30 Years With SFCA: Q&A With Assistant Conductor Tina Harrington

Aug 3, 2020

by Emily Szerdy, SFCA Intern

Our audiences know SFCA’s Assistant Conductor Tina Harrington from her many solos and conducting appearances over the years, as well as numerous compositions performed by the choir, but there is much more to SFCA’s longest-serving member than is seen on stage.

From serving as Art Department Chair and Choral Director at The College Preparatory School in Oakland to making masks in her spare time, she is a leader, not only in SFCA, but for future musicians and music-lovers!

Although COVID-19 has put a halt to any in-person performances, it has not stopped Tina from making music. In fact this interview was conducted immediately after she completed the video editing class she is taking in order to ensure that her choir students can still perform!

SFCA Assistant Conductor
Tina Harrington

When and how did you start singing?

I can’t even remember — I was so little. My family was quite musical and we always had music around in the house, so I can’t remember when I didn’t sing. In Junior High School we had a fine arts summer school, so that was where I first started getting serious about it. My first choir conductor was my Junior High teacher Rose Clark. She was the first to teach me how to teach music.

Was there a specific moment when you realized that you wanted to have a career in music?

I’ve wanted to be a choir director pretty much since Mrs. Clark. As I said, she was the first to put it in my head, and she taught about teaching a piece — not necessarily from the beginning – but from the hard parts, or from the end.

Watch this excerpt from Tina’s July 2020 concert with organist and past SFCA Composer-in-Residence Mark Winges. Here the duo performs Winges’ “Prayer.”

More about the concert and this piece on our YouTube channel →

 In 11th grade, the choir director quit at the beginning of the school year, so the long-term substitute teacher had several kids teach songs they knew. After a few weeks of that, the instrumental teacher, Mr. Wong, who had been watching carefully, pulled me aside and said, “In six weeks there’s a concert. Put it together.” And so, I became the conductor of the class. That was when I knew I wanted to go into music.

How did you start singing with SFCA?

Back in those days, there were not as many groups as there are now. There were three or four groups that you would aspire to join. I had been singing in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and my voice teacher was in Choral Artists. They had a last-minute opening, one of the Altos had to leave and the season had already begun, so she encouraged me to try out.

It was late October, just after the 1989 earthquake, they were probably a month and a half to two months into the rehearsal season, and my audition consisted of going to rehearsal and sight-reading with people. It was a little daunting because everybody knew the music already, but on the other hand… everybody knew the music already, so it was a little bit easier to follow along.

Over the past few months, how have you adapted to teaching and making music in a virtual space?

Well, I’m taking a video editing class, so that’s a big part of it! But as a teacher, I’ll have to rethink the kind of repertoire I’m choosing. For example, it can’t have a lot of metric changes if they’re going to be singing virtually and recording on their own.

I’m also going to spend less time doing music as a group, and I’ll meet with them more individually. I’ll give them some independent study options — anything I can help coach them with and they will each have an individual lesson every one to two weeks. I think that will be more engaging.

Does the recent heightened awareness of the need for inclusivity also affect how you’re planning to teach this year?

I’ve been talking to a friend of mine who is a wonderful performer and scholar of African American music. We’ll be doing a lot of work to ensure that the kids know how all of the American musical forms are influenced by African-American culture.

In talking to my friend about how to teach this, she suggested starting with the newest music and relating it back — she’s done some work that way. She’s taken a phrase that Kanye West used and traced it to Ray Charles, and back to gospel music.

I thought that was really interesting, so I’m hiring her to help me build this curriculum.

Recently we have all had a bit more time on our hands, so what have you been doing in your free time?

I don’t feel like I’ve had that much extra time because I’m trying to write a new curriculum and taking classes. I have a friend who has been making masks in huge numbers for folks living on reservations and other underserved communities; and so I cut out 800 squares of fabric, to help her do that, but that wasn’t a lot of time.

Because I’ve been sitting in a lot of Zoom meetings and staring in the distance to try and get my eyes to refocus, I have a whole lot of stuff that I want to do to fix up my house now. I’m sort of designing in my head.

Once we are allowed to start singing and going to “normal” live performances, is there anything that you are particularly looking forward to?

Well, we don’t know what we’re going to do at all now. I would love to be able to do the SFCA concert we were about to do in March. That was a really exciting concert! I love collaborating with Veretski Pass. I have pretty much just gone into “take it as it comes” mode. Being at any group thing would be really nice.

I think what I miss the most is my students. A lot of the way I teach and the way I work is intuitive, and I can do some of that through a screen, but not as much as in real life. The other thing I was doing when everything stopped was the school musical. We went into lockdown the week before our show. I think that’s my fantasy production: to be in the theater with my students doing Into the Woods.