Ohio State Marching Band director Chris Hoch keeps in step with students, helps move past controversy

Allison Ward
Christopher Hoch leads the Ohio State Marching Band during half time of the college football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Navy Midshipmen at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Saturday afternoon, August 30, 2014. The Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the Navy Midshipmen 34 - 17. (The Columbus Dispatch / Eamon Queeney)

Chris Hoch isn't likely to forget his first performance with the Ohio State University Marching Band: He accidentally broke his trombone on a fellow band member's head during a maneuver.

Although the memory of that 23-year-old mishap might make Hoch cringe, the story endears him to present-day Ohio State students when he shares it.

In his fourth year as director of the OSU marching and athletic bands — including one football season as interim director — Hoch often finds ways to make his charges laugh, band members say, even when the humor comes at his expense.

"He's very relatable," said Erin Koyle, a third-year trumpet player and graduate student. "He doesn't take himself as 'I'm the person on the podium.' He's not perfect.

"If I mess up, I think, 'At least I didn't break a trombone.'"

Damaged instrument aside, university officials considered Hoch the person best equipped to lead one of Ohio State's most recognizable institutions in the wake of the July 2014 firing of director Jon Waters.

>> Video: Ohio State Marching Band Halftime Show: The Music of Queen

Hoch, who lives in Powell with his wife and two children, was named interim director ahead of the 2015 football season before securing the job permanently in February 2016.

An associate director at the time, he took over as many in the marching band and the university were still reeling from Waters' firing for failing to rein in what a university investigation deemed to be a "sexualized culture" in the organization.

Some outsiders criticized OSU officials for hiring another "insider," as Waters had been when he was named director. But Hoch's students and others who know him say that he has implemented changes — both simple and institutional — to maintain the band's high level of performance on the field and improve band members' behavior off it.

"He's been very successful," said Peter Hahn, the Ohio State divisional dean of arts and sciences, who oversees the School of Music. "He's worked really hard ... to prepare students for life and using band skills to instruct them on life skills."

Among the changes made by Hoch was the introduction of a life-skills education program, which addresses topics such as stress management, physical wellness and appropriate use of alcohol and social media. He also created an advisory council of band members to provide peer support as well as enhanced opportunities for volunteerism and community outreach.

“It wasn’t a radical shift,” Hoch said. “We took all the good aspects — the great things about the band from before that have existed for generations under numerous band directors — and decided we were going to focus on those things."

A proven innovator

There was much less concern about how Hoch would handle band performances on football Saturdays.

He was, after all, responsible for designing the ground-breaking drills for some of the shows that went viral in previous seasons, including the epic video-game performance of 2012.

Since he took over, the band has continued to draw impressive numbers of views (seven figures) for its YouTube videos; has played during halftime of an NFL game in London, its first performance in the English capital; and, in November, will march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, another inaugural performance.

"There's been favorable attention, and Chris is the reason for that," Hahn said. "He has a passion for the university. He's creative — and we wanted someone we could appoint to a faculty member." Waters was not on the OSU faculty.

Hoch, first and foremost, is a teacher, said Tim Gerber, professor emeritus in the School of Music, who taught Hoch in several classes.

“He brings to his job very extensive experience as a public-school educator," said Gerber, referring to Hoch's seven-year stint teaching music in Delaware City Schools. "He knows the latest teaching methods and technology.

"But he just knows kids."

A teacher at heart

Less than 10 minutes into the first on-field practice for the 2018-19 band season, Hoch was firing off instructions via a loudspeaker from his elevated perch on his director's tower. 

Make sure you know what "Script" number you are. Everything must happen exactly two counts between each person. Watch the spacing behind you.

The directions reinforced the importance of the moment: First-year band members in the group were performing "Script Ohio" for the first time.

"I try to do 'Script Ohio' as the first thing out of the gate because of the tradition," said Hoch, 42. "It really kicks off the season in an exciting way."

Few probably know the tradition better — or respect it more — than Hoch, who has long watched, performed or conducted the Buckeye football standard.

The Westerville native — whose father, like him, is an Ohio State alumnus — grew up attending football games at the 'Shoe.

"We were always in our seats before the band took the field, so we were true Buckeye fans," Hoch said. "The football game was important, but we also made sure the band was just as important."

Ironically, Hoch quit playing the trombone after one year at St. Paul Catholic School. But at his parents' urging — and with the help of an assistant band director at Westerville North High School who was willing to provide one-on-one instruction — he agreed to give band a try in high school.

When he enrolled at Ohio State in 1994, Hoch planned to join the band and study math. As the son of two teachers — Ron and Sharry Hoch — he "swore" that he would avoid the profession.

Hoch didn't make the marching band his freshman year, but he played in jazz and athletic ensembles. He took a music-theory class "just for fun" and, after joining the marching band the next year, decided to pursue a music degree. He also finished his mathematics degree, which, he said, helps him design formations.

Through his music coursework, he fell in love with teaching.

"I realized teaching was not only something that got me excited, but I was kind of good at it," Hoch said.

A relatable leader

After earning a master’s degree from OSU — a pursuit encouraged by Jon Woods, the marching-band director from 1984 to 2012 — Hoch was hired by the Delaware schools.

He initially directed the district's middle-school bands, and later, at 27, became the band director at Delaware Hayes High School.

His youth served him well, said Rolf Remlinger, the drumline instructor during Hoch's tenure at Delaware Hayes.

"Before he took over, we had gone through a series of directors, and the music program was floundering," Remlinger said. "It flourished under him. He was really good with the jazz band. He listened. He was quiet. He wasn't one of those who hollered and screamed like a coach."

In 2005 and the next three years, Hoch led the school to the Ohio Music Education Association State Marching Band Finals.

Hoch's greatest strength, Remlinger said, was his ability to connect with students — teaching them marching basics, choosing shows to fit their talents and gaining their trust.

"Chris was a young kid and was thrown into a head-band-director position when he thought he'd be an assistant for a lot of years," said Remlinger, who plays in an adult community band that Hoch directs.

Hoch's success at Delaware Hayes under challenging circumstances, Remlinger said, made Remlinger confident that Hoch could handle the marching-band job at OSU.

A source of fun

Had Hoch not received a call from Woods in 2009 offering him a position in the OSU School of Music's doctoral program, he probably would still be working at Delaware Hayes, he said.

But he couldn't turn down the chance to return to his alma mater — or the opportunity to work with the university bands as a graduate assistant.

After earning his doctorate in music education, Hoch in 2012 became assistant director of athletic and marching bands, a title that was upgraded to associate director the following year. 

When Waters lost his job, music-school administrators oversaw the band for the football season before appointing Hoch as interim director in May 2015.

After finalizing the band roster for the 2015 football season, Hoch sat down with all 225 band members to "redefine the culture of the Ohio State Marching Band." He asked the band members to describe, in a single word, who they were as a band. He heard responses such as family, integrity, Script Ohio, writing each on a white board.

Ultimately, he said, all of the descriptors fell into three categories: a tradition of excellence on the field, extraordinary respect and an attitude of being grateful for the opportunity to march with the band.

"Those kind of ended up being our core values and defining our rules," Hoch said. 

Hoch works closely with band section leaders and other students to maintain open communication, said Konner Barr, 21, head drum major and a fourth-year band member.

"We're always relaying messages back and forth and keeping an overall good attitude and upholding traditions," he said.

Hoch relishes the challenge of coming up with "the next big thing," such as putting a rock band on the field for a Queen-themed show, which he did last Saturday for Ohio State's season opener.

"We constantly feel the pressure to put a good product on the field, but I would argue that's a good thing," he said. "If you don't have eyes on you and people don't care, where's the push to be better?"