By Crystal Hayduk
Photo Gallery by Alan Ashley
Rick Catherman, the embodiment of energy as Chelsea High School’s (CHS) band director, has stepped off the podium.
After conducting a 30-year teaching career—20 within the district—he felt it was the right time for a pause. Following Jed Fritzemeier’s retirement from teaching orchestra in 2019, and with Steve Hinz’s retirement from teaching vocal music this year, Catherman said, “I believe it’s time for a new ‘team’ of music teachers to take over and take the [music] program to an even higher level. I’m proud of the work that we have accomplished over the past 20 years together, and I hope that we’re leaving a high school music program that everyone can be proud of.”
Catherman came to Chelsea with 10 years of experience: four each in Concord and South Haven, split by two as a teaching assistant while pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Iowa. He and his wife, Susie, felt that their young daughter, Olivia, would receive a great education while he worked in a progressive district.
Alongside district veterans Fritzemeier and Hinz, Catherman was the new director on the block in 2000 when he replaced beloved teacher Bill Gourley. It didn’t take long for Catherman to build his own positive reputation—he’s been named a “Most Influential Educator” by students annually since 2002.
Rob Knopper, a 2005 CHS graduate who studied at Juilliard and is a percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City, largely credits Catherman’s support and encouragement for his success. “It was inspiring to watch his energy and infectious passion for music and helping students learn,” he said. “Although it’s been 15 years since graduation, I remember my high school days fondly as the roots of my music career, thanks to Mr. Catherman.”
Kelly Bertoni, who graduated from CHS in 2016 and went on to serve as drum major for the Michigan Marching Band, said, “Mr. Catherman’s passion for music and dedication to his students is unparalleled,” with support for students that extends beyond their time in Chelsea.
Kara Feldkamp, Class of 2020 clarinetist and drum major, said Catherman taught her how to be a good leader and to make band fun.
Trumpeter Charlie Dahlgren, Class of 2019, said Catherman “… kept a warm and lighthearted spirit,” yet “was serious about his work, the music, and his students and co-workers. The music was always second to the dedication he gave to those around him. He brought out the best in us.”
To those who have only known Catherman as a successful band director, it’s hard to imagine that he originally planned to major in pre-med at Michigan State University. But during his first year, he recognized his undeniable passion for music and commitment to students.
He said when he was considering the music education major, William Wiedrich, an influential band director, urged him to ask himself whether music or people were more important. “He said if music was more important than people, I would never be successful as a band director—because we don’t teach music, we teach people about music,” said Catherman. “I’ve worked to implement that philosophy in my classroom every day for 30 years. I consider myself a teacher first and foremost, and keep the students most important.”
His relationship with students is what he’ll miss most in retirement. Catherman said it’s been difficult losing the daily interaction with students since buildings were closed in March due to COVID-19.
“I was always impressed with my students’ ability to formulate and communicate their points of view,” he said. “Our discussions were remarkable; I learned more from them than they did from me.”
Catherman hopes his students “carry on with energy and enthusiasm” for whatever they do in their lives. He knows firsthand that former student Katy Steklac (CHS, 2009) does, because she’s been the middle school band director since Jim Otto retired in 2017.
“She’s an outstanding teacher and is becoming a leader in music education, not only in Michigan, but throughout the country,” he said.
Steklac said next to her parents, Catherman is “the person who has had the most profound and significant influence” on her life. Because he identified her strengths and placed her in leadership roles, she felt “special, seen, and confident” in his class.
“Witnessing his optimism, energy, passion, and sense of humor on a daily basis provided me with a transformative, positive role model that I’ve strived to be like ever since,” she said.
Now, as his colleague, she says he has “the highest amount of integrity” as he works tirelessly in his classroom and as a public education advocate.
“His relational capacity with people is second to none, and his indelible impact has created positive ripples throughout the district, the state, and the music profession that will be felt for years to come. He is one of the kindest, funniest, and most creative colleagues I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
The relationship between mentor and protégé should never be underestimated. Although Catherman has had a number of mentors in his lifelong journey, he said Jed Fritzemeier had the biggest impact on him during his 20 years in Chelsea. “Jed is an amazing teacher and the consummate professional,” he said. “I admire and respect him. I never wanted to disappoint him, so that motivated me to work even harder.”
Catherman is most proud of his work with Fritzemeier and Hinz to build a curricular music program that serves about 40 percent of high school students, while maintaining quality instruction and performance.
Another point of pride is the annual Marching Band Exhibition, made possible by the cooperation and skills of band parents. “The goal is to showcase area high schools, provide them the opportunity to perform for each other, receive feedback and a clinic from college band directors, and expose them to a college band performance,” said Catherman.
Finally, he’s proud of ten years of service as president of the Chelsea Education Association, the teacher’s union. Catherman believes the biggest challenges in education come from cuts to funding and mandates from decision makers outside the profession.
“I plan to continue my advocacy and activism for public education in retirement,” he said.
During his time in Chelsea, Catherman was active in professional organizations: the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association (was named Band Teacher of the Year in 2012), American School Band Directors Association, Partnership for Music Education Policy Development (co-founder), and others.
CHS Principal Mike Kapolka said Catherman’s “fierce dedication to his students and standard of musical excellence” stand out, as well as “a tireless work ethic when it comes to his advocacy for the performing arts. He has cultivated an environment within the band program that fosters creativity as well as a sense of family.”
Catherman and his wife are moving to South Haven in July, where they’ll be closer to Olivia, now a young adult. The option to purchase the same house they lived in before moving to Chelsea sealed the deal.
Catherman expressed appreciation for the community’s support of the band program, and the district’s commitment to provide quality music education to students at all grade levels.
“Our band parents have been great, and I’ve had the fortune to work with the most dedicated, hard-working, and talented students during my career,” he said.