Remembering the musical legacy of Tina Thielen-Gaffey

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The Duluth and greater choral music community suffered a huge loss on Sept. 9 of this year as Tina Thielen-Gaffey died at age 50 from an accidental overdose. Lovingly referred to as “TTG” by students and colleagues, she left a lasting legacy in her 16-year career as a choral director and associate professor at UMD, and her students have expressed that they will never forget the experiences they had in her ensembles.

TTG started teaching at UMD in the fall of 1999, and was known throughout her career for her immensely talented vocal jazz ensembles. UMD alumni Paula Salmela remembers her audition for the school’s first-ever vocal jazz group:

“When I went in and auditioned for her, she was so charismatic and passionate about what she was doing,” Salmela said. “The audition process, rather than being nerve-wracking, was actually a lot of fun.”

The first year consisted of one ensemble with 13 students. Salmela’s memories of rehearsals with TTG sound very similar to those of alumni throughout her career.

“She was fun, she was spunky, she was sassy, and she brought a lot of heart to what she did,” Salmela said. “After being in classes all day, it was so fun to make music together, and she built a big family out of our group.”

After the first year of vocal jazz at UMD, the group hit the ground running and never looked back. Two ensembles were formed due to the amount of students who auditioned in just its second year of existence, and the ensemble names — Chill Factor and Lake Effect — have stuck to this day. Between yearly retreats at Camp Knutson in Crosslake, Minnesota, semi-annual tours to different music venues around the world and spring semester cabaret shows, TTG made sure her students kept busy honing their craft.

“We were sometimes surprised at how hard she made us work,” said Courtney Ellian, vocal jazz alumni from 2010-14. “And while it seemed out of the ordinary because we never had a professor who did that before, it made us achieve things that I certainly thought were never possible. Looking back, I’ve definitely never had a musical experience quite like that.”

One thing that many alumni of TTG agree with is that she had an amazing ability to balance a student-teacher relationship, as well as a friendly personal relationship, with each of her students.

“She was a really good role model on how to interact with people professionally and socially,” said Luke Ericksen, vocal jazz alumni from 2013-17. “But when she was with you, she made that time about you, and was extremely caring for her students as well as other people in her life.”

TTG’s talents and expertise helped inspire many of her students to become professional musicians and music educators. Salmela said that TTG still inspires her own teaching.

“The love she had for teaching and watching her students grow is now what I take joy in as well,” Salmela said. “She molded me as a teacher as well as a person.”

While she taught and inspired many musicians, TTG also welcomed non-music majors with open arms, and for many of them, being a part of vocal jazz was the highlight of their college experience.

“It was a little more intimidating not being a music major, but she went above and beyond to make sure the non-music majors fit right in and could learn their music quickly,” said John Bennett, alumni from TTG’s first year at UMD. “She made going to school worth it and fun, and vocal jazz is how I remember my experience at UMD.”

 UMD vocal jazz alumni at TTG's memorial service on Sept. 14.

UMD vocal jazz alumni at TTG's memorial service on Sept. 14.

I had the privilege of learning from TTG during my freshman year in vocal jazz, and it has been amazing to hear the stories of how she has touched the lives of so many people through her passion for music and care for her students. If there was a shred of uncertainty as to how much of an impact she had on us, look no further than the picture above. Over 75 alumni from her career in vocal jazz at UMD attended her memorial service on Sept. 14, among many others who wish they could have made it. The alumni opened her service lining the sanctuary to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” our finale song at every spring concert. In a life that has been filled with wonderful music of all kinds, I can safely say that it was the most powerful moment singing has ever granted me.

While TTG was taken away much too early, her memory and legacy lives on with every student, family member and colleague that she interacted with.

“She was the best and always will be the best,” Ellian said, “and we are so much less that she is gone, even if we carry her spirit with us.”

VoicesKevin Ott