Columbia High School Music Director Craig Ryterski is entering the coda of his career.
After 28 years of teaching music at CHS, he will retire on June 2.
“I’m enjoying every last day,” Ryterski said with a smile.
Before coming to Columbia, Ryterski taught music for eight years, including six years at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Breese and two years in Craig, Colo.
He was in Colorado when he learned the previous CHS music director, Mike Beczkla, had been promoted to principal of Parkview Elementary School.
“I said to my wife, ‘if we ever move back here, Columbia would be a really good district to build a program in because it was a fledgling program with a lot of numbers, but they hadn’t done a lot of stuff,’” Ryterski said. “It had a good base.”
Ryterski also liked that Columbia was a growing community, meaning he did not have to worry about budget cuts to the music program and that the lack of highly competitive events would allow him to focus on the music.
So, he came back to Illinois and began growing Columbia’s program as he wanted.
That included having hundreds of students compete in the state solo ensemble contest, helping a handful of students become state all-star musicians, forming a jazz band, and creating two concert bands.
“These are all things I’m really proud of,” Ryterski said. “We really focused on training kids.”
Working with those children and their parents has been one of the highlights of Ryterski’s career.
He noted about a dozen of his former students have gone on to become band directors themselves – including his replacement.
“The kids have kept me young at heart and young physically,” Ryterski said. “We have the most ridiculous conversations and the greatest amount of fun in class, and yet we still get work done. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Retaining students, however, has been an long-time challenge of Ryterski’s career.
He said there is a misconception among teens and parents that they must choose between activities like athletics and music.
“I pride myself on accommodating these students who want to do athletics and music at the same time,” Ryterski said. “I don’t think it’s fair to make students choose when they have talent in the arts and athletics.”
That same false choice exists, Ryterski said, between academically rigorous classes and music courses.
“There’s a pressure on kids to be in the academic classes at the expense of being in the classes that give them fulfillment as a human being,” Ryterski explained. “I understand the tremendous power of music and what it does to these kids. Some kids are only coming to school for this class, and I’ve had hundreds of them tell me that.”
For their part, Ryterski’s students sang his praises.
“He cares a lot about his students,” said Morgan Seals, a senior who plays tuba and bass guitar. “He wants us all to succeed.”
That includes personal help for students, which can involve helping them prepare for individual competitions or encouraging them to excel.
“Before and, like in my middle school years, I maybe knew one or two notes on the clarinet,” said Oliver Romero, a senior who also plays the alto saxophone and serves as CHS drum major. “He really pushed me to be the best I can be… He really helped me improve my musicianship tremendously. He does that with everybody.”
Seals and Romero, both of whom have worked with Ryterski for about four years, also said his legacy will continue after his retirement.
“Students next year going into high school who are never going to met him, they really missed something,” Romero said. “Everybody loves him. He makes it a blast.”
“He’s definitely made a huge impact on the environment at Columbia,” Seals agreed. “He makes everyone feel at home. Even when they hire someone else, that won’t change.”
The community can hear Romero, Seals and the rest of Ryterski’s final class perform at the final two concerts this year.
The CHS jazz band performs May 5, while the full band performs May 10. The former concert is for family only, but it will be broadcast online.
Ryterski said he expects those performances to be emotional experiences.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more I get attached to these seniors. This year, everybody’s a senior for me, even if they’re a freshman,” he said. “It’s like saying goodbye to your children.”
“I will miss being able to create art,” Ryterski added. “In music, you literally create art out of nothing, out of air.”
Ryterski said he is not aware of any special send-off plans for him, and he said it would be fine if students and parents did not make too big of a deal about his retirement.
“I’m kind of a ‘ride off into the sunset’ type of guy,” he noted. “I’m not a guy who requires the limelight. I get my jollies watching my kids perform and watching them excel.”
Once he retires, Ryterski said he plans to continue pursuing his passions as an outdoorsman and fitness fanatic.
He also plans to work part-time as a substitute teacher or music teacher in a parochial school.
“I’m going to get my saxophone chops up and play a little bit of jazz,” Ryterski said. “Or if I can find a rhythm and blues band that’s looking for a sax player, that would be great, too, because I now have the time to play.”