Stephen Schilling of Briny Breezes is a concert pianist who earned a degree in chemistry at age 30. ‘I realized, OK, I know a lot about music, but nothing about math or science,’ he says. Schilling says he’s ‘very proud of creating my own music.’ Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Brian Biggane
One doesn’t simply grow up to be a composer and concert pianist; it’s typically a long and arduous road. For Stephen Schilling, the road has taken more turns that most.
Schilling, 63, who also teaches piano and whose next concert performance will be Feb. 24 at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach, was strongly affected by a childhood mostly spent at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“When you were on post there was always a sense of being in a different place,” said Schilling, the son of a career military man. “Armed guards at the gates, MPs on patrol. My parents didn’t have to worry about any kind of crime.”
Schilling’s father, Col. Charles H. Schilling, had served in World War II, taking part in D-Day and liberating people in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Growing up on the base resulted in some life lessons much earlier than for most boys his age.
“When I was 6 or 7, I was at the swimming hole with my mother and this guy gets up and takes his leg off,” said Schilling, a Briny Breezes resident. “I’m a kid so I’m freaking out. The guy comes over and explains how he lost his leg in Korea and now he’s got a prosthetic. That struck me at an early age about the sacrifices that are made.”
There were perks. Schilling got to meet Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy when they visited and became friends with Gen. William Westmoreland’s son Rip. Another pal was Brian Haig, the son of then-Col. Alexander Haig.
The legendary Bob Knight was the Army basketball coach at the time, and as a teenager Schilling attended a camp Knight ran at the nearby Pocono Mountain Camp. Knight recognized him and instructed him to do as many pushups as he could.
“I did them until I couldn’t anymore,” Schilling said. “Then he said, ‘Stand up, count to five, and give me 20 more.’ And I did them. His point was you can push beyond what you think you can do.”
Schilling took up piano in the fourth grade with a neighbor, Dorothy Davis, and soon afterward began studying music theory with her husband, Dr. John A. Davis. Recognizing his potential, the couple pointed him to the most prominent teacher in the area, Robert Guralnik.
Soon Schilling was supporting himself by playing in a rock band touring military bases far from home.
“We went to Iceland, Newfoundland, Spain, Puerto Rico, bases all over,” he said. “We were also a house band at Greenwood Lake. We were playing Chick Corea, Yes, Jethro Tull, Steely Dan — what I considered to be more musically intelligent progressive rock. We took turns working out arrangements.”
While Schilling was also working at the time on a crew at local entertainment venues, his thirst for knowledge took him in a completely different direction at that point.
“I realized, OK, I know a lot about music, but nothing about math or science. So to round myself out I started going to the community college at Poughkeepsie.” After studying there and at nearby Rockland Community College, he moved on to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he earned a bachelor of science in chemistry at age 30 and spent the next 15 years doing analytical research.
His father died in 1996 and three years later his mother was in ill health, so he moved to Clarksville, Tenn., to care for her.
“I got involved with Sgt. Bill Ryan and his judo club, and a lot of guys who came through were special forces and 101st Airborne guys,” he said. “I got a really good martial arts education, and stayed there until my mother passed in 2003.”
His next move was to Palm Beach County, where he’s been ever since. He spent a short time working with a pharmaceutical business in Davie, but hated commuting on Interstate 95, so he returned to his musical roots, playing in clubs and restaurants and living “between Atlantic Avenue and Boynton Inlet ever since.”
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How has that has influenced you?
A: The post school at West Point through eighth grade; then the Defense Department school in Germany; Mount Hermon, a private school in Massachusetts; and Highland Falls, a public school near West Point. I played saxophone in the band and studied music theory, music history and music appreciation. Later on, getting the chemistry degree interested me in the sense that two plus two equals four and there’s no arguing that point.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: My first job was at the football stadium at West Point, where I learned how to get a job. The vendors would come out, and if you presented yourself right they would pick you. Then if you did well they would pick you the next week. I worked at the PX, played in bands, worked at gas stations, and then the years in the research lab and all the years composing and playing music.
I’m very proud of creating my own music.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in Briny Breezes?
A: I’ve lived in the area for 12 years or so, and Briny came up partially because it’s one of the places I hadn’t lived yet. I like to stay on this side of the Intracoastal. I thought Briny was cool and started renting a place.
Q: What is your favorite part about living in Briny Breezes?
A: I know everybody. I know Gemma and Vin at the gas station and used to help them out from time to time. The guys at Nomad Surf Shop, I know them and can get my clothes there because they have everything. Publix is right across the bridge. I don’t like to have to do a lot of running around. But also I have a pool on one side and the ocean on the other.
And you can’t beat the Briny Bells, the bells always going off on the carillon. They mark the hour but also have the bit on Sundays before church and during season about 6 p.m. they do about a 20-minute concert.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. Also one by Bertrand Russell called ABC of Relativity.
Q: What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A: I don’t really listen to anybody anymore. If I’m going to create original music I don’t need anybody else’s stuff floating around in my brain.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
A: “You have a deep and abiding respect for what must be done, and you are honest and relentless in doing so.” I don’t know who said it, but that’s pretty much everybody’s problem.
Q: Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A: My mother and my father. Mr. Guralnik. Dr. and Mrs. Davis. And even West Point itself.
Q: If your life story were made into a movie, whom would you want to play you?
A: Bugs Bunny — or at least somebody with that irreverent “poke the blowhard in his hot-air balloon” attitude. I don’t mean irreverent as in disrespectful. There’s a line in the Cadet Prayer that reads, “Guard us against flippancy in the sacred things of life,” meaning there are some things you just don’t make fun of people about. Bugs had respect, but not for the big blowhards of the world.
Q: Who and what makes you laugh?
A: Jackie Gleason, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles. Seinfeld is all right. I like irony, and sarcasm as long as it’s not too sharp.
Stephen Schilling will present a 90-minute performance of original piano compositions at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach at 8 p.m. Feb. 24. Tickets are $30; go to oldschoolsquare.org.