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Service Winner Teaches Students To Give Back Through Music

July 6, 2011
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

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Associate professor of music Sergio Ruiz was named the 2011 Faculty Excellence in Service Award winner for a number of outreach programs he conducts to raise music awareness. —Photos by Brian Blalock


Soft, fluid piano music can be heard in the hallway outside of his office in the mid-afternoon hours. For Sergio Ruiz, who laughingly calls himself a glorified piano teacher, music is simply “something I understand. I just love it.”

Ruiz uses this passion to give back to the community, applying his talents and interests beyond the classroom to local, national and international projects. For his work, he was recently awarded Sam Houston State University’s prestigious Faculty Excellence in Service Award.

He has taught at SHSU since 2004, currently serving as an associate professor of music, director of keyboard studies and director of the Institute of Latin American Music Studies.

Growing up in California, Ruiz learned an appreciation for music early on because his grandfather was a local composer. His mother started teaching him to read music and after that, he said he tried everything from violin to voice, including piano.

Ruiz earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Santa Clara University; his Master of Music at the Cleveland Institute of Music; a performance certificate at Academia Marshall/Granados in Barcelona, Spain; and his Doctor of Musical Arts at Rice University.

“I was the first in my family to go through college, and I had to rely on myself a lot,” Ruiz said. “There were a lot of opportunities that I didn’t know were there. As a professor I feel that is my job to give my students opportunities. I try to give them what I didn’t have.”

It is in his job as a professor that his love for music and his subsequent extensive involvement in the community has intersected. The Little Fingers Program, one of Ruiz’s most memorable projects, exemplifies this as it connects the community with the university but also teaches his students how to give back.

Ruiz said that while he loved music as a kid, he also had trouble sitting still. Understanding this, he came up with an idea that he thought might help kids who were like him growing up, and so the Little Fingers program was born.

It allows elementary school kids who need a little extra attention to have free piano lessons taught by Sam Houston piano students. Ruiz said the idea was “enthusiastically welcomed” by teachers and principals at the Sam Houston Elementary School in Huntsville.

“It’s really a beautiful exchange of music for the students and the kids,” Ruiz said. “At the end of the year, we have a recital at the university and the kids are just so proud of what they’ve learned, and I am amazed to see how my own students have become more confident in what they know by learning to teach it to the kids.”

Ruiz was told in second grade he'd never become a musician. Not only did he become a musician, but a musicians who shares his love of music with his students and members of the Huntsville community through various outreach projects.

Internationally, Ruiz and several colleagues in the SHSU School of Music have helped start youth orchestras in villages in countries where there are dirt roads and running water is rare.

“We enlist the help of priests and families and get the whole community involved,” Ruiz said. “The most important thing to me in this project is that it fosters hope. When the kids were asked several years after the program was started what was different, their reply was that they were happy. I was blown away by that.”

In February, Ruiz was also instrumental as part of a team of faculty that created Festival Inspiración, a Latin American Arts Festival. The festival incorporated highly respected names in academics, music, art, publishing and dance that ultimately became “an exchange of cultures, which was my dream,” Ruiz said.

“I wanted to create something where Hispanic culture would feel welcomed,” Ruiz said. “This interchange was a university effort and I couldn’t have done it without the help of all the faculty and staff involved.”

With the help of the City of Huntsville, the Hotel Occupancy Tax Board and other faculty—including former School of Music director Mike Bankhead, Spanish professor Debra Andrist, Spanish professor Rafael Saumell Muñoz, music professor Aric Schneller, David Cole, director of Orchestral Studies, the administration and Frank Parker, Vice President for Student Services—the Festival Inspiración became a bridge to connecting Latin American students and the university.

“Hispanic culture is very family oriented,” Ruiz explained. “If something happens in the family, you drop everything to help. A lot of times, Hispanic students leave school or never go back because of something that happens in their family.

"The festival would be, I hoped, a way to make Latin American students feel connected to the university and encourage them to stay and be involved," he said. "I’m so thankful that people saw the value of it and that it can continue because of that.”

Ruiz noted that the SHSU motto “The measure of a Life is it’s Service” has become a philosophy for him, encouraged by the support of his family and others—something that has been important his entire life.

“In second grade, I was told I’d never become a musician,” Ruiz said. “That only made me want to become one more. So I pushed myself and I kept going until someone told me I couldn’t do any more. So I ended up getting a doctorate from Rice University. But I couldn’t do anything without the constant encouragement and support of my wife and family. My wife is my driving force. Their encouragement is what allows me to do what I do.”

For Ruiz, he said his teaching philosophy has everything to with service. He teaches his students to give of themselves by sharing their talents and interests with others. Through his passion for music and even more through his passion to see community partnership thrive by way of service, he not only teaches them to be better musicians but also better citizens in the world.



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