By Crystal Hayduk, photos by Alan Ashley
Steve Hinz, Chelsea High School’s (CHS) vocal music director for 30 years, paces the stage and the auditorium during a dress rehearsal for Company C’s 29th anniversary show, One Voice: Under the Big Top.
With the assistance of a wireless headset microphone, his gentle voice occasionally interrupts to guide and direct. Forty-four students give him their rapt attention, then adjust their performance.
I have been invited to observe this dress rehearsal and talk with some of the students about the show, but they most want to discuss their feelings about Hinz and the survival of Company C (Co. C), the school’s show choir. Because Saturday night, when the music faded, the lights went out, and the curtain fell, Hinz retired as director of Co. C.
Even though Hinz has retired from Co. C, he will teach for one more year before shouldering the full-time position as director of music ministry at St. Mary Catholic Church in Chelsea. “I’ll need time that I devote to Co. C to work on my next job with practice on organ and piano, liturgy study, research, and schedule planning in a whole new area,” he says.
Hinz has been a vital part of the Chelsea School District faculty for so long that he now teaches the children of some of his earliest students. Considering that he spends part of each day teaching music to kindergarten through second graders, it’s plausible that he’s teaching a few of their grandchildren. The math doesn’t lie, but Hinz’s youthful demeanor, energy, and relationship with his students make this fact hard to believe.
Hinz was hired straight out of college by Ron Mead, who was the CHS principal at the time, to fill the need for a mid-year, long-term substitute. When the need continued, he stayed, initially planning on a year or two at most. But life happened, and he’s made a career in Chelsea.
During the fall of his first full year, Hinz started the Washington Street Show Choir (named for the high school’s location then). “When I first started in Chelsea, there was only one small choir of 17 students, so I knew I needed to find a way to grow the program,” he says. Building from his experience as assistant director of a show choir during his student teaching, Hinz modeled the beginnings of the Chelsea group.
At that time, it was a full-year program. After experimenting with schedules (and even demanding competitions throughout the Midwest), he finally found that the best plan for Chelsea students is to audition in the fall, begin rehearsals after Thanksgiving, and present the final performance in May.
Hinz loves the current version of Co. C (music centered on a theme), but he also loved the original musicals the group has done: “Letters from Home” (the 40s show), “Shake, Rattle, and Roll (malt shop show), “6 Degrees” (show in a warehouse), and “Shoes” (based on “The 12 Dancing Princesses”). “There was just something really special about our work together, and our rehearsal process was a blast as we worked on characters, staging, and choreography from a different perspective,” he says.
A true musician and director, Hinz will miss the “rigor, drive, and stress” of the schedule leading up to performances. As a teacher and mentor, Hinz will miss the students, “helping guide the growth of self-confidence and performance success,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to watch that unfold.”
Hinz feels privileged to witness the growth of the group and individual performers. “Each year, they challenge each other to take their performance up another notch.”
Hinz believes that the diversity of Co. C’s members makes the group unique and lends value to the experience. “I’m most proud that people describe us as being a powerful combination of Chelsea High School’s finest from many walks of life: the dreamers and intellects, instrumental and singing musicians, athletes and dancers, artists and actors.”
The decision to step away from directing Co. C was a difficult one for Hinz, because he continues to love the work and the students. “Co. C is a very important part of my teaching career and philosophy of education,” he says.
Hinz shares his heart as he explains his leadership roles in the state professional association, where he had been shadowing the executive director in order to assume her position upon her retirement, a process that has been years in the making. However, he felt uneasy. “If I can speak spiritually … I knew I needed to pray about the major decision for my family,” he says. He received no answers about that choice, but in hindsight, he can see many interventions leading him to accept the request from the people of St. Mary’s. “I’m excited to use my music in a whole new way and directly connected to my faith.”
While some students are rehearsing on stage in the auditorium, others are in the choir room, working in small groups to tweak and perfect their performance while they wait their turns.
Zack Handloser, a senior, is excited about this year’s theme, “Under the Big Top.” Featuring some songs from The Greatest Showman as well as other circus-themed music, Handloser isn’t giving any specific details away. “It’s about unique people coming together to make a crazy, colorful explosion of awesome,” he says.
A four-year member of Co. C, Handloser is an experienced leader who helps newer members learn the ropes. “Let’s do it again,” he suggests to a classmate, with the same patient tone that Hinz uses with the students. “And we’ll do it again as often as we need to.”
During the week before a production, students rehearse from after school until 8 p.m. or later. To save time, students eat their evening meal (usually prepared and served by parent volunteers) together. Several of them sit down with me during the break, before donning their costumes for the first time since they were measured last fall.
Joshua Ashley, a junior in his second year of Co. C, was inspired by attending the spring show in his freshman year. He earned a spot in his sophomore year. As a trombone player in the band, Ashley says he hadn’t sung since third grade, but now he takes both band and choir classes.
“Co. C is a place where jocks and theater people pull together to put on a show,” he says. “Mr. Hinz runs rehearsals (except for production week) from 7 to 8:30 p.m. – after practices and games, so athletes can participate, too.”
Junior Marianna Carpenter says she grew up on the stage, participating in competitive dance and choir. “During my freshman year, our family had an exchange student who was in Co. C, so I joined the following year.”
Her best memory of Co. C is the trip to Disney World in Florida. “Mr. Hinz takes us outside our comfort zone,” she says. “He trusts us to master new things.”
Phoebe Gibb is also a junior, in her third year with Co. C. She had been part of a show choir in Utah before moving to Chelsea the summer before she began high school. Gibb studies cosmetology through consortium, so she helps with members’ hair and make-up prior to shows.
Jean Sampaio is a senior, here for one year as an exchange student from Brazil. A new friend invited him to audition. “I love doing this, but it’s nothing I ever imagined,” he says. “I never sang in front of anyone – except for my brother back home.”
Sampaio is an athlete, participating in swim and track. “It’s very challenging to figure out a routine that includes sports, academics, and this – plus eating and sleeping. But I love it.”
Sophomore Abby Dobos is in her second year with Co. C. Together with the other students, she says her favorite part about the group is the community. “Everyone feels included here – like we all belong,” she says.
Gibb agrees that Co. C is like a family, and Carpenter labels Hinz a “fatherly figure and amazing mentor” who helps students work through their problems.
When I talk to them individually, each student uses the word “devastated” to describe their feelings about Hinz leaving Co. C. “I’m so sad,” says Gibb. “I cried about not getting my senior year with him after all this time.”
The students wonder about the future of Co. C without Hinz’s leadership, but they hope that the group survives and thrives.
The students say that Hinz has told them that ideally, the group will continue. Hinz tells me that when he discussed his career plans with district administrators in December, “they were extremely interested in seeing this program continue as close to its current design as possible. It’s ironic, and now helpful, that I’ve had two Co. C alums and [current] district teachers, Miss Katie Falk and Mr. Alex Stacy, working as assistant directors this year. Their continued involvement and perspective as past performers and now great educators should make a difference in ensuring Co. C’s future success.”
Dobos calls Co. C the “Hinz legacy.” He’s like a second dad,” she says. “He brings out our best selves, and creates a place where we feel safe and welcome.”