persuasive with Lehigh’s administration when it came to the necessity for a modern art center, so all of us here at Lehigh owe him a debt of gratitude. And we loved having him here coaching and conducting his music—impeccable ear, impeccable taste, impeccable and beautifully made music.
Beyond Lehigh and Kim, John was my percussionist son Miles’ favorite literature teacher at NEC. Inspiring and persuasive, I believe he instilled in my son what hopefully will be a lifelong love of Ives and Schoenberg." —Paul Salerni, parent of an NEC Master's graduate
"My clearest memory of Mr. Heiss is of him sitting at the piano during class playing Schubert for us. With each modulation he turned to us with a grin on his face and asked if we heard how amazing the music was. If I'm able to be that devoted, excited, knowledgable, and kind into my nineties, I will know I've done something right in my life. Thank you, Mr. Heiss, for sharing your unique knowledge with so many generations of students!" —Annie Jacobs-Perkins (MM '20, GD '21)
"I still remember well about Professor Heiss’s music history class on Stravinsky!! He told all of us that he actually let Stravinsky before, what a legend! He always told us, composers steal music ideas from each other, and that’s okay! I miss him, and wish him the best in heaven." —Tingting Wu
"I got to know John after I got my MM in jazz studies at NEC. Twice, I took lessons from him at his house. He was all the things everyone here has said: a terrific person, teacher, composer, and all the other things. He would look at my music and instead of picking out flaws, of which I’m sure he noticed, he would find the things about it that were good and explain why he thought so. That really encouraged me. He put real effort into paying attention to what I was doing. He did seem to think I knew more than I did about some of the relevant topics, and suppose I was reluctant to tell him how ignorant I could be, but usually managed to get it out. Someone should make sure to mention how much he liked baseball. His office was a great place to learn about, talk about and listen to music. Just a remarkable person. I’m sad I’ll never get to say hello to him again, but glad that I got to know him and learn from him, and to know that he lived a full life and rich life well worth celebrating." —Darrell Katz, MM Jazz Studies, 1984
"I am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of John Heiss, a remarkable man, human being, musician. Our paths crossed numerous times. He taught contemporary music courses and did performances (with his wife and two children) at the Kodaly Center of America summer courses 1978-84 when I was the summer course director, and then I had the privilege of taking two courses under his direction at NEC while working on my master's degree. And of course attending numerous performances in the many intervening years. He was a true gentleman, had the highest musical and artistic expectations, a dry wit, and a sparkle in his eye. When teaching, he came alive, using expressive, grand gesticulations to emphasize motifs and articulations in any piece which we were studying/listening. John enriched my life tremendously, and know he did the same for many others. The world is a slightly less vibrant place with John no longer part of it. I extend my deepest sympathy to John's family." —Jonathan C. Rappaport, M.M. 1983
"I've been reflecting on the loss of John Heiss since hearing the news yesterday. What a generous and full life he lived, I feel grateful to have been shaped by his kindness, wisdom and musicianship during my undergrad at New England Conservatory. I had not been in touch with him for a few years, but knew his health was on the decline. I also knew he continued to work with students until the end, his passion for and devotion to teaching a live source that carried him through illness and loss over the years. During my undergrad, Mr. Heiss taught me so much about the music of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Ives, he strengthened my ears and deepened my curiosity. He coached and encouraged and expressed genuine pride in every step of my musical journey. In 2011, I wrote a set of piano pieces to pair with Schoenberg's Opus 19, written in 1911. It turns out Heiss had also written companion pieces to the Schoenberg in 1961, so we programmed the half-century-apart sets side-by-side in a contemporary ensemble concert. It was my only time playing solo piano in Jordan Hall, and I would have never had the opportunity were it not for the encouragement and support of Mr. Heiss. This was one of the highlights of my undergrad. He also took me (and Diamanda La Berge Dramm) sailing a few times, and loved talking about how the feel and rhythm of sailing was like chamber music, or how navigating the wind was like navigating the air flow and emboucher of his flute playing. I treasure these memories. I know he leaves this world full of many such memories to cherish. With love and gratitude, rest in peace Mr. Heiss." —Katherine Balch BM '14
"John Heiss was a rare gem. He was a man who knew a great deal about our craft and was happy to share his knowledge. But his true gift was as a listener. He will be remembered and missed." —Roy Sansom, musician.
"Mr Heiss was a great teacher of composition. Composition lessons were filled with insights and convivial discussion. I am sad to hear of his passing and offer condolences to his family." —Geoffrey Kidde, MMus (composition) 1988
"Some people will always continue living. John Heiss is one of those incredible people, and I cannot imagine the New England Conservatory, my home for 4 years, without him. I had so many different opportunities to learn from him, as a flutist, disovering her fascination for contemporary music, but also in his organisational skills ( I managed the Contemporary Ensemble and several festivals under his supervision) and just generally hearing him speak of Stravinsky, Ives, and others….John Heiss has undoubtedly influenced who I am today, as a musician and as a person, and I will always be greatful for having shared his path for these 4 incredible years. Thank you, dear Mr. Heiss. You are here always!" —Stephanie Wagner, B.M. ‘97
"TRULY A GREAT LOSS! John Heiss, a legend in his own time, enlightened me to understand and love music of the 20th century from Scriabin and Stravinsky to Schuller and Sessions. I’m so distressed at this loss! RIP John Heiss, you lovable lover of great music!" —Frederick Imbimbo, MMus, Class of 1975
"John Heiss taught a few classes that I took as a masters student, but the one that stood out for me was the Ives, Stravinsky & Schoenberg course. His love of the material and history was infectious to his students, and he exhorted us to embrace what is new in music. As an educator now, I have a deep appreciation of his 100% preparedness and delivery in each and every class. If you were lucky enough to have home coach a chamber group, you knew he had phenomenal ears. If your were lucky enough to sail with him on the Charles River, you saw another side of the man. Thank you, John Heiss." —Matthew Guilford (BM, 1986/MM, 1988)
"When I first started working at NEC, I felt so inspired to pick up my flute and try to get back into it. John Heiss was so kind and had me over to his home, examined my beloved instrument, and gave me recommendations on how to get it and myself back into order. I had little idea of what a legend he was, only that he was so kind, patient, and sincere. My condolences to his loved ones." —Mary Louton
"John Heiss--complete musician--exemplary practitioner, colleague, and friend." —John Harbison
"John Heiss was a big influence on me as a cello student at NEC. His gentle manner and quiet voice held an intelligence which literally vibrated with curiosity and excitement about music. I remember his description of himself in the audience sitting behind Stravinsky who was listening to an orchestra performing his Rite of Spring. John observed with interest that the great composer would jump with whole-body energy on every single accent. This was a wonderful picture that John used to explain to us how to play this piece, with total physicality, commitment and energy. And it seems to me, a window to the way John lived his life. I feel fortunate to have benefited from his insights." —Charae (Baerg) Krueger
"John Heiss. He plucked my work out of a stack and saw what I had yet to realize. He did this for so many over generations, and I still hold his mentorship close to my heart. I wish he could see what else I plan to do with all that he taught me, but my heart is full thinking of him being reintroduced to Igor and many others. He deserves such a tremendous homecoming." —Sonnet Swire BM ‘16 Composition (Heiss, Gandolfi)
"Mr. Heiss was a brilliant and sensitive musician and teacher who opened my mind and ears to both 20th century and baroque music, but my favorite memory of him has nothing to do with music. In the summer of 1983, I was stricken with meningitis. I was ill all summer, and had virtually no support system, as I had no family in Boston and all of my friends were out of the city, participating in various summer music festivals. This was many years before group texting, social media and GoFundMe pages. If I had wanted my friends to know I was sick, I suppose I would have had to write them letters. Mr. Heiss checked in with me by phone frequently that summer, especially in the earlier, more acute phase of the illness. He just wanted to make sure I was okay and not in need of anything. We had wonderful conversations about music that summer which greatly relieved the monotony of being sick in bed! For his thoughtfulness and compassion and care, I have always been grateful." —Eliza Morrison, Diploma in Harp Performance, 1987
"Mr. Heiss treated music as if it were a member of his family. Everyone’s family, really. Not only did Mr. Heiss’s lesson content deserve the love he gave it, but he showed us how the lessons and the music would love us back. In a Charles Ives art song, the trumpet and horn play to each other “Across the Pond”. Mr. Heiss would say of the late Prof. Gunther Schuller, “He’s not gone, he’s just across the pond.” Mr. Heiss, though you are now across the pond, we’ll always know to find you in our passion for all of the great music there ever was." —Andrew Heath, MM ‘17 Trumpet Performance
"I took the Interpretative Analysis I and II in 2018-19. What I have learnt from these classes is going to keep inspiring and guiding me for the rest of my life. Thank you Mr. Heiss. Rest in Power Mr. Heiss." —Zhaoyuan Qin, '20 MM
"Mr. Heiss was my composition teacher and mentor during my two years of study at NEC. He had the rare ability to read his students’ mind by just looking at their composition sketches. More than once, he pointed out a wrong note in some extremely dissonant passage of a composition I was working on. “Isn’t that supposed to be a B-natural?”, he would say. “Yes, sir. My mistake! Thanks for noticing!” A great, great teacher!" —John Boris Sarkissian -Class of 1995
"When I first arrived at NEC during the COVID mayhem of fall 2020, almost nothing was consistent or certain. The transition to college was already hard enough, but doing so without the support of living on campus and being surrounded by passionate colleagues made it almost impossible. However, one thing provided stability to me during this time: knowing that I had my weekly (Zoom) chamber coachings with Mr. Heiss to look forward to. I had never met someone so diligent and methodical in the way they deconstructed both my playing and that of the ensemble. Yet all of his criticism was paired with a smile, utmost humility, and gratitude for the opportunity to make music together. While at first I admittedly scoffed at the idea of playing “boring” Bach chorales in a brass ensemble, I quickly came to love them as some of the most beautiful artistic creations in human history- not to mention understanding them on a technical level inside and out. Stravinsky was not mistaken in naming Mr. Heiss the Pitch Doctor, and taking the advice of those who urged me to work with him was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Two years later, I was afforded the opportunity to take a class with Mr. Heiss on Music Since 1945. Contemporary and Electronic music were not my cup of tea, but I wanted to see if he could transform my opinion on them the same way as Bach. Needless to say, it took him less than two weeks to do so. He brought every piece to life with stories not only about its history, but about his own experiences with each composer and their visits to NEC. Sometimes he would tell the same story fifteen times, but I didn’t care. I was hypnotized by his years of wisdom and knowledge, and ready to leave behind my narrow-minded opinion on what “music” should be. Mr. Heiss was not just an accomplished musician, composer, or even teacher. He was the living embodiment of music as a lifestyle. And gems like him are exceedingly rare.
Thank you, Mr. Heiss, from the bottom of my heart. May you rest in peace knowing how many lives you touched, and how deeply you touched them." —Cody York, BM Trumpet Performance 2024
"Wonderful memories of Mr Heiss with his special enthusiasm and generosity whilst coaching me and my Honors chamber music student colleagues in the Ives Piano Trio, in 1991/1992. His deep knowledge and love of this music was such an inspiration and support to us. Only one small ‘moment’ but it has stayed with me through my career. Thank you John, many people will miss you!" —Melissa Barnard, cello, 1990-1992. Cellist, Australian Chamber Orchestra
"I took the Music Since 1900 course with John my first semester at NEC, fall 1976. It happened that Bob Hancock, Pat Maxfield and I always sat together in the first row, and we were good at answering his rhetorical questions. He relied on us so often that he called us The Three Wise Men. I also recall a short performance in class by his kids and him, including "Chester". I went to his flute recitals, and he expected quite a bit of his audience -- before he played the Davidovsky flute Synchronism, he said "If you don't know who wrote this, ask the person sitting next to you." He was gracious about writing recommendation letters for me, and he had sage advice about graduate programs in composition (he disrecommended Princeton, but I went there anyway). I took composition lessons with him at his house in the summers of 1979 and 1980, and they were pretty great. He got deeply into the music in a way no other teacher of mine ever did, and his comments were wise. I even showed him some tonal sacred chorus music, and his suggestions for different harmonies were brilliant. Years later, we had pieces on the same concert in New York, and we did the good-natured ribbing thing ("John, your piece is old enough to vote"). Just 2 or 3 years ago, I was interviewing a perspective graduate student at Brandeis, and he told me, "John Heiss says hello, and says you were one of the Three Wise Men." —David Rakowski B.M. 1980
"As we all know John was a remarkable and an amazing man. He was brilliant, caring, patient, humble, I could go on and on. Personally I will never forget his positive and helpful approach not only for me but for some of my students. He was the go to person for most everything and was always there with his great advice and wisdom John is someone who will never be forgotten Love you John." —Graduate of NEC 1970. April Showers
"During an orchestration class somewhere around 1972, John said something simple but profound regarding the first chord of Beethoven's Eroica. The memory of this has been a highlight of my musical education." —Graduate, class of 74
"The very first concert I ever conducted at NEC was part of an Ives festival that John curated. He assembled an amazing group of Ivesians: Gunther Schuller (of course), Helen Boatwright, Vivian Perlis, Jan Swafford, James Sinclair, and more. I was overwhelmed by John’s encyclopedic knowledge and passion for Ives’ music, little knowing that this was but the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Whenever the NEC orchestras played Stravinsky, Ives or Schoenberg, we always asked John to attend the rehearsals. His insights into the music—not to mention his amazing “eagle ears”—made every rehearsal an adventure, his stunningly precise suggestions always delivered without a hint of arrogance or condescension. John was truly the beating heart of NEC—an inspiring teacher, a kind, generous soul and a loving friend and colleague. How lucky we were." —David Loebel, Associate Director of Orchestras
"I remember how much fun 20th Century Music History was with Mr. Heiss! I wish he could have taught all the history classes. And we had 42 flutists at NEC in 1976, so he wrote a piece that we could all play together - I think it was called "Tutti Fluti!" So much fun!" –Martha Campbell, 1977
"I took a 20th century music survey class with John when I was a student at NEC in the early 1970's. It was one of the best classes I ever took and turned me on to all kinds of music from that period. I then took his Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Ives elective that was also memorable. Those two classes have stayed with me ever since. A few years later I had tickets to a Red Sox playoff game. I drove up from NYC and got to take my favorite teacher to see his team!" —Andrew Luchansky. Alumni
"John Heiss was a kind and brilliant soul who always made time for anyone who needed a listening ear (and an extraordinary one at that!) I’ll always remember how he still wrote his syllabus on a typewriter and notated the exact chord progressions of the charles river in his trusty map. Holding all of the flute expertise, boating lessons, and endless stravinsky stories extra close. You’ll be missed by so many, John Heiss." —Sami Watts (Classical Flute, BM ‘21)
"John was every smiling and happy to chat about anything. He always kindly asked about my family and how they were. He and I spent much time talking about sailing and even spent some time on the water together. I will miss him dearly." —Michael Meraw
"I always thought that John would live forever because we really need people like him in the world now. He was a mensch, generous, funny, so amazingly erudite which he demonstrated in such a way as to encourage never to intimidate, and always that smile and good nature. He adored his students as much as he loved the Bartok string quartets, all his colleagues and sailing. He even took me on his boat once and let me sail it on the Charles. I managed not to sink it and he seemed genuinely delighted that I didn't! Somehow he always involved me in his work with a gently invitation of 'You mustn't miss this". Our greatest project with him was when he invited me and Virginia to take part in a performance of Walton's Façade in Jordan Hall. It was then that we really had a taste of his musical ideas and discipline. It was hard! But the students and John pulled us through. It was just such fun and we learnt so much. We shall both miss him." —Tony Woodcock, President of NEC 2007 - 2015 and Virginia Woodcock Mrs President
"I had the privilege of studying music history with John Heiss for two years. His course on the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives continues to be the basis for my own teaching about the music of these 20th c. masters. He was an inspired and an inspiring teacher that I will never forget." —Don Appert BM and MM in Trombone Performance '75 and '77
"John Heiss inspired me in ways that I could not imagine. I remember his passion for Charles Ives in particular, whose music I did not enjoy before taking Professor Heiss' class, but afterwards fell in love with it. His ability to transmit love of music itself was a supreme gift. Those of us that were lucky enough to receive it are fortunate that we can now share it with our own students." —Zach Mayer MM '17
"I met John on the softball field at Aspen in the early 60s when I was still a teenager. We developed a friendship and discovered that we both came from the small town of Bronxville, north of New York City. He was organizing chamber music concerts there and hired me for my very first professional engagement, playing a program of wind quintets with him, Louise and Bill Scribner, oboe and bassoon, and Howard Howard, French horn, helping me to start my incipient career as a clarinetist. Fast forward to 1988 when I joined the NEC faculty as conductor of the Jordan Winds and clarinet teacher. At NEC, John was a constant source of support for all of my activities and indefatigable director of the annual contemporary music festival each spring, inviting me to participate on at least one occasion, when György Ligeti was our guest. I can't imagine how many people received similar support from John, because he was always ready to give a helping hand, a smile, and a pat on the shoulder. I join the rest of the NEC community in mourning his death; the memory of this kind and thoughtful man will remain with us always." —Michael Webster, NEC Faculty 1988-1993
"He directed a performance of Berg's Chamber Symphony, that I had the great pleasure of playing in. I learned so much about music from him through the vehicle of that piece. I'm blessed to have known him." —Joe Walker, MM '08
"I'm never going to forget the look on John's face, delightedly saying "OOOOOOHH" when he found something amazing in a score. Every detail is absolutely clear - I can see his eyes bug out, the glint of delight, the exaggerated O on his lips, the smile in his cheeks. It's a reaction that I'll bet has improved thousands of performances he never even knew about. He showed generations of students that our real duty is to discover these treasures and share them with as many people as we can - and not only that, helped us build the tools to actually do it. It's really impossible to overstate John's effect on my life and my playing. Every time a conductor or composer thanks me for taking something unusual, analytical, or complicated and playing it like music instead of a math problem, that's a compliment directly to John. Rest in peace, Professor." —Steve Banzaert (MM 2000)
"John became a dear friend and treasured colleague shortly after I moved to Boston to join the Boston Symphony in 1983. Never will I forget his musical brilliance, and to this day refer to notes I took during a lecture that he gave at NEC on Berio's Sequenza for solo flute. Equally unforgettable were the remarkable rehearsals he led of his Trio for Flutes, in which Fenwick Smith and i were his privileged collaborators. Those hours together and our performance in Jordan Hall were a chamber music highlight for me during my decade in Boston.
A non-musical memory of John that still brings me great joy was an overnight sail on Narragansett Bay with him and his dear wife Arlene. My husband and I were treated to delicious meals, a night enhanced by the bells of buoys and gentle rocking of John's boat as we lay at anchor, and an exciting, windy sail out into Long Island that was rather wet since a hurricane was making its way up the coast.
The last two times that I saw John were at memorial services for two of my Boston Symphony colleagues. He spoke eloquently at a service for Fenwick at the Friends' Meeting House in Cambridge (October 2017) and attended the celebration of life for Doriot Anthony Dwyer at Symphony Hall (June 2022).
John's dedication to his colleagues and students was truly without peer. I miss him."
—Leone Buyse, NEC flute faculty, 1988-1993
"When asked what Mr Heiss taught, I say “music.” Music. The essence of music. Pure music. He was an incredible human being. One of my most important teachers of all time." —Margaret Cheng Tuttle MM87
"John Heiss made a profound impact on my life and musical trajectory. As a student in the jazz department, he welcomed me in with open arms, demystified contemporary classical composition and performance, and exposed me to so much fascinating music I may never have discovered otherwise. Professor Heiss was always kind, warm, immensely thoughtful and understanding, and put a smile on the faces of all his students even in the face of immense challenges such as the COVID pandemic and his own health problems. Thank you, Professor Heiss, for all you taught me and the NEC community; you are so loved and will be missed tremendously." —Ezra Dunton, BM ‘23
"John Heiss was just as special as everyone says he was. A genius of sorts, compassionate beyond belief, and a joy to be around. I was lucky to be coached by him in 2018 and 2019, while working on Poulenc’s and Previn’s trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano. When you’d play just right, he’d say “ding! you’re in heaven!” and often complemented me that I “was very good at sad” (which for an oboist, is one of the best compliments you can get.) I was very lucky to go sailing with him in the East bay of the Charles, and to visit his beautiful home in Roslindale. His stories of meeting Stravinsky were dazzling, you couldn’t help but be star struck in his presence. Even after I left NEC, he was always happy to pick up the phone when I called, and even went so far to write a letter to Boston University advocating for me to have all my credits from NEC transfer over and not delay my graduation. And if you know John Heiss, he didn’t send an email or make a call, he wrote a letter on his typewriter and mailed it to the dean at BU. Mr. Heiss, thank you for everything. You will be remembered forever through your legacy of musical genius, humility, and kindness." —Cheyanna Duran, 2017-2020
"What inspiration John Heiss imparted to my young flutist self 1969-1973. I seriously branched out to more modern compositions and under his guidance recorded the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord by Elliott Carter." —Jolie Shushansky, Class of 1973 BM Flute and Music Ed
"I remember how moved I was when Professor Heiss told our class of the moment he heard that Stravinsky had died, how in his sadness he had leaned over and hugged his wife. Obviously that moment was over fifty years ago, and it has now been almost thirty years since he told us that story, but when I heard that John Heiss died I leaned over and hugged my wife." —Duncan J Cumming, MM 1996
"As a flutist and scholar, John was the perfect model for me, a flutist who became a scholar. I took his Ives, Schoenberg and Stravinsky course and never looked back. Playing principal flute for Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms for the first time, I thought first of John and all he had joyfully taught. Participating in his masterclasses was also a refreshing experience for a person who loved both early and modern music. John Heiss embodied equal respect for performance and knowledge, and more than that—kindness. As a Southern girl living in Boston, this last was a vivid gift." —Dr. Yvonne Kendall MM '81 Flute Performance
"John was a dear person and a wonderful teacher. I had the luck to get into his Ives and Bartok class while I was studying at NEC as an undergraduate. He actually modified his infamous Ives/Schoenberg/Stravinsky class to teach Bartok and we all wanted to take this class to learn what he had to say about the Hungarian master. Actually, for me, it was something of an introduction to the music of Bartok and what an introduction it was! John was also a family friend and colleague of my late father, William Thomas McKinley who taught at NEC from 1973 to 1994. He and my father shared an annual concert series at Jordan hall from 1983 to 1992 called the "Heiss/McKinley" concert and this was, at least in its peak, something of a concert event at NEC for a few years. They each were quite different as composers but also were quite complementary. They also both shared a passion for baseball and the Boston Red Sox. I will always remember John's kindness and intelligence. RIP." —Elliott Miles McKinley (BM, Composition and Jazz Studies '92)
"John was the thread that held everything about NEC together, really the musical soul of the school. When I arrived at NEC in 1973 his family was the first one I connected with, having him as a teacher at NEC and playing piano for a family dance class at Boston Conservatory that included Arlene, Frank and Laura. I'm pretty sure there wasn't anyone else who, in their early twenties, had to agonize about whether to spend their summer at Tanglewood as a composer or the Lennox School of Jazz as a flute player, having been accepted at both (he ultimately chose Tanglewood) or whether to work at Bell Labs or NEC. He was all about what made music worth studying, what made it interesting, what made it challenging, what made it tick. May his legacy live on." —Hankus Netsky, Co-chair, Contemporary Musical Arts
"John was a wonder. I took both his 3rd year theory and orchestration classes, and played and recorded a (thoroughly forgettable) Milton Babbitt chamber piece under his direction, during which he taught us harmonic tuning and metric modulation. Not bad. After Gunther he had the second best ear I've ever known (and that's saying something) and was always a genuine caring guy. The best. NEC was honored to have him." —David Reskin 1974
"I was an undergraduate in flute performance at NEC from 1991-93, and I was self confident and clueless as only an 18 year old at a conservatory can be. For NEC's 125th anniversary celebration a collage concert was scheduled, consisting of short excerpts of pieces that had been written since the school's founding. I was very excited, because the opening of Bolero was on the program, and I was playing principal flute! I was extremely disappointed when I found out that John Heiss would be playing the solo, not me. I knew and loved him from going to his master classes, so I approached him and said that I accepted that the decision had been made, but I didn't think it was fair. John didn't blink an eye. Let's both play it! He answered. At the concert I played the solo, and he improvised around the solo line. As an adult who has been playing flute professionally for 30 years now, I cringe thinking about my teenage self marching up to the front of the stage on break to make my complaint. John Heiss was so kind, and so unflappable, that I didn't even realize how gracious and loving he had been until years later. I have tried to take this lesson into my own teaching, and I think of him often." —Frances Tate, work towards BM in flute performance, 1991-93
"When I think of my classes with John Heiss I think of the word "magic." I can think of no other teacher who conveyed so well the magic of music, what music can do and how it can do it. His enthusiasm was boundless and contagious, and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to study with him." —Michael Fenton, NEC M.Mus. 2002
"John Heiss was one of the only musicians in the world who would feel equally at ease coaching a Haydn Quartet as something written yesterday. He seemingly always was willing to listen to us play just about anything and the universe of music he imagined in his inner ear was so vivid and clear that he could communicate any idea to us and we could never hear it without his voice. He may be gone but he lives on in ours and all of the musicians’ playing who were lucky enough to work with him. He had a rare, almost impossible way of radiating all of his warmth even through Zoom and would humorously offered incentive if something was really in tune it would warrant a spot in heaven- we know he must have made countless spots for himself." —Balourdet Quartet (Professional String Quartet Program ‘23): Angela Bae, Justin DeFilippis (Violins), Benjamin Zannoni (Viola), Russell Houston (Cello)
"Mr. Heiss...I can't even begin to describe what an honor it was to work alongside him even if just for a few years. I was lucky enough to assist his teaching in Interpretive Analysis and Music Since 1945, along with taking his Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky course (an absolutely legendary NEC offering so heavily curated and specialized by Mr. Heiss that it's almost unimaginable without him), having multiple chances to coach, be coached, witness him coach, or co-coach with him both in and out of new music (Contemporary Ensemble and not), and having had the chance to study with him not only for several years under the degree but afterwards too thanks to his own generosity and kindness towards me.
But I think what speaks even further to what made Mr. Heiss such an icon of NEC is his own selflessness and passion for his students. He always opened up the Contemporary Ensemble to new works from the composition department via a call for scores (which being one of his closest assistants I had the later fortune to help facilitate). He always made sure that projects in his classes fit student interests and desires rather than rigidly boxing in a response to materials he taught. He taught students expecting no payment in return because he simply loved teaching (I clearly remember what he called "The John Heiss Summer Intensive" during the dreaded COVID-19 2020 summer, where he taught a select group of students online completely for free because he received payment for NEC coaching services he didn't render yet).
Speaking just to my own experience, he continued above and beyond to cultivate me as a student, something he didn't have to do but did because it was what he wanted to do deep down. In the ISS class, he recommended I join The Charles Ives Society from what he knew I already knew coming into the course. He had me teach several sessions of his classes when he was incapacitated during the final few months. He placed so much trust and care in me...I don't even have words to begin describing it. Our chats in his office one-on-one at the ends of lessons and teaching sessions yielded a musical intimacy that I have never seen rivaled in any other person. His depth of knowledge spread the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and the deepness of the Mariana Trench (apt allusions since he loves sailing so much on top of the music).
John Heiss is an irreplaceable gem in the crown of NEC. I said this shortly after the public announcement of his passing, and I will say it until the day I die. Thank you, Mr. Heiss. Thank you for everything you have done. Everyone who studied with you, either in one class or as close as I did until the very end, thanks you for it and will never forget or forsake it." — Current DMA Student, Composition - Teaching Fellow of John Heiss and (possible) last full-time student
"John Heiss had a deeply profound impact on my musical life as a student and beyond, as I know he did with countless others. Taking his iconic courses “Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky” and “Interpretive Analysis” at NEC always just felt like “Story Time with John Heiss,” and were a highlight of every week. He was the kind of teacher who helped us learn through the lens of his own personal experience with music and life. His genuine curiosity and enthusiasm and utter brilliance were both infectious and inspiring. It is directly because of him that I fell in love with music of the 20th century and developed the skills for interpreting and performing new music, including his own compositions! His coachings of our sextet performance of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht remains one of my most treasured musical experiences to this day, along with the premiere of his work Microcosms by the Excelsa Quartet, of which I was a member. Through his classes and coachings, I learned a few core concepts that have stuck with me to this day: any chord or group of pitches, when tuned perfectly, can unlock deep spiritual meaning, no detail is insignificant, no matter how small, and music of every kind possesses a strong and relatable narrative that can be brought out by thoughtful interpretation. I will always be grateful for having known this thoughtful, dedicated, witty, and wonderful human. Thank you, Mr. Heiss, for everything." —Audrey Wright (BM '11, MM '13)
"Dear John; Having tried several times in vain to find the appropriate words to honour you,I must do it in form of a °love-letter°to a wonderful friend whose love of music-making was contagious,and so were his constant efforts to understand more and improve what he was doing...Now you are making music with the angels,and I thank you for all you have given to us throughout the years, Veronica Jochum" —Veronica Jochum/emerita piano
"John Heiss was a wise educator, a kind and generous professor, and especially, a teacher who was extremely perceptive about who his students were as musicians and as people. I have fond memories of woodwind quintet coaching sessions, of casual conversations in the school hallways, and of extremely insightful comments in the margins of my essays. Decades after I graduated, we reconnected by phone. I’m so glad I had the chance to thank him properly for all that he taught me." —Class of 1986
"I first knew John during my two years of GD studies. He was one of the faculty who made a lasting impression on me at NEC. Many years later, I had the honor to teach his granddaughter, Laura, piano. That’s where I got to know the family more deeply and personally. His daughter, Laura, and I have performed John’s duet for flute and piano on various occasions. His piano compositions were also performed at the school I teach (South Shore Conservatory) by many students. I felt privileged to be included when John received the lifetime achievement award at NEC. Reminiscing it, that was a wonderful time with great excitement. John’s warmth and support is unparalleled. I wish him, with all my heart, to continue his genial work, just in a different sphere." —HuiMin Wang, Graduate Diploma 1992-1994
"He always seemed so happy, even at the end, and he was certainly one of the most talented and diverse musicians at NEC." —Poet-in-residence emerita at NEC
"In the 80s when I was a student at NEC, I was lucky enough to take John's class, Ives Schoenberg Stravinsky. It blew my mind and sparked something there. And then I was even more lucky to be taken under his wing in coaching and performing new music. I count some of those experiences as my favorites in a 30 year singing career. John was formative in my becoming the kind of singer I was and the opportunities that I was subsequently given. He was a consummate educator, the best kind of teacher. I learned deep listening, composition, collaboration with composers, idea and imagination in bringing notation to life from him. I also learned about collegiality and the joy of making music together. He was always kind but had very high standards and was driven to achieve them for the music. I am proud to have been his student and to have been his faculty colleague at NEC. Although his physical presence with us was diminished these past 4 years due to Covid and his health challenges, his ethos of music making and collaborating was still strong. My memory is shockingly bad but I still vividly remember him telling the class about how Ives' father stood on the green in Danbury CT at the exact junction where the two lines of his marching band crossed, playing music in different keys. My ears were changed at that moment. I owe him so much and I will miss him deeply." —Lisa Saffer Voice Faculty
"John Heiss was the most unexpected and impactful surprise of my time at NEC. My first year I played a few times on his Contemporary Ensemble programs, one of which was Sofia Gubaidulina's trio for flute, viola, harp. Mr. Heiss brought the three of us, myself, Hope Wilk, and Bo Lee, together and gave us some memorable coaching. We hit it off, and the next year we were an Honor's Ensemble and explored the better portion of the repertoire for that instrumentation (albeit with a different coach). At the end of that year Mr. Heiss took our trio sailing at his beloved Community Boating Inc. Getting in and out of the boat was somewhat of a challenge, but once in the water he was spry and invigorated like a man thirty years younger. It was my first time sailing. That day is the first memory that springs to mind when I think of John Heiss, followed shortly thereafter by Stravinsky coachings, Ted Williams and Charles Ives stories, and what I can only describe as the most wholesome sort of cursing in rehearsals." —Daniel Orsen - Viola, MM '18
"I didn't know John more than glancingly, but I remember the deep impression made by his Songs of Nature at the 1976 Boston ISCM Festival, especially the exquisite setting of Emily Dickinson's "If I shouldn't be alive." I had the good fortune to help arrange for its recording on Nonesuch, and also to conduct its first New York performance (with the wonderful Chris O'Reilly as pianist), John's kind words about which I still hold dear. RIP." —Joshua Rifkin