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'Living the dream': Jeffrey Fuchs, marching band director, says it's about more than music

UNC Marching Band

Fully armed snipers lined every roof as Jeffrey Fuchs' students marched toward the U.S. Capitol.

Jan. 20, 2001, was a cold and rainy day, but that did not dampen Fuch's immense feelings of pride. As the marching band marched past George W. Bush, waiting to be sworn in, one of the tenor percussionists looked Bush in the eyes and gave a slight nod.

Bush smiled and nodded back.

Fuchs, the director of University Bands, said he could have been frustrated that one of his players broke in the middle of marching. He could have lectured about maintaining professionalism, especially on a national stage.

Instead, Fuchs cracked a grin. He said it was a distinguishing moment of his career – one that proved he was part of something special.

Fuchs has music in his blood – he played tuba in high school and college – but he never expected to find himself directing a college marching band, let alone directing at a presidential inauguration.

His father was a high school band director, so that is where he set his sights.

“I was pretty narrowly focused,” he said. “There was a year where it was like, ‘What have I done to myself?’ I pigeonholed myself too tightly.”

Fuchs said, the right pigeonhole opened in 1995, when he got the job of assistant band director at UNC. The promotion to his current position came only two years later.

“Been here ever since,” he said with a hearty laugh. “Living the dream.”

Building a family

The November air was crisp as potatoes launched out of a cannon at Fuchs’ house.

In 2016, Junior Aaron Friedman, then a first-year, had opted not to go home to Ohio for Thanksgiving. As he does every year, Fuchs gave all of his band members, including Friedman, an open invitation to come to his house for the holiday break. 

“It was a family atmosphere,” he said. “(Fuchs) does a very good job of serving the father role for people.”

That father role is one that Fuchs holds close to his heart. He refers to the members of the band as his kids, and his main goal when he goes into work every day is to make the band feel like a family.

Fuchs said his job is about much more than just leading students to produce quality music.

“We try to celebrate the good and the bad,” he said. “You go through a lot here. Your support system is really important. If it was just music, I am sure I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I do now. It’s the family.”

And with 3,200 students who have been through the band program since Fuchs has been at UNC, that family is always growing.

Elsabet Fisseha works with the band’s daily projects as the UNC Bands administrator. She said his dedication to the band community has never wavered in their 20 seasons of collaboration.

“He’s always maintained that the students are so important,” she said. “I’ve seen him go to bat for them over and over and over again. He tries really hard to make sure they have a quality experience.”

As Fuchs talked about his band kids, his electric-blue eyes glistened and he had to clear his throat.

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“You bet I got their backs. My success rests on them,” he said. “And we don’t make any bones about that. I tell them, ‘I like my lifestyle.’ I’ll do everything I can to keep their time here as good as it can be.”

But like every family, it takes hard work to maintain those positive relationships.

‘We can’t be going backward’

Fuchs is quick to point out that while they are a tight-knit community, he makes sure his band members are remaining professional and getting real world experiences.

“We don’t penalize the achievers to accommodate the underachievers,” he said. “If you miss a rehearsal on Tuesday, we’re not going back to catch you up. That’s on you. We can’t be going backward — we have to be going forward.”

Friedman said the amount of consideration Fuchs puts into planning for events is unmatched.

“I go and talk to him usually about two hours before every rehearsal,” Friedman said. “I go to his office and just go over the plan of what we need to do that day, and what all of the operations are that need to happen that rehearsal.”

While talking, Fuchs shuffled a piece of paper with a chart on it. He had handwritten where every single band member is going to sit at Kenan Memorial Stadium during Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh.

“I am very matter-of-fact,” he said. “There’s not a lot of sugar-coating things. I expect you to do everything you’re supposed to do the way you’re supposed to do it.”

More than the music

The 2017 national championship basketball game is one of his most vivid memories.

As the confetti fell and the crowd roared at the newly crowned champions on the court, he looked back at his kids, all cheering in their uniforms with misty eyes.

“That’s the most special thing I’ve ever been part of,” he said. “I certainly didn’t expect it.”

Though the players on the court were the focus, Fuchs said he had so much pride for his band members, who had traveled to the games and been on the same journey throughout the season.

The students chattered excitedly, and with shaky hands packed up their instruments. It was then that Fuchs knew the band was about more than the music.

“The most important thing it does is provide the need of belonging and family,” Fuchs said. “I’ll tell you this: I admire the heck out of them. They do a lot to make this thing work.”