TRAVERSE CITY — The curtain is closing on Russ Larimer’s 26-year career as a Traverse City Area Public Schools’ choir teacher and director.
The end of the school year this week marked the start of his retirement. Student musicals, performances and concerts dominated his life during the last 15 years he spent at Traverse City West Senior High School.
But in that time, music played a supporting role to Larimer’s more important goal of educating students.
“The longer I’ve taught, the more I’ve realized it’s not about the subject matter you’re teaching,” Larimer said during a break from cleaning out his cluttered office. “It’s about the opportunity to teach life skills.”
Self-expression, leadership, teamwork and perseverance are just some of the skills student musicians learned under Larimer’s tutelage.
“I just think the cognitive process, the way the brain works, music and the arts are like vitamins for that,” Larimer said.
And Larimer learned plenty from his students in return.
“It’s been great working with kids and trying to figure out the best way to get an idea across to them,” he said. “I’m constantly being a student.”
Larimer is the son of former TCAPS choir director Melvin Larimer, who worked for the district in the 1960s.
Russ Larimer left Traverse City with his family when he was in the 9th grade. He studied music at Albion College and worked in retail after graduation.
In an effort to forge a reputation independent of his father — who was a well-known and respected judge at chorale festivals throughout Michigan — Larimer later moved to South Dakota. He spent several years in the Great Plains state before he had a chance to return to Traverse City, a place he previously left “kicking and screaming.”
Larimer joined TCAPS in 1987. He took the choir director position at West Senior High School when it opened in 1997.
At TCAPS Larimer led students through the production of top-tier musicals such as “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “West Side Story,” and on European tours that included choirs performances at London’s Westminster Abbey, Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Duomo in Florence.
Larimer credits his success and the success of his students to Traverse City’s and TCAPS’ devotion to music and arts. TCAPS has recognized the importance of those subjects, unlike many other public school districts, he said.
“TCAPS has had the wisdom to not only not cut, but to double-down,” he said. “We’ve taken the higher road and we’re reaping the benefits from that.”
Erich Wangeman, choir director at Haslett Public Schools, will take over Larimer’s post this fall. Wangeman grew up in Petoskey and received both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from Michigan State University.
Wangeman hopes to continue West’s success under Larimer.
“The kids need to know their traditions won’t change,” Wangeman said.
Larimer said he has full confidence in his successor.
“I’ve always thought his choirs and our choirs have been neck-and-neck in Michigan,” Larimer said. “We’ve really always had a nice competitive relationship.”