Community Q&A: Robb Harrison lives a life of music | Community

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Robb Harrison grew up in Walla Walla. He didn’t really get into singing until one fateful day when George White, Harrison’s middle school music and choir teacher, heard Harrison singing in the bathroom.

“He waited until I was out, of course,” Harrison said. “Then he said I should join the choir.”

Like many eighth-grade boys, Harrison had some serious reservations about joining.

White knew something that Harrison didn’t though. 

“He figured out the girl I liked,” Harrison said. “She happened to be in choir, and Mr. White knew that. So, I joined.”

After graduation, Harrison left Walla Walla and headed to find his calling.

What was the process like to become a professional opera singer?

“The whole opera thing was really on a dare from my voice teacher at the time, Allison Swinson. I was taking voice lessons with her because I had to take extracurricular classes at Willamette (University). I just thought I’ll take voice, I’m a singer. She said you should sing opera, and I thought that was ridiculous.”

Harrison planned to get a master’s degree in either voice or conducting. He applied to the New York Conservatory, Boston University, the University of Arizona and the Manhattan School of Music. Harrison was accepted to all four but his decision on where to go was not one-sided.

“I married my wife in 2006 … I actually met her at Walla Walla High School. We both had met at the Little Theatre while doing a musical during our senior year of high school. We didn’t want to spend our first years as a married couple in Boston, so Arizona it was.”

After his time at U of A, Harrison went to New York City for opera auditions. He was picked up by Opera New Jersey for a season.

What was the highlight of your career as a professional opera singer?

“The people. There are so many singers out there that are just incredible. It has been so great to meet all of these different people and conductors. It’s so invigorating to make high-level music. You had to walk into rehearsal, and everything had to me memorized. You had to be ready to go. Music makes you set a standard for yourself that is higher than you thought was possible.”

What brought you back to the Pacific Northwest?

“Arizona was hot and sticky. It was 90 degrees at night and 110 in the day. Growing up in the PNW, my wife and I just decided that it was not for us. We decided on Salem, Oregon. Then my daughter came along. That career (professionally singing), in my opinion, was just not conducive for me to be the kind of dad that I wanted to be, which is bedtimes and stories. When my wife was pregnant, I basically stopped. I thought I want to be here. I want to be around.”

How did you get into music education? 

“I really didn’t know what to do with myself when things slowed down. When you are working as a professional singer, there’s always something coming up to the plate. I knew that I had about nine months to figure out what I wanted to do. Never in a million years did I think that I wanted to teach choir. A lovely lady by the name of Carol Stenson, who was at South Salem High School teaching choir, asked me to come and work with the kids. I worked with the boys, and we looked at the music together … and I just fell in love with teaching. I started helping once a week, then a couple of days a week. Eventually, Carol let me conduct a song at one of the kid’s concerts.”

Harrison went back to Willamette University to get his second master’s degree in education. 

“The first couple of years of teaching were hard. I was driving the music and wanted the kids to do really well but I wasn’t having fun, and neither were they. One morning I had a little epiphany in the parking lot. One thought popped into my head: just love and serve the kids, meet them where they need to be met and let everything else go. I did that every day and after about two weeks a kid walked up to me and said that something was different about me. They said I was happier.”

What role does music play in children’s lives?

“It can afford and provide opportunities for kids that very few other things can do. It allows kids to find themselves. They can be silly and free. They can learn how to be comfortable putting themselves out there. They can learn how to make mistakes. They learn how to find their voice and not be so worried about what others think. That’s what I incorporate in my classroom.”

How did you get the role of artistic director of the Walla Walla Choral Society?

“The opportunity to be the artistic director fell right into my lap. When I was in high school, I had watched the choral society perform, and I remember thinking to myself that would be fun to join. Just after I got the job as a choir and drama teacher, I received an email from the Walla Walla Choral Society’s treasurer, Chuck Templeton, asking if I would be interested in applying for the position. I sent an email back saying yes.”

“I am so honored to be a part of the choral society. The people are just incredible. They want to sing, and they have such a heart for music. The sense of community is outstanding.”

“When you are playing an instrument there is a barrier between you and the audience, but when you are singing its different. Choirs draw people together. When we are all breathing together, singing together, and we are all emoting and saying the words together you get something beautiful.”

What do you love about your community? 

“The very warm and accepting welcome that my family and I received when we got here. Everyone has been so helpful, kind and gracious.” 

“The scenery here is incredible. You don’t really understand how beautiful the Blue Mountains are when you are in high school. When you move away and then come back you realize how beautiful the community is.”



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