Middle schooler Christopher Jessup learned to sing before he learned to speak. As a baby, his parents remember him humming in his crib, perhaps recalling a classic jazz tune from the home stereo. “I like to sing,” Chris said, pausing from rehearsals for the Middlesex Middle School variety show last spring. “I like to sing a lot.”
But it’s his piano playing that stops you in your tracks. When he was in second grade at Tokeneke School, his teacher, now retired Dede Emerson, asked her students if anyone wanted to play the piano.
“Much to my surprise, Christopher volunteered to play,” Emerson recalled. “He sat at the piano and out came the most lush jazz harmonies I had ever heard from a youngster. I was blown away.”
When Emerson asked him how he learned the songs, he said he figured them out by listening to jazz while riding in the car. He also improvised on a tune that Emerson had once played for the class, and he played the song in the same key as Emerson’s version.
“I knew by his choosing this same key, that Christopher indeed had good ears and a special gift,” Emerson said.
His lifelong passion for the ivories began when Santa Clause left a toy piano with six multi-colored keys under the Christmas tree for Chris when he was 2. By the time he was 6, his audio explorations left the piano out of tune and with three broken keys. “He loved that little piano,” said his dad, Wim.
His mom, Barbara, suggested that Chris’s innate sense of melody and rhythm may have been kindled during her train commute while she was pregnant with him. “I commuted to Wall Street from Connecticut the whole pregnancy so maybe it was the rumble of the Metro North and subways that got it started,” Barbara said with a laugh.
Neither of his parents are musicians, but his uncle teaches saxophone at Pepperdine University and his great-grandfather played in big bands, so music runs through his blood. “I can kind of express myself through music,” Chris, who will be in seventh grade this fall, said.
While most kids are worried about Facebook or video games, Chris is more worried about which chord progression will follow the bridge of his new composition. At 12 years old, he’s already composed more than a dozen songs, including one for his mom on her birthday called Royal March. “It was really beautiful,” Wim said.
His passion even inspired his parents to become classical music fans.
“Through Christopher, we have gotten to know Bach and Beethoven,” Wim said.
Although he is a born musician, his abilities to perform in front of people did not come as naturally.
After Chris shied away from performing for Darien Public Schools’ music director, Rick Sadlon, Emerson told him that is was OK. She never pushed him, but rather reminded him that he had a gift, and it needed to be shared.
His parents said that Emerson’s attentiveness to Chris’s playing and her dedication to seeing him shine helped give Chris the confidence he needed to perform. “I knew that with time, renewed self-confidence and a personal sense of accomplishment, Christopher would want to share,” Emerson said. “It is my understanding that at this time, with a sense of great pride, Christopher now does.”
These days it’s hard to find Chris not performing in front of people.
He’s a member of middle school’s Glee Club, he performed in the Willy Wonka show in the late winter, the Variety Show in the spring, and he also performs at local churches.
Chris’s humble and polite demeanor belies his voracious appetite for creative expression. He also plays the violin, and he learned how to read music only last year. His compositions exude the same innocent playfulness that beams from his young personality – his transitions are smooth, with each note an exact translation of something deep within his creative being.
His inspiration comes from everywhere, but mostly from nature and his family, he said. He’ll hear a sound, a melody will evolve in his mind, then he sits at the piano and improvises, gets inspired from the improvisation, and voilà! Instant composition. Or at least the beginnings of one.
It may sound easy, but Chris’s dedication to his craft requires daily practice. “I play every chance I get,” he said. “I never procrastinate. I want to do it.”
His mom noted how Chris’s selfdiscipline is beyond his years. “He is very, very dedicated to his practice,” Barbara said. “He practices everyday – without fail – so passion plus practice and parents who support him, plus teachers recognizing his gift have all played a key role in his progress.”
Chris is now taking singing lessons from renowned tenor Matthew Surapine, and he also is taking violin and piano lessons from the Talent Education Suzuki School in Norwalk.
Eventually he would like to learn harpsichord and the organ.
“A lot of people are very overwhelmed with how talented he is,” middle school choral director Kimberly Sadler said. “We’re so concerned with testing and scores, when it’s really the creativity that Chris has that is going to be most beneficial to him throughout his life. It’s kind of a cool thing.”
“Blown away” appears to be a common phrase when it comes to people’s reaction to Chris’s playing.
Sadler first heard Chris flex his music chops during the variety show auditions and has since become one of Chris’s biggest fans.
“It’s fun as a music teacher to see him so involved, so willing to be involved in everything, and so musically confident and creative,” Sadler said. “His musical ear is one of the most impressive things. Any instrument that he picked up he could learn really quickly.”
As Chris’s tastes and talents evolve, he has also found a love of writing.
Middle school English teacher Jackie Kelly has helped Chris find and hone that passion, he said. He also remembers Tokeneke’s music director Rebecca Sears and principal MaryLee Fisher being integral to his musical development and confidence. Sadler added that while it takes a village to raise a precocious musician, no individual teacher can claim credit for Chris’s talents. “It’s a gift,” she said.
His neighbor, high school junior Lila Sullivan, has also helped nourish Chris’s passion for dance. The two collaborated to choreograph movements to the song ABC by the Jackson 5 for the middle school’s Glee Club.
Despite Chris’s more refined tastes, he is not above listening to pop music, especially Lady Gaga and Steve Perry from the band Journey. At home, Chris and his family have two dogs, three fish and two rabbits. “I love animals,” he said.
But he won’t let his hobbies interfere with his calling. “I want to go to Juilliard,” he said, smiling broadly.
He also helps with Kindness Counts, a program where young people volunteer services to help the less fortunate.
Chris performed on the piano for homeless people in Stamford, and said the experience was very positive.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “It was interesting, I’ve never done something like that before. I would like to do it again.” He also helped cook and serve them food.
As Barbara and Wim watch their young son mature in life and on stage, it fills them with an overwhelming sense of pride. “We’re excited about his future,” Wim said. “It’s going to be quite an interesting journey.”
“I hope you send me updates,” Sadler said.
Originally published in The Darien Times.