October 28, 2012
By Judy LaMée
Teaching a College for Seniors (CFS) course called "Piano Lecture Recitals," Professor Michael Ruiz
balances deftly atop a metaphorical three-legged stool. The UNC Asheville Physics professor also wears hats as an accomplished pianist/composer and as a Web technologies expert. In the CFS course, Ruiz traces connections from the early composers Bach and Mozart to contemporary jazz to popular artists including the Beatles. Classes are punctuated with enthusiastic applause after Ruiz regales students with his original arrangement of the Beatles' "Yesterday" in the Baroque style, or riffs a romantic style accompaniment to a child's ditty just hummed aloud to him by a class participant.
For two hours at a clip, Ruiz transitions flawlessly from performing classical strains of the masters to a jazz piece he improvises on the spot. Early in the course, Ruiz advises his students, "You can't play everything. Choose what suits your temperament." But Ruiz seems to contradict his own best advice; his repertoire is vast, ranging from Bach and the Baroque to Dave Brubeck and the Beatles, with countless detours along the way.
At an early career decision point, Michael Ruiz wavered between studying advanced physics or medicine and becoming a classical pianist. As he awaited his acceptance letter to the University of Maryland's graduate sciences program, he knew how much he loved piano and was learning he was a gifted performer, picking up lounge piano gigs in local clubs. He was also keenly aware that his early piano training had been unorthodox, starting around age 12 as the "student" of a pal of his, only a year older. Ruiz quickly outpaced the pal. Over the next nine years, he studied for only short stints with conventional teachers, due to differing circumstances. Still, his passion never flagged, and he began teaching himself piano concertos, although he acknowledges his self-taught results led him to struggle with inefficient practice techniques. Nonetheless, he had the discipline and the stamina to practice five hours a day during his summer vacations - with impressive results.
Once Michael's acceptance letter from the University of Maryland graduate school arrived, his career course was set; he would study theoretical physics. As he progressed through his physics curriculum, he also studied classical piano with Maryland's head of piano studies. He would learn that his connection to jazz and the classics was unique; not many musicians bridge that divide effectively.
Michael Ruiz's first job after completing his doctorate in 1978 was at UNC Asheville, where he became physics department chair in only two years, a post he held for 20 years. Here he was the first faculty member to earn all three of the school's major teaching awards. He later received the 1999 Outstanding Society of Physics Chapter Advisor Award and the 2004 UNC Asheville Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 2010 this popular and well-respected teacher received the prestigious UNC Asheville Ruth and Leon Feldman Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Service.
Parallel to his career advancement in physics, Michael became engaged in teaching classes for Elderhostel (now known as Road Scholar) programs, where his popular piano approach quickly replaced a class he had started in astronomy. Students who snoozed, he says, through astronomy, perked right up once he sat down at the keyboard. And no wonder. At the piano, Michael's entire being comes alive: he rarely sits still for long. His face is elastic: his head bobs the beat; his lips are in constant motion as he mouths words or phrases, expressing his delight in the sounds and rhythms, his fingers flying across the keyboard.
His Elderhostel assignment morphed into a team teaching venture in UNC Asheville's Humanities department, where he drew parallels between the scientific revolution, with its elegant laws, and the composers Mozart and Haydn, whose music reflects simplicity, order, and balance. He gave piano lecture recitals in classicism, romanticism and modernism. He also contributed in the area of 20th century physics, another scientific revolution. From there, the path to the College for Seniors was an easy step.
Meanwhile, an early fascination with computers led Michael to apply for and receive a National Science Foundation grant that thrust UNC Asheville into the forefront of technology in teaching. Two more grants followed, from the General Administration of the University of North Carolina and the Cisco Learning Institute. Then CNN came calling: in 2002 Michael landed an in-depth interview with the cable news network, during which he took a CNN producer and crew with him to his home. There the two of them created a video that Michael sent via the Internet to the UNC Asheville web server to play for students in his class the next day. This innovative use of educational multimedia materials delivered over the Internet became a top story on CNN, receiving international recognition. He is quick to share credit with his computer-savvy son, who was his co-developer in this project.
As his own children began to take a serious interest in their music studies, Michael realized he missed the joy he got from composing. So, despite no formal training in musical composition, he started writing piano concertos for his offspring to perform in competition. As the Ruiz children triumphed in their competitions, they were invited as featured performers with the Winston-Salem Symphony, debuting their dad's compositions with the orchestra. One such program featured composers Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler, along with a much newer name in composition: Michael Ruiz.
What this gifted physicist/composer/pianist/computer technologist brings to his classes is a unique gift: the scientist's probing analytical mind and approach, the classical and jazz pianist's technical mastery, his own personal passion, energy, and enthusiasm melded with a teacher's generosity and patience. What this imparts to his students is enormous respect for the man and his craft and a love for his subject matter. He received, he says, the supreme compliment when a teaching colleague who sat in his humanities class commented, "I can't tell what your field is." Michael Ruiz's expertise across disciplines is that broad and that impressive. To that, his students would agree - with enthusiastic applause!