The Chinn Guitar Project: Healing The Heart Strings

B Well

Music has magical powers. It can recall listeners to another time and place, lift one's mood, and convey emotion when words alone aren't enough. Many believe it to have healing powers, too. TV host/DJ Ryan Seacrest recognizes this and so do East Texans Ken Chinn and his daughter Tara Chinn. Thanks to the Chinn Guitar Project, their love of music is being shared with children across the state. And what started as a small undertaking is now attracting nationwide attention from CEOs of national corporations, well-known musicians – even the Dallas Cowboys.

By day Ken Chinn is the other part of Chinn Wealth Management with his brother at Wells Fargo Advisors in Longview. A longtime East Texan, Ken learned to play guitar as a teenager and has been hooked ever since. Whether it be through his own humble guitar-playing skills, or his musical connections, Chinn serves on boards for an array of events any music-lover would appreciate (like The T-Bone Walker Blues Festival). He definitely has a deep appreciation for music.

His daughter, Tara, also has a love for music. She's a pretty remarkable young lady who plays guitar, sings and writes her own music. For the past seven years, Ken and Tara have been struggling to manage and treat Tara's frontal lobe epilepsy. Ken explained through the years they have seen doctors across the country looking to manage Tara's seizures, which occurred (on average) four times a day.

Inspired by the role music plays in his and his daughter's lives, Ken put together a “board” of music lovers (some local, some coastal) and created the Chinn Guitar Project 10 months ago. He was quick to point out that the Chinn Guitar “Foundation” sounded too stiff. They wanted something that sounded more hands-on, as only a handful of people are involved in the foundation: Ken and Tara Chinn, Tom Chinn and his wife Jill, Clark Mundt of Mundt Music in Longview, Cheryl Manker, Pamela and Rick Howell and Holly and Richard Bowden. (Richard is the former lead guitarist for Linda Ronstadt, Dan Foglelberg and has played for James Taylor and Vince Gill.)

The Chinn Guitar Project began donating guitars to different school districts in East Texas: Longview, Kilgore, Spring Hill and Jefferson. Ken visited with principals and explained, “Look, I want to give two, four, six guitars ... to students who want to learn how to play the guitar but don't necessarily have the ability to purchase an instrument.” 

Some of the guitars are donated by Mundt Music, some are purchased by the foundation. It became a side project/hobby of Chinn's and the Chinn Guitar Project Board to help bring music to schools and encourage children interested in learning to play guitar. However, a chance meeting introduced the project to a bigger platform to share music in a capacity that had not been explored by the Chinns.


Ken and Tara were at the Children's Medical Center Epilepsy Monitoring Unit in Dallas for a hospital stay and tests. The Chinns were hanging out in Tara's hospital room. Unable to move around and hooked up to several brain-monitoring machines, Tara brought her guitar to pass the time.


Ken remembered a nurse saw Tara's guitar in the corner of the room, “The nurse said, 'Oh, you play guitar?” When Tara said "yes" the nurse offered to send an on-staff musical therapist to the room for a guitar session. “And I'm like 'Geez, we've been coming here seven years and have never heard anything about a musical therapist,” Ken said in astonishment.


Karen Norris is an on-staff musical therapist at Children's Medical Center, Dallas and came to Tara's room for a session. Ken explained musical therapists are like psychologists and musicians rolled into one. “It's just so tremendous what they do. And there's so much scientific documentation of the healing power of music.” The session was just what Tara needed. “She just came and [we] played. It makes you feel better and it's fun,” Tara said.


After Tara's guitar session with Norris, Ken commented that the hospital must have tons of guitars for the pediatric patients to use during musical therapy sessions. “To my surprise Karen hung her head and said 'Uh Mr. Chinn it's not so,” Ken shared in disbelief. “'You know we've got four musical therapists on staff and all we have is our own four guitars.'”


Norris explained that only having one guitar made it much more challenging to conduct musical therapy sessions at the hospital. Since Tara had her own guitar, she could follow and play with Norris simultaneously and with ease. No passing the instrument back and forth – which cuts into their session time making it harder for Norris to lead the session. “Then my daughter gave me this look,” Ken vividly recalled. “She knew that I'd already been giving guitars away at school and [the look] was like [she was saying] 'Come on dad, say something! Spring into action!'” And Ken blurted, “We'll I'll give you 10 guitars!”


In retrospect, Ken said Norris may not have taken his offer seriously when he blurted it out since they had just met. So she prompted him to come to a meeting the following morning with the Children's Medical Center Executive Director of the Child Life Center in the hospital's basement to discuss it further … perhaps she she was calling his bluff.


The next morning, Chinn was in the basement meeting with several women. When the group realized he was legit and very serious about a guitar donation, they immediately lead him down a winding hallway hidden deep in the basement of the hospital to reveal the Ryan Seacrest Foundation Studios.


Seacrest Studios are broadcast media centers built in pediatric hospitals nationwide. The stations bring in celebrities and publicize events throughout the hospital on TVs for pediatric patients to watch and build excitement. They even have local journalism students involved in the foundation. Ken explained, “Ryan Seacrest definitely has a very giving heart for children who are sick and wants to help and encourage them. He built the first Ryan Seacrest Studio in Dallas at Children's Medical Center and … he's going to have one in every medical center that they have.” Chinn said when musicians and artists are in town for events and performances, they stop by Seacrest Studios. And when Ken saw the studio, possibilities churned in his head immediately.

Just two weeks after the meeting, Chinn Guitar Projects had 10 guitars ready as promised to donate to pediatric patients at the hospital (complete with straps, tuners, instruction books and picks). They even had an eleventh guitar autographed by guitarist Doyle Dykes and donated it to a Make-A-Wish Foundation recipient at the hospital. The donations were broadcast via Seacrest Studios July 19. Chinn arranged for a teenage guitar prodigy from Shreveport, Matthew Davidson, to perform a 30 minute concert on-air and his daughter Tara also sang and played her guitar. They did an on-air interview for Seacrest Studios with Tara's musical therapist Karen Norris. The Chinn Guitar Project also donated 40 gift bags filled with puzzles, games and jump ropes. They spent an hour at Seacrest Studios, then delivered the guitars to the patents' rooms. Tara said it was an exciting day. “Music has always made me feel better so I wanted to share it with others,” she said. “ I really loved the looks on their faces. They were very pleased and happy.”

Several days later, Tara prompted her dad for approval to start a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page for the Chinn Guitar Project. And while Ken knew that their donation at the hospital got them some publicity, he was not prepared for what happened next.

“She was initially getting 3,000 hits a week on her Facebook and LinkedIn pages,” he said. “And I was thinking she'd get 23 or 35 friends to 'like' it!” People were so inspired by the Project and their mission that everyone from CEOs of nationally know companies to stay-at-home moms messaged them asking where the links on the pages were to send money. Ken filed the paperwork to make the project an official charitable organization and let the potential donors know since they are not yet a non-profit, donors will not not get a tax write-off. However, that didn't deter donations at all. In fact, in addition to monetary donations, someone even drop-shipped a brand new guitar complete with a guitar bag, cords, and an amplifier to Ken at Wells Fargo. He laughed about the day that package was delivered, “I never in my wildest dreams thought we'd be heading in the path we're on!” Tara had no clue things would progress this fast either. She said, “I'm overwhelmed by the whole thing. But I'm really happy about it.”

From there, The Chinn Guitar Project made more donations in the East Texas area in August including seven guitars to St. Mary's Catholic School in Longview to start a guitar class, 10 guitars to the Boys and Girls Club of Gregg County for their after-school program and five guitars to the Happy Hills Academy at the annual Dallas Cowboys Kickoff Luncheon. Ken is quick to point out they are not just dropping guitars off with these children, either. There are all different sizes of guitars donated with a tuners, DVDs, instructional books, straps, guitar picks and a travel cases for the instruments. They also arranged for volunteers to come in and teach free guitar lessons at some of the centers.

Chinn says they are excited about doing additional donations and volunteering at Boys and Girls Clubs across East Texas. The project will be making quarterly donations to the Children's Medical Hospital in Dallas too. Mid-September, was launched and on September 18, they made another donation of 10 guitars to the hospital with guitarist Richard Bowden performing at Seacrest Studios. “As a result of all the publicity that the Music Therapy Program has been receiving since our initial public donation, someone has stepped up and is providing the funds to build a music room for the hospital,” Ken shared. “They are quite excited about this development.” Ken also revealed during their interview at the hospital that the Chinn Guitar Project will be making donations to all the Children's/Seacrest Studios in the U.S., with a trip to Atlanta, Georgia planned for the near future to give their program a much needed boost.

Tara has also turned a corner, as Ken says. After undergoing a successful VNS surgery three months ago, her seizures have diminished in frequency from four seizures a day to one mild seizure a week. Doctors have weened her off several medications and her dad says they are very hopeful as her progress continues. She has returned to private school this year, and is teaching guitar lessons at Boys & Girls Club of Gregg County once a month with her dad. Perhaps playing music is helping her progress so quickly. “I just love sharing music because even when you are down it makes you feel happy. It's fulfilling,” Tara said.

“She's incredible,” Ken said of his daughter. “For 16, when most people are thinking about Mickey Mouse insignificant things in life, she's thinking about how to make the world a better place by helping hurting children through her music and giving guitars away ... The whole thing has just given her such a sense of purpose and a mission and it's turned her into a little leader.” 


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