After this school year, longtime Montezuma-Cortez High School band director Rodney Ritthaler will retire.
Fresh out of college, Ritthaler started as assistant band director at M-CHS 28 years ago.
After 10 years as assistant, he became head band director for 18 years. He’s a Cortez native and M-CHS graduate.
Over the years, Ritthaler has won state championships and traveled across the United States and Europe with various band groups.
Current assistant director Katie Zdanowski will take over for Ritthaler when he departs. Ritthaler thanked Zdanowski and Cortez Middle School band director Andrew Campo for their hard work in making the bands at both schools successful.
He also thanked Cortez residents and the school district for their support over the years.
“I’ve had a great time,” he said. “It’s been all good stuff for the most part, and I’m just moving on with a different part of my life.”
The Journal recently sat down for an interview with Ritthaler. He shared memories and discussed the past, present and future of music education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Journal: How did you get started in music education?
Rodney Ritthaler: I was born and raised in Cortez. I went to high school here, and I’ve lived here all my life.
When I graduated in 1984, my goal was to be a studio percussionist. I headed off to school at Western State Colorado University. I started studying, and I did some clinic work.
That was the first time I’d been introduced to instructing of any kind. I also belonged to a few jazz quartets up at school. While you’re working with your peers, you’re also teaching in a sense. You’re learning with your peers, and it’s a cooperative type of thing.
Through these clinics and other groups I found out I liked teaching. I really wanted to come back to Cortez to student teach, and I got the opportunity. I finished up that student teaching and had my degree, and I ended up as the assistant director in Cortez.
That’s how I got here. I love the Cortez area. When I had the opportunity to live here as an adult and raise my family, I thought it was great.
The Journal: Compared to now, what was different about band directing when you started?
Ritthaler: The school was bigger with more student population. We had more student involvement because band started at the fifth-grade level.
The population of the area has declined as far as students go, so we just don’t get that involvement at the middle school that we used to. We used to march easily 100 kids.
I’d have to say the size of the band is the biggest thing that has changed, but I don’t think the quality has changed. We’ve been in the top five bands for the past few years. We still stay up there with our rankings.
The Journal: Why do you think it’s important for music to be a part of kids’ lives?
Ritthaler: First and foremost it’s simply being able to create music. If you took any of my band kids and sent them anywhere around the world, they couldn’t speak the language, but they could read that music along with anyone else in the room.
I think learning music just in itself creates a much better individual. It creates people that are structured as far as being able to organize time better and organize the way they think about stuff.
I think it adds something that you just don’t get in any other class. You have to contribute 100 percent to the group, there’s no faking it. I think that just helps kids out.
The Journal: What do you find most rewarding about band directing?
Ritthaler: I like working with the kids and working toward a goal. Every once in a while there’s a performance you have – it could be at home or at a festival, or it could be as you’re running through the music during a rehearsal.
The best thing for me is when something clicks that’s intangible and you don’t know what it is, but the performance that’s created is incredible.
There’s just times that all the work you’ve put into it comes to fruition. That’s what you work for.
The Journal: What are some of your top moments as a band director?
Ritthaler: Some of the highlights for me have been when I’ve taken groups on summer trips. The last two things we’ve done during the summer have been in Boston and Bristol, Rhode Island.
It’s just somethings that kids from this area don’t get to see. We try to make those trips more about education than the performance.
As far as performances go, I’d have to say the 2005 marching state championships. That’s the year my group won state. That was awesome.
When I was assistant director, we traveled to Europe. We played at the first French town that was liberated by the U.S. during the war. We did a parade in town, and it started out that nobody was there.
So we started the parade and literally within five minutes there were thousands of people who came out and started watching this parade.
Then we did a concert at a memorial for the Americans and the French who were killed during the war in this town. There were easily a thousand people watching.
What was moving was the older people there had tears in their eyes because for them it was still very fresh and very recent. It happened right there.
I’ve been very fortunate as a director to have the ability to take kids to all these places.
The Journal: What do you think the future holds for the M-CHS band program?
Ritthaler: I think it’s going to be just fine. My assistant who has been here with me for two years, Katie Zdanowski, she’ll be taking over the group.
I know Katie’s gonna be fine, she already does a lot of stuff with the kids. I think she’s just gonna go straight ahead and be fine.
The Journal: What’s in the future for the field of music education?
Ritthaler: I think it will still be in schools. I think it’s just too much of an American culture thing to be taken out of schools.
Funding and support will vary from district to district and state to state, but I still think it will be around. I think too many people find it too valuable to let it go.
The Journal: What do you plan for your retirement?
Ritthaler: I’m gonna ride my motorcycle a lot more often, and I’m thinking about taking some flight lessons. I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ll probably do some scuba diving. I’ve always wanted to be certified in that.
I’ll still stay in the area. I don’t plan on leaving.
Hopefully I’ll get some private lessons set up and play with some groups in the area. I’ll play a little bit on the side with those types of groups.