Chicago violinist brought gift of music to Park City |

Chicago violinist brought gift of music to Park City

Steve Phillips, special to The Park Record
Dennis Harrington was born to teach. He moved here from Chicago 18 years ago to take a job as string specialist and orchestra teacher with the Park City School District. (Jake Shane/Park Record)

Dennis Harrington is a "string specialist" — that’s strings as in stringed instruments, like the violin and the cello. As the orchestra director and a teacher with the Park City School District for the past 18 years, he’s taught literally thousands of budding young string musicians throughout the district. His always positive, sometimes light-hearted style of teaching attracts students like moths to flame.

Growing up in Homewood, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, Harrington was a musical prodigy. He picked up the violin at age 8, inspired by early years of listening to his father’s "huge" classical record collection.

"I loved that music, especially the violin pieces. I took to it like a duck to water," he says.

His musical mastery earned him a prized position with the Chicago Youth Symphony for three seasons. He also loved to play baseball with the neighborhood kids and enjoyed summer vacations to visit family in southeast Georgia.

He knew he wanted to be a music teacher long before he graduated from high school.

"I got to take over the class and conduct the orchestra sometimes when the teacher was sick or busy and I really liked it. I also took on a couple of private students to make a few extra bucks in high school. I figured I could go on to college, study to be a teacher and do a lot of playing and conducting, just to be a part of the local music scene."

Harrington attended the University of Illinois, Chicago campus, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education. He worked as an orchestra teacher in various schools in the Chicago area from 1988 through ’98.

After spending his entire life in the Chicago area, Harrington was ready for a change.

"I’d enjoyed visiting my younger brother, who worked for the U.S. Luge Association when it was based in Lake Placid, New York. When you grow up in the Midwest, where it’s completely flat, mountains are a novelty. I really liked the feel of the town. I thought, if I could ever teach music in a town like that, well then I’d have to jump at the job."

When Park City advertised in 1998 that they were starting an orchestra program, Harrington jumped.

"I thought this might be just what I was looking for," he says.

It was, and he’s been here ever since.

Hired as the string specialist for the district’s fledgling orchestra program, Harrington spent the next several years traveling from school to school, teaching violin, viola, cello and bass to students from first grade through 12th. He pioneered the program, teaching Park City children to play his beloved string instruments and watching them grow into talented players. As the program grew, Harrington eventually found a full-time home at Ecker Hill Middle School, where he’s taught for the last six years.

"I love my job, it’s a lot of fun," says Harrington. "When I get these kids on the ground floor and teach them the fundamentals, how to listen and practice, I’m amazed at what they can accomplish. If you do it right, get them in the right mindset to begin with, then practicing becomes less of a chore and you really see them take off and make progress quickly. It’s really rewarding."

Harrington says he strives to keep learning fun.

"I use humor a lot. I think that, if you give students a very direct message and them a funny version of the message, they tend to listen more. That’s just my style, and it’s more fun for me, too."

He also teaches by example.

"I’ll often pick up a violin or cello or bass and try to model for them how to play different techniques," says Harrington.

Many of his students have an opportunity to see him play around town before they sign up for the orchestra program. As the fiddle player with Swagger, a polished and popular Celtic band, he plays often at venues throughout town, including Deer Valley and Newpark. Last month Harrington performed in a special St. Patrick’s Day program at several area schools. His spirited, freewheeling fiddling is a joy to behold.

"They kind of see, ‘oh yeah, the fiddle guy — he seems like he really likes playing and he has a lot of energy. I want to do that too!’ We can get them over a lot of humps if they see the light at the end of the tunnel, how much fun it can be."

For this talented, dedicated man, teaching and playing music is his life. Through music, he’s helped inspire and shape the lives of thousands of young people in the community. Lucky for us.

Harrington has fully embraced his adopted mountain town home.

"I love Park City, especially the people. The town has a great vibe, great winters and great summers."

An avid golfer, he’s a regular at the Park City course and nearby Mountain Dell.

"When I moved out here, a lot of my Chicago friends asked ‘why Utah?’ After a while I got tired of answering, trying to justify it," says Harrington. "I finally decided, you know what, that’s fine. If you don’t understand and you’re not going to come and visit, you’ll never get it. We’ll just keep it to ourselves."


Favorite activities: teaching, fiddling, golfing.

Favorite foods: Indian and Ethiopian; the walleye at O’Shucks Grill and the mole amarillo at Loco Lizard

Favorite reading: History, especially Civil War history

Favorite music//performers: "I still like classical the most." Joshua Bell and Michael Rabin (violin); Truls Mork (cello); Renee Fleming (soprano)

Bucket list: travel to Vienna, Austria and Bryce Canyon National Park

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