Instruments of pride: The MCHS band


The Montezuma-Cortez High School marching band in full regalia.

Keep one thing in mind if you go to a Montezuma-Cortez High School football game:

Don’t go to the bathroom during halftime. If you do, you might miss the marching band, and they are not something to be missed.

Last fall, during a forum for candidates for the school district’s board, the hopefuls were asked, “What does District Re-1 do well?” The first answer for most of them was, “The band.”

Over the years, the marching band has turned into one of the most visible and consistent shining achievements of the school.

It has been a finalist in the state competition 30 years of the past 31, according to band director Rodney Ritthaler. Last year MCHS placed second in the state.

In addition to the marching band, MCHS has a strong symphonic and jazz band. Both consistently receive superior ratings at festivals.

In addition to sporting events, the marching band can be seen in parades such as the Christmas Parade of Lights in downtown Cortez.

October, when the state competition occurs, is known as “Marching Month.” When the band returns from state, they host a Community Concert, where they strut their stuff minus a football game. Afterwards a chili dinner is served. This is a great opportunity for the public to come enjoy a topnotch performance.

Ritthaler says in regards to the success of the band program at MCHS, “We have total support from the board and the administration. They really value the band as an important part of education.”

He’s been head director for 13 years and was the assistant director under Gary Hall for 10 years prior to that. Both attended MCHS as youngsters and were enthusiastic band members.

Hall directed the band from 1979 to 1989 and Ralph Vavak had the reins for 23 years prior to that.

Vavak, who still resides in Montezuma County, said, “Going back as far as 1950 the community has strongly supported the band. They have especially enjoyed the marching band.”

And the band has benefited the students who take part in it, broadening their outlook and life experiences.

“The major trips the band has made really enrich the kids and the program as the whole,” Vavak said. “They have had the opportunity to see other parts of the country.”

The band has journeyed to such places as Washington, D.C., Boston, Rhode Island, and Portland.

“The band is a strong program and that strength has endured through the years,” Vavak said.

Tess Montaño, who was a band member (flute and percussion) during the transition between Hall and Ritthaler, said both directors were outstanding, each in his own way. “Hall was all about the mechanics of a performance and focused on excellence from students as individuals. Ritthaler encouraged students to excel within the band as a whole.”

Montaño said the band fills a niche for students that nothing else can duplicate. “Band is such an oasis in high school. It’s so egalitarian. To do sports you have to be athletic; to be an intellectual, you have to be smart. It doesn’t matter what you are in the band – you simply have to like music.

“Band really suspends kids from the stress of fitting in. The only purpose is making music.

“The band room itself is amazing. Walking in there, you see the banners, the instruments and the trophies – it emanates an atmosphere of success. It really invites you to step up your game.”

Montaño said the director’s enthusiasm transfers itself to the students. “He just really loves music.”

Jacque Cook, a parent, added, “Ritthaler has an amazing talent for making the marching band sound like an orchestra on the field.”

Cook’s son Hayden, a drum major in the current marching band, said, “It’s awesome how much fun we have performing. It takes a lot of work, and seems a little chaotic in the beginning, but Ritthaler has a way of pulling it all together.”

Kyle Baacke, another current band member, said, “Ritthaler has a great deal of respect for his students and that respect is returned.”

But Baacke noted that the kids themselves also deserve credit for the band’s success. “We’re not there doing it for a good grade, we’re doing it for one another,” he said.

In addition to the performers and director, there is another group making sure the program is a success: the Band Boosters. They work tirelessly to raise money to keep the program strong, bridging the gap between the amount the band needs to be successful and the amount it receives from the school district.

“Since we live in a far corner of the state, we have farther to go for the games and competitions, which costs more,” said Jacque Cook, president of the Band Boosters.

“The fact that such a small community supports the band in such a big way is really impressive and shows how much they value it.”

For the past 10 years, band parents Dave and Pamela Sitton have been organizing meals for road trips. They buy all the groceries, organize the menus, and haul a trailer with the food and equipment for all the band road trips.

“They do such a great job feeding us, and it saves us so much money. They are real pros,” Cook said.

Twice a year the boosters hold a raffle. Last spring the prize was a mountain bike, and this winter it’s an iPad 2. The tickets quickly sell out. And once a month you can find the band hosting a bake sale at City Market.

Raising money in conjunction with the winter concert involves a silent auction for gift baskets made by the band members’ families, while the silent auction at the spring concert is for donations by local businesses. “Almost every business in Cortez donates something for this auction,” Cook said.

“One way we are able to save money is by taking care of our uniforms and equipment,” explained Cook. “Because we do so well, each student has to pay only $800 a year.”

A new component in funding is the Legacy Fund. “This began last year and the seniors are really excited about it,” Cook said.

The idea is that each senior will earn $100 and present it to the director at the senior concert in May. Last year they kept it a secret and were able to raise $800.

The departing members think of this as “paying it forward.” As they graduate they are providing support for the coming year and the new students who will become members of the band.

“It’s great because Rodney can use this money for whatever he needs since it’s not coming from the district,” said Cook.

The seniors this year are excited to be launching a new part of the legacy fund. They are searching out band alumni and asking them if they can donate to the fund.

The Legacy Fund is open to donations from anyone, and all donations are tax-deductible. To donate, mail a check to MCHS Band Boosters, Att: Legacy Fund, P.O. Box 492, Cortez, CO 81321.

Funding for the band remains a sore spot with many supporters, who say it is underfunded in comparison to other extracurricular activities such as sports. Kay Phelps said she worked hard to get grants and donations during her tenure as a band parent, “knowing the band was underfunded.”

David Schaak, another band parent, said the band isn’t adequately funded in comparison to the sports teams. He said band players in the past sometimes had to sleep on the floor while on road trips, something that was never required of the football team.

Pete Montaño, Tess’s father and a new member of the Re-1 school board, said he isn’t sure yet about the funding but said the board will be looking at that in the next few months.

From February 2012.