If you ask Fairport Harding High/Middle School’smarching band director, Chris Ruzin, what the band is all about, he’ll likely tell you it’s all about the kids in the band.
The 38-year-old musician, who grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado, said he’s less concerned about leading the band than he is about teaching his students how to become competent leaders and band members, themselves.
“I feel like you need to try to explain to students why you think the subject is important and why it can be meaningful in their lives,” Ruzin said in an Oct. 5 phone interview. “I don’t expect that they’re just into it right off the bat. So I try to get them to want to do it because it’s something that they can have fun with and it’s something that they can be proud of doing.”
He added that, “Even though they might not all be planning on making a career out of music, I want them to know it’s something they can do for the rest of their lives.”
An admitted problem child himself while in school, Ruzin said it’s important to him that kids who don’t feel like they fit in with other extracurricular activities like sports have an opportunity to be a part of something important to the school and the neighborhood.
“One thing I try to keep going is the sense of community,” he said. “It’s a team. We’re a community and we band together. It’s their safe space, so I try to reach them and make them feel that this is something they can do and be proud of — make them feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
According to Fairport Harbor Schools Superintendent Domenic Paolo, that’s exactly what Ruzin has done over the last decade he’s been with the district — and not just for the students who play in the band — but for the entire school district and the people who call Fairport Harbor Village home.
“When I first hired him, I charged him with growing the band. And he’s doing that,” Paolo said in an Oct. 5 interview, adding that Ruzin was the first employee he hired back when he started with the district in 2006 himself.
Paolo said it’s difficult to compare Ruzin with other marching band directors because he’s the first one he’s ever worked with. But he can’t deny Ruzin’s infectious enthusiasm and overall appeal to students, faculty and the community, alike.
“All I can say is (before I hired Ruzin), the (band’s) numbers weren’t indicative of a healthy program,” Paolo said. “But I felt, even then, that his enthusiasm and energy would help him meet that goal.”
He said he appreciated his approach right from the start.
“Almost immediately, I came to appreciate how he interacted with the kids,” Paolo said. “As I walked around his room. I saw lots of feedback between him and the students. The kids were getting lots of positives. And, again, from early on, I realized: He’s not just a good music teacher. He’s just a good teacher.”
Paolo, who is likely the area’s foremost proponent of project-based learning, said he appreciates the approach Ruzin takes with his students because he challenges them to be prosperous.
“Over the years, I’ve seen him put students in positions to grow and be successful,” he said. “I’m into project-based learning. Well, I look at what he does as performance-based learning. When students collaborate with their peers, learning is intensified. His communication with the kids and the fact that he’s giving them autonomy so they can be self-directed at times is setting them up for success. He does not micromanage every part of their lives. He puts the kids at the center and he puts them in control of their own success.”
And that’s not just Paolo’s opinion. Just ask some of Ruzin’s students.
“He’s pretty nice,” said freshman tenor saxophone player Ernesto Rodriguez, who started playing in the band in seventh grade. “He can allow us to mess around a bit. But he also makes us be serious when it’s time.”
Ernesto likened Ruzin to a military officer without the rigidity.
“He’s like a general, but not as strict,” he said. “He always seems to make us have a good time doing what we have to do.”
Likewise, alto saxophone player Brenden Harless, who is in the seventh grade, said he likes how Ruzin works with everyone in the band, from seventh-graders like himself, all the way to seniors.
“He relates to everybody extremely well,” said Brenden, who had him as a music teacher in kindergarten while Ruzin was teaching at McKinley Elementary school. His wife, Katie Ruzin, now teaches elementary music part-time, incidentally.
Brenden echoed Ernesto’s sentiments about Ruzin’s methods.
“He’s serious when he needs to be,” Brenden said. “But when we’re just hanging out practicing and working on our stuff, he’s all fun and games. I’m real comfortable with him.”
That comfort level seems to span all age groups, to which senior drum major Michaela Hess can attest.
“He’s just a really great guy,” she said. “And he teaches us each a lot — not just about music, but about being a good person.”
She added that she would feel comfortable confiding in him about most anything and that she admires the way he motivates his students.
“I think his greatest strength as a teacher is that he’s really good about encouraging everyone to be their best and not just settling,” she said. “He really wants everyone to reach their full potential.”
She said Ruzin is also more than just a band director in that “I would say he’s good at teaching us life skills, too.”
She also said she’d recommend joining the band to anyone.
“It’s a really good program and I would suggest joining it. Just give it a shot,” she said.
At the end of the day, Ruzin said the best method he can think of as far as teaching goes is that “You’ve gotta be natural.”
“You can’t try to be someone you’re not. They’ll see through that in a heartbeat,” he said. “I don’t mind being silly. I’m not this shady, reserved teacher and I feel like I can related to kids and teenagers, sometimes more so than adults.”
In all, Ruzin’s ensemble consists of 56 students: 42 marching-band musicians and 14 in the color guard (majorettes and flag-bearers).
Considering overall marching band participation when he started at Fairport was “in the low-20s,” it’s safe to say that the Fairport Skipper Marching band has come a long way, baby.
When he’s not designing routines, ordering uniforms, balancing the band’s books, helping students outside of regular school hours, conducting band camps, traveling to and from and performing in games, attending to concert band outside of marching-band season and all the other duties associated with his gig, Ruzin enjoys relaxing at home and spending time with Katie and the Ruzin girls — 9-year-old Anne and 5-year-old Jane — at his family’s Madison Township home.