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Steph Chinn

At an early age, my son Stephen tried to make music blowing into the old beat up trumpet that we had around the house.  Years later, I learned that at that young age, it was Stephen’s way of trying to get his dad’s attention.  I was introduced to the trumpet at Francisco Junior High School in San Francisco.  For a junior high school, Francisco had lots of musical offerings.  You could play in the band or in the orchestra.  I chose band because I preferred brass over string instruments.  Everyone wanted to play the trumpet because it was the sexiest instrument.  I believe it was because I learned to blow the bugle in Chinese school that I had a leg up on the competition for one of the chairs in the trumpet section of the band.  My music career ended when I graduated from Junior High School.

For Stephen, middle school was where his music career got its start.  Perry Smith taught music at Drake High School in San Anselmo, CA.  There was no music program at Redhill.  Perry Smith had the vision and the dedication to volunteer his time at Redhill Middle School, starting a music program there in order to develop a farm system to feed his high school program.  You could say he did it for survival reasons which is partly true.  But in Stephen’s case, it was a life-saver.  Besides athletics, music was his passion.  Stephen played the trumpet all through high school, winding up in the jazz band, which was the premier performing group at Drake High School.  Stephen’s older sister, Robin, played the piano, starting lessons at a young age when we were in Warm Springs, and continuing in San Anselmo.  Robin practiced daily.  One day, Stephen, a middle schooler, with no piano lessons, sat down on the piano bench and started playing the piece that Robin had been practicing for weeks on end.  We were all amazed, especially Robin, who blurted out, “Stephen is playing the piece better than I can after weeks of practice; and he doesn’t even read music”!  

Stephen applied to colleges across the country that specialized in music, especially jazz.  In the end, Stephen was accepted by Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.  We think he chose Berklee because it was the furthest he could get away from home.  That’s another story.  Stephen called home every night the first week at Berklee.  We talked more in that first week than his entire senior year at Drake.  First night, “I made it here, dad, and am settling into my apartment.”  Second night, “Well dad, I can’t find my travelers’ checks.”  Third night, “Dad, someone sat on my brand new trumpet (his graduation present); I’ll need to get it repaired.”  Fourth night, “Found my travelers’ checks; they had slipped behind the top drawer down into another drawer.”  Fifth night, “Registered for classes today.”  Sixth night, “Excited about classes starting soon.”  Seventh night, “Well dad, at Drake, I had my own fan club.  Here at Berklee, I’m a nobody”!  Fortunately, Stephen had a wonderful academic advisor.  Stephen’s declared major was performance.  In light of the competition, his advisor encouraged him to add a major to his declared performance major.  So Stephen had a double major, adding Music Education.

In his senior year, approaching graduation, I asked Stephen what his plans were.  To my surprise, he had 3 options in mind–check out the music scene in Paris, check out the music scene in New York, or try to find a teaching job.  And he assured me that he would choose the first one that became a viable opportunity.  He added that the odds for a teaching position was no better than any of the other two performance options.  Schools, generally, did not offer jobs to college graduates with no teaching experience.  By the time he graduated from Berklee, his name was Steph (so he was Steph before the current famous Steph Curry).

A teacher Steph interned with turned down an offer at Mamaroneck Avenue Elementary School in Westchester County, NY.  In turning down the job offer, he recommended that the school take a look at my son, Steph Chinn.  It turns out that Steph had applied earlier for the position and was ignored because of his lack of experience.  As a result of that recommendation, the school pulled Steph’s resume out from the bottom of the pile and invited him in for an interview.  Now after over 30 years at Mamaroneck Avenue School, Steph is one of the most loved and respected teachers on the faculty.  Steph started the production of a Broadway Musical annually, with the elementary age children performing and singing to the accompaniment of a live orchestra.  The PTA got involved, raising $10,000 a year to fund the program.  Productions over the years have included Fiddler on the Roof, The Littlest Mermaid, Into the Woods, Oklahoma, Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, Annie.  I love visiting Steph and his family in Mamaroneck.  On the occasions we walk along the main street in town, Mamaroneck Avenue, we are stopped constantly by his students and their parents who were former students.  And the best part of his teaching music at Mamaroneck Avenue School is that all three of his children–Ella, Harper, Miles–have been able to have their dad as their music teacher.

There may be a more famous person named Steph, but it is my son, Steph Chinn, whom I love and am deeply proud of.  Steph and Mallory were married on a beach in Nantucket, followed by a lavish reception in Rye.  We hosted a West Coast Chinese banquet; and among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. Perry Smith.

2 thoughts on “Steph Chinn”

  1. What a tribute to Steph Chinn! He is God’s child in the sense one normally thinks of a child protégé before birth!

    I love how in a single sentence or two you write in thought and structure patterns that is half in casual conversation and half formal/polite spoken English. Like the powerful silence between the musical notes or phrases that carries the emotion, there is that fine line that enables the reader (me) to associate memories, anticipate next idea or ask a question. For example:

    My knee jerk association would be Steph Curry.
    “He added that the odds of him getting a teaching position….” foretells that there would be something miraculous. You take us through his journey which most people can relate to. (It’s life.)
    And the humor about the longest conversation you’ve had when he arrived at Berklee. That must be a “guy-thing.” I’m sure girls have longer conversations with their moms.
    The final tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Perry Smith is heart-warming and encouraging to anyone who thinks that what one does everyday doesn’t matter, because it does!

  2. Very enlightening story about the original Steph. Enjoyed the narrative.

    Welcome back. You probably didn’t get much hoops in at Burning Man, so look out because we have a HORSE game scheduled in Sept.

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