By Crystal Hayduk
On May 23, Jed Fritzemeier, Chelsea High School’s orchestra director, gives his first hour symphony students options for the agenda.
Since it’s the last day for seniors, they request to meet on the auditorium stage to play the prelude music planned for the June 1 graduation ceremony. “We need to do this one more time,” a senior says.
“Fritz,” as many of the students call him, complies with the sentimental appeal.
As if the departure of the Class of 2019 isn’t poignant enough, all of the students have had a hard time coping with some of the “last times” of this school year. Shock and sorrow have permeated the Chelsea School District (CSD) since early May when Fritzemeier announced his retirement from teaching after 34 years – 28 of them in Chelsea – effective at the end of the school year.
As the students gather on the stage with their instruments, Fritzemeier says he wants to share some tips for handling stress, and attaining success in college. “I need to tell you these things today because I want the seniors to hear them,” he says.
The students absorb the stories of the person who has been part of their daily school experience since they chose instruments in fifth grade – their inspirational teacher, motivational mentor, and innovative leader.
Fritzemeier, who grew up in South Dakota as the son of two educators, came to Michigan to study double bass under Professor Robert Culver at the University of Michigan. “My original plan was to go into performance,” says Fritzemeier.
But Culver convinced him to give teaching a chance, too. “When I student taught in Saline under Bob Phillips, I realized I loved education,” he says. And now, decades later, countless students, families, and audience members have benefited from that decision.
At the high school’s spring concert on May 21, Shelly Ford, president of Chelsea Music Boosters, reviewed a few of Fritzemeier’s accomplishments and awards, reading only some of the highlights from a scroll of paper that extended to and across the stage floor.
In addition to Chelsea, he has also taught in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In his first year of teaching, he started what has become the annual Halloween concert, when student performers dress up and everyone looks forward to Fritzemeier’s surprise costume reveal.
He implemented “back to back” concerts with both Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and Jackson Symphony Orchestra (JSO) and organized music department performance trips throughout the country (including, but not limited to, New York City, Philadelphia, and Nashville).
He’s mentored approximately 25 student teachers and is a charismatic presenter at music conferences and conventions. In 2009, he was named Teacher of the Year by both the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association (MSBOA) and the Michigan American String Teacher Association (MASTA).
Fritzemeier also currently performs as a bassist with the Chelsea Chamber Players, the Brian Brill Jazz Trio, and the Jackson Symphony Orchestra (JSO).
Perhaps one of his most well-known roles is as the director of the Chelsea House Orchestra (CHO), a high-energy music group that he founded in 1986. What started with 10 students nearly 23 years ago has grown to average 26 students, who play Celtic-inspired and other folk music. The group performs locally, as well as around the country and more recently, the world – CHO performed in Scotland in 2016 and China last March.
“I don’t know what my colleagues think of what we do,” Fritzemeier says. “Taking the orchestra to New York City, or taking CHO to China – it’s all to provide unique opportunities for the kids that they’ll never forget. I wouldn’t get on a plane for 13 hours for anyone else.”
His development of events that district fans have come to expect – the Halloween concert, back to back concerts, concerto concert, and CHO, for example – have served to make and support a quality orchestra program for the CSD, and to provide performance opportunities for students at all levels. They are also why Beach Middle School Principal Nick Angel describes Fritzemeier as “a big figure” with “a rare capacity to think outside the box.”
“This job isn’t for the weak of heart,” says Fritzemeier.
Although he is proud of the culture of work and quality of music that he has helped to establish in the district, he will miss the students the most. “There’s never going to be a good time [to leave]. My students are always my kids,” he says.
“I teach the greatest kids in the world. They’re challenging. That hasn’t changed over the years. They made demands when I started and they still do. I’ll never forget one of my first students, Charlie Hosner, who works in cyber security in the U.K. now. He asked, ‘Why should I listen to you? I’m going to make more money someday than you ever will.’ A quality person asks questions and makes demands of the environment.
“My life path has never really worked out according to plan,” he said. “I thought I would teach for 40 years, but when the position as director of music education with the JSO was developed, it seemed like the right time to make the change.” His duties there will include leadership of the education and outreach programs and representation of the orchestra to other organizations to foster community partnerships.
Fritzemeier says the district supports the continuation of CHO. The group’s assistant director, Steve Lesko, will take over the leadership. “Steve’s doing a great job; he’s a mentor and a good communicator. And I’ll stick around to help with the transition,” says Fritzemeier.
“The school district has been extraordinary in supporting the structure of the music program,” he says.
Yet, he admits there are challenges. Lack of financial resources squeeze the school budget, and fundraising in a small city means local businesses and families can be overrun by requests.
“There’s tough competition at the high school with a five-period day,” Fritzemeier says. “Athletes are encouraged to take advanced fitness, which takes up one whole class a day. I was an athlete when I was in school, and if that had been the case then, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Rick Catherman, Chelsea’s director of bands, says Fritzemeier “… approaches his teaching with energy, passion, and the highest level of professionalism. He is dedicated to the mission of public schools, and believes that all children deserve equal access and opportunity to a full and robust musical education. … He has helped me to be a better teacher, and a better professional, each and every day of the 19 years that we’ve worked together.”
When Fritzemeier first began teaching in Chelsea in 1985, the orchestra program was in danger of being cut. At that time, there were only 29 middle school participants and 23 high school students. “There should be at least 10 percent of the student population in the orchestra program,” says Fritzemeier.
Now, the program numbers exceed that percentage.
Chelsea High School Principal Mike Kapolka says, “Mr. Fritzemeier’s contributions to music education in Chelsea are unparalleled. What he has been able to accomplish during his tenure [in the district] is nothing short of astounding. Jed has grown and maintained an orchestra strings program at CHS that consistently has over 100 students participating in grades 9-12. That certainly does not happen by accident and can be attributed to his drive, passion for music, but most importantly, his positive relationships with his students.”
Underclassmen in Fritzemeier’s second hour concert orchestra reveal their appreciation for their teacher, as well as their grief at his retirement from teaching. “Everyone is really sad that he’s leaving,” says Taylor Powell, a tenth grader. “But all the things he’s taught will stay with us.”
Freshman Lane Whittaker remembers the day Fritzemeier gathered the students around because he had some news to share. “He seemed sad telling us, and I was scared that it would be the worst news ever, like he was sick.”
Sophomore Sophia Bullard agrees. “We’re sad for us, but we understand that it’s a good thing for Fritz. As long as he still lives in Chelsea, we’ll still see him around. But I think the new teacher will have it rough trying to take his place.”