By Jack Kintner
“There’s no way you can be a high school music teacher and have a boring day,” exclaimed Andy Harmening as he reflected on his 31-year career teaching music, 29 of them for the Blaine school district. Harmening, 65, retires this month.
Born near St. Louis and raised on a 120-acre eastern Washington ranch 11 miles outside Chewelah, north of Spokane, Harmening tried his hand at different jobs before settling on a music career.
He worked for 10 years after high school as a professional rock musician, a logger, a weaver for Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland and a forklift driver at an eastern Washington sawmill. “Driving that forklift on the green chain,” he said, shaking his head, “one day I looked at one of the older guys and realized I didn’t want to be that old guy working on that green chain when I was 60 years old.”
His best career option, performing and teaching music, stood before him. Music seems to come naturally to the soft-spoken and kindly gentleman, something that was evident early on.
“I remember standing by my mom when she took piano lessons,” Harmening said, “just barely able to peek over the keys.” Still, he was able to pick out melodies she’d just been taught simply by watching the lesson.
Six years later he completely dismantled that same piano to see what made it tick. “My mom came home before I finished putting it back together and was not happy, and let me know, but when I put it back together it worked perfectly. I also found a bunch of coins and other old stuff inside. Pretty neat,” he said.
Harmening also built his own electronic keyboard for his rock and roll band. “It was a Heathkit, something like 1,700 little pieces, but in a month or so of working every spare moment I had a keyboard.” He said that his tenacity, “must be my German coming out.”
He earned a bachelor of arts in music education and a bachelor of music in piano performance from Eastern Washington University in 1984, followed by a master of music in piano pedagogy and performance at what is now the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho in 1986.
During his graduate years he taught piano and academic classes, accompanied the Vandaleers Concert Choir and the university’s opera workshop productions as well as being in demand as an accompanist for vocal and instrumental soloists.
His recital for his master’s degree was a 75-minute program of Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Scriabin and Debussy, all done from memory.
Harmening then began his career in the Republic school district teaching band, choir and the gifted-talented program. He came to Blaine in 1988.
Harmening’s choral groups have won many awards over the years, appearing at festivals and gatherings from Whistler to Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Seven years ago he took his group to New York City, where in addition to a festival in nearby New Jersey his group sang in two huge churches, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Bartholomew’s (known locally as “St. Bart’s”) in midtown.
“Singing at St. Bart’s was wonderful,” he said. “It’s a huge vault of a building that generated this amazing sound.” St. John’s Cathedral, similarly, is reputed to be the fourth largest church building in the world.
A church musician himself, for 29 years Harmening has been music director at St. Anne’s parish in Blaine, and will continue. One thing that made singing at St. Bart’s special for Harmening was conducting his group in a space once the province of the famed Leopold Stokowski, whom the congregation brought to New York as their choir director in 1905.
He and his wife Betsy, a nurse at Good Samaritan Society – Stafholt for 29 years, met in 1980 in a psychology class on his first day on campus at Eastern. All four of their children, Aaron, Heidi, Kimberly and Andrea, attended Blaine schools.
Their daughter Kimberly played on Blaine’s girls basketball team that took fourth place in the 2004 state tournament. Daughter Heidi, also a teacher, has along with her husband Jason provided the Harmenings with their first two grandchildren, Ellie, 3,
and Casey, 3 months.
Plans for retirement include working with Kimberly on real estate ventures in Seattle and skiing in Europe next February.
“I’m still living the dream,” Harmening said, “coming to school every day to make music and share music with the thousands of wonderful students I’ve had over the years. I really love this job, but life’s a balance of holding on and letting go, and it’s time to go.”
Harmening’s final concerts will be held this month. His final appearance as a choral conductor for Blaine High School will be at graduation, at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 16 in the gym.
This year, Harmening joined a total of seven employees who announced their retirement from the Blaine school district, including Kathy Swindler, Nancy DePauw, Carey Bacon, Muriel Ridnour, John Selinger and Maria Slack.