Take Five with Stephanie Chou ’09

Chou, Take Five


Stephanie Chou ’09 is a composer, singer and saxophonist whose latest album, Asymptote, combines traditional Chinese music and classical influences with American jazz and pop harmony and rhythm. She is a recipient of the 2016 Jerome Fund for New Music, a grant from the American Composers Forum, to premiere a new piece of music with the China Institute in America.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was probably a much more naïve and less confident version of myself now. I was eager and excited to learn many new things and meet new people, while continuing my interests from before. I had taken a math class at Columbia during my senior year of high school, attended the Science Honors Program and had three close friends from high school who also were starting that year at Columbia, so in many ways it already felt familiar to me. That probably made me feel cooler than I was at the time, ha ha! Before Columbia, I mostly knew people from a similar demographic/background, so it was the first time I was around such a diverse group. I took too many classes freshman year and tried to keep up with everything from classical saxophone to songwriting to philosophy classes to Asian interest clubs. I remember trying to feel more self-confident than I actually was.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in Carman 1005A in a suite of girls whom I am still friends with. I remember the layout of my and my roommate Yazzy Koukaz ’09’s room, the decorations, the carpet, where and how I organized my desk, dresser, bed, sound system, refrigerator, etc. I remember everyone who lived on our floor, where they lived and who they were roommates with. I even remember what many other people’s rooms looked like. I remember who hung out together the most, who hardly ever hung out on our floor, what everyone’s “thing” was, my RA and the overall excited fun feeling of life on our floor. One of my friends from high school, Ethan Brovman ’09, was placed on the same floor, a few doors down. Different people’s rooms/suites became known for different things — parties, art, studying, etc. As a whole, our floor was also particularly close with people from the sixth floor of John Jay that year. According to my suitemates, this was when my habit of taking 3 a.m. showers started.

What class do you most remember and why?

I do tutoring and consultation work for Bespoke Education in NYC and I frequently talk to students about my college experiences, so I actually think about my classes fairly often. The books we read in CC and Lit Hum and the analysis covered in these classes were some of the best things about Columbia. I remember a fair amount about each text. Some have made their way into my music; for example, “Penelope,” from Asymptote, is inspired by the Odyssey.

Of course, all of my music classes had a huge impact on the musician I am. I took classes with Don Sickler, Chris Washburne GSAS’99, Ben Waltzer JRN’10, George Lewis, Ole Mathisen — everything ranging from the ensembles and private lessons, to lecture classes on composition and arranging, to Music Hum — all had a tremendous impact on my musical development.

I also have to say that studying abroad at Peking University in 2007 changed my life, and living in Beijing and playing with local musicians was one of the major turning points for me deciding to pursue music professionally.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Freshman year it was definitely the first floor of Butler, in the main reading room in the back, and then later that year in one of the smaller rooms on the first floor. My friends and I would go in small groups or pairs and always try to sit near one another, or say hi to one another on frequent ‘breaks.’ It felt like we were all learning, studying and tackling the work together. Some favorite music spots included the practice rooms in Schapiro, the ensemble practice room in the basement of Carman and the piano lounge in John Jay, where I wrote many songs. But if I had to only pick one favorite spot on campus, I would say it was the Steps, where so many late-night talks, walks and meetings occurred.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I had spinal surgery in November of my senior year, right before my 21st birthday; which was a bummer and has affected my ability to do certain things since. The surgery was a “last resort” after having two herniated discs in my lower spine for nine months, which did not heal with physical therapy. The surgery was successful, but if I could redo the year leading up to that, I wish I had learned more about my body and not needed surgery. I recall my last semester of senior year, when I pushed all of my belongings around in a push-cart, played the saxophone in jazz combos standing up with it propped on a stand and went to graduation with a pillow — all fond memories, but ones I could have done without.

Aside from that, I had a great time in college, and there’s not much I would do over. As many of my classmates probably feel, I wish I had done more of everything! I wish I had been more social, gone to more lectures both within my major/areas of interest and outside of it, spent more time playing music, taken more classes, explored more of NYC and generally gone more in-depth with all that Columbia had to offer. I recall many of my peers and I feeling that it was so hard to take advantage of everything we wanted to absorb, and that four years went by in a flash.