Music in her blood: Long-time music teacher shares her natural talents with generations of students

If there was ever a case to be made for music being in someone’s blood, local musician and teacher Eileen Harrigan certainly fits the bill.

Harrigan was born in West Branch and grew up in Mio with her parents and sister. As a young child, Harrigan says that her connection to music was undeniable. This fact wasn’t altogether shocking, as her mother’s family had strong ties to music. Her mother played the piano and sang, her grandfather was a ragtime composer, and her uncle was a professional musician.

However, the first Harrigan child to receive music lessons was her older sister, as their parents could only afford to send one at the time. Understandably then, it came as a shock when Eileen sat down at the piano one day and played Gershwin for her grandfather.

During lessons, Dexter, Harrigan's 10-year-old miniature poodle, can often be heard harmonizing from the living room of her west side Bay City home.“He said, ‘How did you learn that?’ I said, ‘I just watched Mommy play.’ He got on the phone with my mother and said, ‘You’re giving piano lessons to the wrong child.’ ” Shortly after, Harrigan began formal piano lessons with Aunt Lou, a friend of the family living across the street.

“I started at 8, and by the time I was 12, Aunt Lou had me accompanying the high school choir. When she died, she left me a trust to pay for my lessons until I got into college. I always thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, but she had different ideas.”

Harrigan also recounts that she made it known that she wouldn’t be satisfied with ‘toy’ instruments.

“I wanted a guitar. My parents gave me a plastic ukulele. In my small, 7-year-old mind I thought, ‘I can take care of this,’ so I sat on it and broke it.” Harrigan scoffs, “They got me another ukulele that was wood so I couldn’t break it. I still wasn’t happy.”

Finally, at 14, after Eileen was able to work and save the money, her father brought her into Bay City one morning to purchase her first Gibson guitar. By that evening, after hours at work in her bedroom learning the chords, she played “500 Miles” for her mother.

Harrigan saved enough money at 14 to buy herself a Gibson guitar. That same day, she taught herself to play a song.If these early signs of natural musical prowess didn’t make her talents clear enough, when she joined the band in middle school playing flute, the instrument her sister had played, her teacher saw more potential.

“In seventh or eighth grade, the band director put me into the high school program. One spring he said, ‘How would you like to learn to play the French horn?’... He handed me a book and a French horn. So I taught myself during the summer how to play. After learning the French horn, I learned to play all of the brass instruments. All self-taught.”

After graduating high school, Harrigan studied education at Central Michigan University and graduated with a major in music and minor in recreation. Unfortunately, her graduation came at a time in the early 1970s when schools were cutting funding for the arts. With her parents now living in Essexville, Harrigan moved to the area as well, working for Essexville-Hampton Public Schools but teaching recreation, such as track and gun safety, instead of music.

Harrigan is involved with the Bay City Players, ABC Productions, Bay Music Foundation, and the Bay County Humane Society while still teaching private music lessons and working as a lay minister and spiritual director.Later, she was approached by the Bay County YWCA to serve as the Adult Program Director. It was during her time in this role that she was invited to attend a liturgy meeting at Visitation Church, a fateful meeting that would build a lifelong connection between Harrigan and the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw. With her guitar in tow, as directed, Harrigan attended and was introduced at the meeting by a nun who was the current musical director.

“She said, ‘This is Eileen Harrigan, who I hope will be taking my position.’ I am thinking, ‘What is going on?’ They made the pitch to me: I would be the first layperson to have this position as music coordinator for the church. I went home to think and pray about it.”

Harrigan ended up accepting the position, which she held for 16 years. She also began her teaching business in full force to supplement her salary from the church. At first, she would visit just a dozen or so students in their homes; as time went on and demand increased, she switched the format and had students coming to her residence.

The business exploded from there. In the 1980s, Harrigan estimates that in addition to her work with the church, she was seeing approximately 80 students per week for lessons, working from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. Many of those students have gone on to bring their own families back for lessons.

For Sarah Wesolek, lessons with Harrigan became a multi-generational affair. In the 1970s, Wesolek’s mother, Sandy Crook, and her oldest brother took guitar lessons from Harrigan at the YWCA, though they were “terrible students who never practiced,” according to Wesolek.

Some of Harrigan's early students now bring their children to her for music lessons.At 5, Wesolek showed intense interest in singing and theater, which is when the family re-connected with Harrigan for voice lessons in 1978. Though initially concerned about her young age, Harrigan accepted after Wesolek arrived at her first trial lesson prepared to sing “Little Girls” from the musical Annie, with her big, white 8 track player in hand.

The pair worked together until Wesolek graduated from John Glenn in 1991. They stayed in touch periodically until they re-connected when Wesolek’s daughter, Delaney, began taking voice lessons as a child.

Wesolek recalls, “As a kid, it was always a safe place to be me. She was a soft place to land once a week to get my bearings about who I was becoming and what was important to me. As much as I loved singing … it was a safe place to be me, and that’s what she offers so many students is a place of acceptance and to be challenged.”

Understandably, at 75 years old, Harrigan has scaled things back. She now sees roughly a dozen students per week regularly. Harrigan teaches piano, guitar, voice, Latin percussion, acting, and music theory to students ranging from 8 to 75 years old.

'I want the student to feel successful, to meet a challenge. That is my goal with teaching. I love to watch my students perform, but I want them to feel like they can do anything with effort,' explains Harrigan.While she has had many students go on to be successful in the arts, she says that is never her goal.

“I want the student to feel successful, to meet a challenge. That is my goal with teaching. I love to watch my students perform, but I want them to feel like they can do anything with effort,” explains Harrigan.

Harrigan’s professional resume also includes working with the Bay City Players and ABC Productions, serving as the former President of the Bay Music Foundation, working as a lay minister and a spiritual director, and consulting for the Bay County Humane Society.

Harrigan studied music education in college, but graduated at a time when schools were cutting arts programs. Instead, she taught recreation at Essexville-Hampton Public Schools.Teaching holds a special spot in Harrigan’s heart to this day. During lessons, Dexter, her 10-year-old miniature poodle, can often be heard harmonizing from the living room of her west side Bay City home; according to Harrigan, he’s a castrato tenor. With no plans to retire, Harrigan still enjoys connecting with students.

“Aunt Lou taught outside of the box, and that's how I learned to teach music. It’s so fascinating when you can see that lightbulb go on.”