The Buffalo News


Love of music has lawyer Theresa Quinn working overtime

By Paula Voell
Updated: 05/20/08 9:59 AM

What attorney and musician Theresa Quinn considers her “pared down” schedule for the summer is one that few could imagine and fewer pull off.

But it’s all in a day’s work, and play, for her. 

First, she has a full-time law practice with Magavern Magavern Grimm, specializing in negligence, employment and housing litigation, entertainment and copyright issues, a position she’s held since January 2007.

Then, she directs the choir and plays the organ at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. And she’s the pianist in the Theresa Quinn Duo — “which usually plays in dive bars” — with drummer Nick Corallo.

She plays with the Gordon Highlanders, a bagpipe regiment. “Even though there are only nine notes, it’s the hardest instrument I’ve ever learned,” she said. “We’re just getting bearable.”

Besides that, Quinn recently joined the WNED board of trustees, and continues renovating a West Side house. Also on her“to do” list is reviving a garden that was once a choice stop on the GardenWalk.

Given all that, could there be time for more?

For Quinn, yes.

She’s a sought-after musician and director. Among other shows, there was “Hair” at Buffalo State College, “City of Angels” at UB and “Sweeney Todd” at MusicalFare. 

It took no time at all, after she moved back to Buffalo, for her to be tapped for such jobs.

“We moved here, I think, on a Saturday, and that first afternoon I got a call from Mary Kate O’Connell, who said she really, really needed me,” said Quinn, a longtime friend. “That night I sight-read a Stephen Sondheim show".

Directing musicals is one thing that she’s paring down for a while. “This summer, I’m sort of laying low,” she said.

Quinn doesn’t think her full calendar of working all day and then playing music in one spot or another at night is unusual.

“I know lots of theater and church musicians who have day jobs and lead these dual lives,” said Quinn, who is dressed in a split skirt suit with towering heels for her day job at the law firm, an outfit that will turn into something more suitable for her commute home on her bike.

Theater professionals who work with Quinn applaud her artistry and attitude. 

“She’s every director’s dream because she’s always in the moment,” said O’Connell, executive director of the Cabaret in the Square Theatre, “and she’s just brilliant on the piano.”

“With all that energy, she doesn’t bring any tension or obsessing- type behavior,” said Randy Kramer, MusicalFare’s executive director. “She’s about as far from a diva as you can imagine. About a month ago there was a great revelation for me— she has a great singing voice. Now, I have to completely rethink how we can get that on stage. 

“She’s just a lovely person,” said Kramer. “You can’t say a lot of unqualified things like that about a lot of people, but you can about Theresa Quinn.” 

Equally enthusiastic is Drew Kahn, chairman of the Buffalo State College theater department, who has invited Quinn to teach there. “I really do have my pick of talent, and she’s someone I’ll hold to, tightly,” he said. “She meets students with a mix of discipline and wide-open honesty. They are willing to risk for her because she works without degrading them and without her babying them.”

Going back and forth between law and music seems completely natural to Quinn. “Very often when I’m standing in the courtroom, it feels like the same sort of skills I use as a musician. I know how I want to present and, sometimes, I have to improvise.”  During down times in the courtroom, she might go over a musical interpretation in her head. Conversely, when there’s a lull at a rehearsal, her mind can wander to the nuances of a case she’s working on. “It makes for a very full life,” she said.

Quinn’s maternal grandfather, Stuart Monteith, directed a big band in Buffalo, and her interest in music was further nurtured at Woodchuck Elementary School in Wales, Iroquois High School, Indiana University and UB, where she got a degree in piano performance. 

Her first jobs included teaching at Buffalo Seminary and Mount St. Mary Academy and later working as a songwriter for a music publishing company in Nashville, where she also played gigs.

“In typical Nashville fashion, I’d play for five hours and get $35,” she said. “Being a full-time musician is an interesting way to make a living, but it just didn’t seem enough. I was ready to go back to school.”

By that time, in her early 30s, she was attracted to law and to New York City. After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, she worked in New York for several years. 

The return to Buffalo brought her back to her mother, Betty; her sister, Patricia Aiken; and her brother, Brian, a guitarist. “At one time, we all lived elsewhere, but everyone has moved back,” said Quinn.

When Quinn returned to Buffalo, she auditioned for church jobs, something she’s always done. She was drawn to Lafayette Presbyterian, she said, because she finds the congregation committed and caring. At the Sunday service she plays an eclectic mix that includes works by Faure, Stevie Wonder and U2. “She’s willing to do gospelly stuff, the old-timey hymns, even the ancient,” said the Rev. Drew Ludwig. “What would take weeks of preparation for some people, she somehow just does. What’s really amazing is that she also has time to relax and enjoy life.”

Quinn said she always runs on just a little sleep each night. “But I never have any trouble sleeping,” she said.