By Crystal Hayduk
After 30 years of inspiring Chelsea students, vocal music director Steve Hinz is “recalibrating life.”
His retirement from teaching in the Chelsea School District to start a career in music ministry is like splitting a hardy perennial — the former influence endures even as the transplant thrives.
Hinz has grown deep roots since planting himself in Chelsea, but his musical talents sprouted elsewhere. He grew up in Wisconsin, where both parents played piano and organ; his father was also a teacher. As a child, he was required to practice piano daily and choose a secondary instrument.
“I started playing saxophone when I was in second grade and was convinced I would become a jazz player,” says Hinz.
While attending band camp at Luther College, Hinz took a choir elective with Weston Noble. “I didn’t know at the time that he was a world leader in the art of choral music, so the influence was pretty extraordinary,” he says.
Hinz graduated from Wisconsin’s Viterbo University in 1988, then moved to Ann Arbor so his wife, Lisa, could pursue her master’s degree in vocal performance at the University of Michigan. “I worked as a waiter at the Gandy Dancer [Ann Arbor restaurant] while I kept my eyes open for a teaching position nearby.”
In early 1990, he accepted a long-term substitute teaching job in Chelsea, but planned to move when the year ended. Instead, it developed into what became Hinz’s first and only teaching appointment.
“Something special was happening in Chelsea that just convinced us to stay,” says Hinz. “Jeff Daniels and his team were starting the Purple Rose Theatre Company and Craig Common was launching The Common Grill; this refocusing of the town into an arts community drew us in.”
Although Chelsea’s focus on the arts drew him in, Hinz joined in cultivating his share of the local art scene. He was the founding director of the Chelsea Center for the Arts from 1994-1998. The community-at-large also benefited from his work with students — sold out performances of Company C (Chelsea High School’s show choir), the spectacular Collage Concert, and free cultural exchange performances, to name a few.
The same year Hinz earned his master’s degree from Marygrove College (1998) he joined the Michigan School Vocal Music Association (MSVMA). Some of Hinz’s most gratifying career moments were directly related to his membership in the professional organization, of which he spent seven years as president. “I’ve loved the impacts my choirs have made in performances,” he says.
Special memories include conducting the SATB State Honors Choir in 2013 and taking the high school’s chamber choir to perform at the Michigan Music Conference in 2012.
Hinz met one of his mentors, Ginny Kerwin, through MSVMA. “She had a keen way to focus and challenge my work as a director beyond just the notes and rhythms and texts, and dive into the impact that vocal music can have on the entire human experience,” he says. “She also helped me shape my leadership skills through questions that always helped me come at a problem from multiple angles.”
Although his community and professional efforts are part of the overall landscape, teaching is at the heart of Hinz’s nature. He teaches the high school choir program and general music for Young 5s through second grade.
“I absolutely love that diversity in my day, from the intensity of the music-making at the high school to the sheer joy of engaging in life through music with little ones,” he says.
“Honestly, the biggest honors I receive come from my youngest students where they give me a hand-drawn note with a hug at the end of the year and tell me that they love coming to my class to make music together.”
Hinz was selected as MSVMA’s Teacher of the Year in 2014, an honor that administrators and students agree is well-deserved.
Principal Mike Kapolka says, “Steve has forged the identity of the vocal music program at Chelsea High School through his diligent and persistent focus on forming authentic relationships with his students. There exists a true sense of community in which his students feel supported and cared for.”
Marianna Carpenter, a 2020 graduate, says that even during the pandemic, he takes the time to keep his students engaged. Since first knowing him when she was a freshman in Chelsea, she has observed that “his pure heart and kind soul encourages us to exceed expectations.”
Aaron Zivsak, a rising senior, feels that Hinz’s teaching methods are effective because he first cares about his students’ well-being, which is crucial to learning. Hinz “made me not worry to try new things, to make mistakes, and to fail,” says Zivsak. He calls Hinz a “sweeping force of generosity and understanding.”
Other members of the Class of 2021, Mya Dever and Riley Scritchfield, consider Hinz to be one of the best teachers they’ve ever had. Dever says the sense of community that Hinz has created within the choir will be a lasting legacy. Scritchfield says Hinz has the rare quality of interacting in a manner that makes the students feel heard and understood.
Amelia Nelson, who will enter her junior year in the fall, says Hinz has an extraordinary way of knowing what each student needs and helps them to grow through his kindness, gratitude, and love. As much as she is saddened by his retirement from teaching, she looks forward to seeing him create again.
Hinz will reap a different harvest in his new profession in music ministry at St. Mary Catholic Church in Chelsea, as he combines music and faith. “I’m charged with increasing the level of participation of the assembly in prayer through music and making liturgies more beautiful,” he says.
“I’ll lead worship songs from the piano and organ, and I’ll team up with the other members of the staff in developing liturgies, parish life and programming,” he says.
Ending a teaching career in the midst of a global pandemic has been frustrating for Hinz, as he shares in the students’ disappointment about not being together these last few months.
At the same time, he’s been personally blessed to be with his family and “find joy in the mundane tasks of everyday life without distractions.”
Hinz says he is grateful to the Chelsea community for trusting him with their children and supporting the many components of the vocal music program. “As a teaching artist, I never thought that my three-month long-term substitute position would turn into a lifelong career here.”
He appreciates the way Chelsea has stood beside the development of the Chelsea Center for the Arts, and packed the seats for Company C shows, musicals produced 20 years ago, and the recent music cultural exchanges in partnership with the Chelsea Chamber Players, the First United Methodist Church and the Chelsea High School orchestra program.
“Most importantly,” says Hinz, “[Chelsea has] supported me along with my wife, Lisa, as we’ve raised our family in this community that we are very proud to call home.”