Alma Mater

I grew up in Orchard Park, New York. Home to the Buffalo Bills and Duffs Chicken Wings. I am very proud of my Buffalo roots. I think the city gives its inhabitants a certain edge. We used to talk about it in college with a laugh and a shrug…someone made a politically incorrect statement? “Buffalo.” Someone recoils at the thought of “buffalo wings with ranch”…”Buffalo.” You know you need some blue cheese and some loganberry to wash down your “chicken” wings. There are a bunch of great musicians who came out of Buffalo around the same time as I did, and a lot of us ended up at Eastman. Mike Williams (MiWi), Jared Coen, Lynn Ligamari, Dave DiGiacomo, Mark Filsinger…those guys kept it real at Eastman during the early 2000s. Now theres the new guard of Buffalo cats out there led by Brendan Lanighan, the McGintys, Dan White, Cam Kayne, Matt Michaud…the list goes on. Like any town, theres an instant kinship when you meet another ex-pat, but with Buffalo its different. Somehow heightened. Maybe watching your team lose 4 straight Super Bowls while still in grade school does that to you. I could go on to talk about the Buffalo jazz legends here, but thats not really what Im writing about.

Unbeknownst to me for much of my teenage life, I went to a school that supported the arts in a HUGE way. The more I exist in other schools these days, I realize that my experience was NOT the norm!

Walking through the side door of Orchard Park High School every morning, my first stop was always the band room. It was a place to drop off my mallets and music, but it was also the hang. I remember Mark Filsinger having me stand still while he punched my arm as hard as he could, daily, for about a minute. This was hazing in the music department. I was a freshman and he was a senior. It seemed like all of my friends started our day there, and that was cool. It was a place to feel at home. I spent lunch periods in the band room sightreading saxophone solos on marimba. I spent study halls and free periods in the HALLWAY practicing xylophone, WHILE the chorus rehearsed inside the next room. I spent periods that I was supposed to be in math, english, economics, sociology, math again…pretty much every class got skipped a few times, but I wasnt doing bad things, I was practicing. Mr Himes, my math teacher, he HAD to know that I didnt have three lessons a week during his class. He just kinda half-smiled and let me go. I think he knew my time was better spent elsewhere. I know Don Carducci, my band teacher, knew that I had class. He looked the other way because he knew my time was well spent. I stayed late until everyone had gone. There were times when I was in charge of locking up. My relationship with the night janitor Nancy was far better than it should have been. I was working, and school afforded me a place to do my work. Sadly for my non-music teachers, I had one singular focus.

When I look back at OPHS and my experience, I am pretty amazed. I got away with a lot. Stuff that would be squelched in an INSTANT in todays schools. Had we been driven by the common core, teacher evaluations, high stakes testing and everything else, theres no way that Id have been allowed to hone my musical craft. This happened for a lot of us. And I dont think the result is all that surprising, but it is notable:

We became successful.

See, we were in a place where nobody told us no. Nobody said that we might want to look into college programs that would lead to “real” jobs (well, thats not entirely true. Mrs Lindner, my counselor, DID say this once, but I told her not to worry; I was “REALLY good at drums”). Nobody cared how we scored on science exams. They saw a passion and they not only allowed, but they helped. Nobody ever said this wasnt a viable option. Arts were celebrated and put on display. The marching band wasnt booed at football games. Every concert we did had an accompanying school assembly where we put on the show for the other students. Concerts, musicals and plays were well attended by students, parents and community members. AND we played serious stuff! No pop tunes…we played Carmina Burana, whole thing, band and chorus. We played the Faure Requiem and Poulenc Gloria with the orchestra and choir combined. Bernstein in band! Original music by the orchestra conductor! The choir is singing in many languages! We played hard music, and we played it well. People supported us and encouraged us to do those things, and to make them great. Ill never forget the stoner kid who would scream to anyone who’d listen that I was “the best drummer in the world”. When I sit at my teaching job lately, we end up talking a lot about kids needing a niche. Kids dropping out. Kids finding success. I dont think Id have dropped out if I hadnt had the musical experiences, but let me tell you, I HATED school. Like, I didnt like it at all. If it wasnt for my music classes, I would not have cared a bit. And I dont remember much. I do like to think that Im reasonably intelligent, and I have a Masters Degree, so I think my teachers would consider me to be a success. By not saying no, and by letting arts be not only viable, but vibrant, the adults of Orchard Park High School did us a real service. I now go to work every day and do something that I really love. And so do a lot of other people that were arts kids. A small informal facebook poll told me that the following kids all attended OPHS while I was there (1997-2001) and now work in serious arts-related fields. I think its impressive:

  • Aaron Staebell–has released an album, composer/performer, teaches middle school music
  • Justin Staebell–sings with Minnesota Opera and Minnesota Chorale
  • Melissa Wegner–works for the Metropolitan Opera
  • Samantha Klanac–dances for the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet
  • Dan Kushner–music critic for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
  • Adam Zelasko–(my homeroom-4 years), lead in the National Tour of Jersey Boys
  • Hallie Clarke–(my homeroom-4 years), voiceover work in NYC
  • Don Neptun–independent composer and arranger near Seattle, WA
  • Kate Gentile–professional drummer in New York City
  • Kyle McGinty–professional trumpet player in New York City
  • Jon Lorentz–songwriter, singer, sound engineer in Buffalo, NY
  • Andrea Smith–clarinetist in a US Marine Band
  • Mike Kaiser–stand up comedian in New York, NY
  • Geoff and Matt Keiser–are definitely in some kind of band
  • Tara Bystran Sasiadek–artist in Buffalo, NY
  • Monika Vasey–harpist in Maryland

and then a slew of us who went on to specifically TEACH music to the next generation:

  • Adam Bett
  • Matt Miraglia
  • Mark Filsinger
  • Chris Revett (Jr)
  • Meaghan (Garbay) Venitelli
  • Cheri (Wopperer) Pritchard
  • Nate Keagle
  • Dan Charland
  • Jeff Walling
  • Jackie (Philbin) Ripley
  • Jennifer (Silberstein) Haines
  • John Blickwedehl
  • John Reagan
  • Kate Cregan
  • Jessica Wheaton
  • Marc Bridon

Im sure Im forgetting someone, and I really apologize for that (please, send me messages in the contact form so I can expand the list. Its only 1997-2001 now, but lets get a huge one going from OP!)

I think that the fact that there are people to be forgotten says a lot! I hope that this will at least encourage people to think about the fact that jobs in the arts are totally possible and should be supported and encouraged whenever possible!

If you read this far, good for you. You are a good person.

39 replies on “Alma Mater”

Name: Laura Grybel
Comment: I would like to say 1) nice post 2) I really think its a Buffalo/ Erie county thing for which OP & possibly Williamsville lead the charge ( b/c they have the means to) there is a (or at least used to be) support for the arts – specifically music education in that county as a whole that pales most other areas across the country. But as a kid growing up next door to “the OP music machine, my experiences were VERY similar. Common core scares the hell out if me in that I see it breaking down that strength we once had as a community as much as I see Erie County desperately try to dig in its heels & hold those programs close. 3) this would be good to couple with the article from the OP BOE where they basically told the govt they can keep their money & they aren’t going to play their game ( I have never wished more for OP to be the ring leader that other districts follow like puppy dogs, than after it published- I’ll try to find u the link) 4) I think u r missing Jackie (phil bin) Riley on ur list- she was teaching band, is in grad school right now.


I have seen this info from OP. I have to be honest, the issues of recent changes to education are tough to talk about sometimes, and I dont have any real response or ideas. I am an example-based person, so this is my contribution: here it is everybody, an example that worked and worked well. And Im sure other schools could have similar or even better stories (what if I went to like HSPVA in Houston or Laguardia HS in New York, that would be even more ridiculous a list!). I dont really feel like I agree with much of the new legislation, and I attended Dr Kings forum on the Common Core shift at Brighton a few weeks ago. I think that some of what they are saying and trying to do is good, and some is not. I think my sentiment with this post is that im proud of my school, and would like to hope that this gives encouragement to others in some way or another. My political views on this stuff can be another post…once I figure them out completely haha.

Name: Jon Vasey
Comment: Well said Aaron! Even though I never pursued a career in the arts, I’m still freelance preforming in musicals such as the lead in Spring Awakening, RENT, Chicago, little shop, etc. Throughout HS I really associated myself with a lot of different people involved or not in the arts, but that music wing was always where I was most comfortable.

Add my sis Monika Vasey to the list: professional harpist and early childhood development music teacher.

Absolutely loved reading your article. Well put together and brought back fond memories. Now I can take you back a few years but none the less Mr Vitale (whom I was fortunate enought to have in elementary school as well)shared the band room with LOL Mr. Staebell’s orchestra safe haven, I too loved being there with the comfort “zone” if you will. I found many reasons to straighten up, fix music, fill in our band folders. I laugh, I was the maroon blazer, white pants outfit era for marching band. When my brother came along (trumpeter(checkmates) they had the brass buckles and awesome headgear and the band bus to compete and travel. Wow was I jealous LOL, but when I was there music was a strong part of schooling and always supported as well. While sittingt years ago at Hamburg High listening to and watching my children in band and chorus, the rush and pride and emotion was definitely there, with my youngest, “mom why are you tearing up?”. I believe it is a significant part of growing along with academics and sports that boosts well rounded creative students. Whether they take it along in there life forward or had it for a while and chose other avenues later, it was a gift to have the feeling of belonging to an even bigger group coming together for family and friends looking on and filling their hearts with our combined talent and love of music.

Thank you for my thoughts and smiles back down music memory lane.

one of the 79’ers

Name: John Kane
Comment: Aaron was a big influence on my drumming. His style encouraged me to experiment as well as practice harder. He also gave me the best drummer award in QMB once; I still havn’t figured out why though, I always thought I did more damage than good haha.

Always a mellow guy, Aaron never told me I sucked at percussion even though I was just starting, because he knew that we all started out horribly at one time. This blog speaks the truth about band in OP. You can’t find an experience like that anymore.

Since HS, I have been in a few bands that didn’t really take off but still were great to write music in, as well as a few stand-ins in the US Army Band and taught soldiers while I was enlisted. I also teach curious friends to play whenever I can, but due to my full time job, its tough to find time..

Still, I’ve never given up and have Aaron and a few others on this list to thank. I’m going to go jam on my new Mapex kit now. Thanks for the inspiration.

John Kane, class of ’02

Name: Sara Komoroske
Comment: John Blickwedehl, graduated ’97) music teacher at west Seneca west high school and director of west Seneca marching, state champs four years running (oh, and he writes all the shows!). Also codirctor of a pro drum corp.

Name: Dan Greer – OPHS 2001
Comment: Hey Aaron,

Thanks for writing this. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the education we got at OPHS. For me, the music wasn’t where I was the most passionate. I was in QMB for four year and loved it, but I think I was more interested in the fun that I had with the friends that were there. Despite all the jokes about band camp – American Pie really ruined that for us – it was always a great time.

Anyway, I work in Student Affairs at RIT with Residence LIfe. While not a ‘teacher’ per se, I absolutely consider myself an educator, preparing leaders and supporting students toward graduating with their degrees. My passion came from being fortunate to have teachers that cared about me and were not afraid to be themselves and show their true passions.

The two teachers that came to mind for me are Brian Dena and Dan Ljiljanich. They were both nerds, but passionate about their subjects the same way you were passionate about music. That helped me develop the confidence to stop caring what others thought and to find my passion.

This was a great read. Thanks for posting. I hope you’re doing well.

Name: Meaghen Garbay Venitelli 🙂
Comment: Hi Aaron-EXCELLENT read!!!! Thank you so much for writing this!!! Brings back so many awesome memories!!!

Other OPHS music folks:
John Reagan-band director at Pioneer
John Blickwedehl-band director at West Senior
Stephanie Wheeler-band director in Maryland
Kate Creagan-band director in Georgia
Marc Bridon-band director
Jessica Wheaton-general music teacher

Name: Marc Bridon ’06
Comment: Thank you so much for writing this. I feel that bringing these concepts to the public view is what we as educators need to be doing more often.

Our experience in OP was definitely something unique. I can’t think of a place where I was more challenged as a musician or collaborated more. Our devotion to and passion for the programs we participated in was extremely strong because we weren’t told no. We were left our space to experiment and play, and ultimately we figured it out.

There may be some good to the new legislation, but I feel it also stifles creativity and individuality with the stresses alone. We need more risk takers in life, because it’s in the journey that your fire for something is ignited.

Keep up the good work Aaron! Looking forward to seeing all the awesome work us OP and Buffalo School grads do in the near future!

I appreciate this article in a very serious way. Thank you. I am now living on the gulf coast in Mississippi, and it breaks my heart that the children and young adults don’t have the same passion and push for arts programs here. Especially with New Orleans only being an hour to the west!
Very well written, and extremely inspiring. I may have to go back to my roots and find a way to perform again, thank you!
That being said, I have to agree with you about hating school…but all of my great memories revolve around the music wing, concerts and chorus classes, musicals, and dance. We were truly blessed to be born and raised in OP.
PS. You know one of our dance girls from orchestra is is now a Rockette in NYC – Sarah Creagan! She didn’t graduate until 2006, but I think it’s commendable.

I graduated in 1992 (but thanks for listing my name and making me appear younger) and it was Don Carducci’s first year, and I don’t think Alex Safford (sp?) was teaching there yet…I mention this because those guys coming in really kicked things up several notches. By the time I came back to teach there in 1998, I really noticed the difference just 5 years after I was a student there. My experience was nearly identical to yours in terms of what I got away with in the name of art. Truly, nobody ever said “no”. Nice article!

Awesome! Great read. Add my brothers to the list – Tom Burritt, (marimba) and teaches at UT in Austin, played with Conspirare. Jamie Burritt, teaches at LewPort and is the director and founder of Vocalis Chamber Choir in Buffalo, NY.

I’m not directly working in a performing arts field, but I will say that the confidence, public speaking skills and stage presence I developed through the dramas, musicals and chorus have definitely helped me a great deal, from teaching as a grad student to working in government and politics.

There truly was (and are) incredible things going on in that wing of Orchard Park High School. It’s awe-inspiring to see alumni lists like the ones scattered throughout this page and realize how far so many people from one school in suburban Buffalo have gone and reminds me why I still wear my high school ring!

Before your time but adding to your list.

Jamie Burritt – Lew-Port HS Vocal Music teacher; founder director Vocalis Chamber Choir, Buffalo. In our 12th Season!

Tom Burritt – Professor of Percussion, University of Texas at Austin.

Great article, while I may not have known you my sisters were in the band and an fortunate to have John blickwedehl as my brother in law. Some of the things he has done at WS is outstanding. I am proud to say I moved to Allen Texas and my daughter Harlee plays flute in the band here. She is a member of the largest highschool band in the nation and it truely is a site to watch. I unfortunately wasn’t able to watch you perform much being a football player but we always appreciated the support.
SSG. Ken McCann. Class of 99

The most wonderful part is that Orchard Park High School STILL continues to pump out talented musicians, performers, actors, teachers, freelance musicians, artists, etc. From even younger generations, to name just a handful:

Emily Staebell – Orchestra teacher
Michelle Rombola – Performer on Broadway
Caitlin Koch – “Buffalo’s Idol”, has an album released
Joe Tracy – Published composer, arranger and band instructor
Kellianne Roessler – Marching band instructor and arranger
Caroline Randle – Assistant Marching band director
Brett and Brian Roedel – Film Makers
Ricky Saunders – Vocal / Theater performer in NYC
Eric Tronolone – Vocal / Theater performer in NYC
Shawn Smith – Vocal / Theater performer in NYC
Jennifer Waris – Professional vocalist
Cyril Bodnar – Trumpet instructor / performer, Vocalist
Erin Dowrey – Percussionist
Sara Wolf – Dance Teacher / Performer
Christie (LaCongo) Delaney – Professional dancer
Rian Lehman – Film maker and performer

The list honestly goes on and on- we had such great opportunities and I’m constantly amazed and filled with pride when I hear that yet another OP native has made it for themselves doing something they love, because we were guided to follow our dreams by outstanding teachers.

Thank you for writing this article – it is spreading like wildfire through social media and it’s about time people read about the good in education again!

Great article!
I can’t agree more with what you’ve said so perfectly. I’ve noticed-especially lately- how much of a “gem” we all had in OP with my own children in our current school district. They pride themselves on having good programs, but it’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Even my husband laughs and can’t believe how much fun I had in high school between chorus, swing, orchestra, musicals, etc. He still doesn’t believe me that many kids could be stars on the sports teams AND still be stars in the musicals. (“That sounds like a Disney movie”, he will say…). There was such an education in the arts and I am so thankful our district had it. I would hear my parents (both art teachers in OP) speak about how we always had to push for the arts, and now I understand why. They help us form our futures. I may not fall into the total arts success story, but I have done voiceovers in NYC and do higher end floral design for a lot of people who appreciate it as an artistic form. I truly believe that if I didn’t have the encouragement to follow my dreams with the music and arts background that I had, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.
–And for those who can relate, G (aka Bruce Gustafson) would be really proud of all of these success stories –and you, Aaron, for bringing it to our attention.

REALLY GREAT READ! I have to agree with everything people have said, but most importantly what was said about students gaining skills through the arts that have made them successful by giving them the confidence to pursue whatever their heart desired, even if it wasn’t in a typical arts field. OPHS has cranked out some amazingly accomplished people, in so many different and unique careers, and I do believe it was the quality of teachers who took a real interest in the welfare of their students and encouraged them to pursue their passions, whatever those may have been. My fellow classmates may have made me feel certain things weren’t possible, but my teachers never did, and I have to admit, neither did any of those down that music wing or in drama club. Now, 10 years later, after ups and downs pursing a dream I had since I was a little girl watching the Bills lose those 4 Superbowls you spoke of, I work for the Indianapolis Colts. I was a math nerd too, so I don’t discount the importance of those classes, but if not for the confidence I gained through the arts, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Congrats to all those Quakers out there!

Hey! Great Article. OP class of 1994. QMB alum, played quads and then switched to trombone because Mr. C and Revett needed more trombones and my brother had one in the closet! Was just thinking about my high school music career. Didn’t major in music in college, but now live in NYC and have my own community band of 65 women-playing Afro-Brazilian music! If it wasn’t for OP and the music program, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.
Stacy Kovacs

So much emotion and thoughts screaming through my head as I read this post! I absolutely agree with you that the music department at OPHS was outstanding. I graduated in 97 and spent a lot time with Mr. G in the choir room. I also played in the orchestra for a few years too, but really I loved choir and the musicals.

My family moved to OP my midway through my freshman year. On the first day when my mom and I were meeting with the guidance counselor, we had what looked like my schedule all figured out. And then my mom asked about choir? Mr. Wolf looked and found that there was choir, but it would mean I only got lunch every other day. He assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem because many students ate lunch during choir so that they could take it. I REALLY hope that this is still the case. How many schools would even let students eat lunch as part of choir. I appreciate Mr. G for encouraging that so that more people could sing. Long story short, choir ended up being one of my very favorite parts of high school. I also sang a ton in college and now continue teaching my four kids about music. I am so glad my mom asked about choir and that I was encouraged to participate.

Speaking of my family, my sister Katelin (’98) now lives in Minnesota with her family and she teaches piano lessons out of her home and has for several years. So add her to your list of those teaching music.

Long story, longer… I am now a doctoral student at Indiana University where I study music, kind of. I actually am in the School of Education and study online learning, but a key research area of mine is informal music learning through online music projects such as Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir (check out YouTube if you haven’t seen this incredible project). The internet has such amazing power to share music in new and unique ways. Take this blog post for example and the dozens of people that have already read it and commented about there own musical experiences.

As someone who cares deeply about education, I applaud your efforts to write this and to everyone that carries on the tradition of teaching students about music. I would really love for these comments and this post to be shared with the administration at OPHS to encourage them to continue to allow students to explore and find their passions through music and other areas.

Bottom line, students should be encouraged by teachers and by schools to find things that they love and not worry about test scores. Thanks for writing this and bringing back many wonderful memories for me.

Justin Whiting
Mr. OPHS ’97 and still proud of it!

Ginny Hale Meredith, class of “74. I grew up with Mr. Staebell teaching music and Donna Staebell was in my class. I loved the music education we got there. I still play the violin whenever I get the chance, have been in “bands” for years and my husband is a professional drummer and Music Writer. I also founded a non-profit that brings music to isolated people in restricted environments (

Mary Ernst, class of ,73 is a Julliard graduate and concert pianist.

Thanks for the great article!

Hey Aaron, I just wanted to say thanks for writing this. I didn’t go on to become a music teacher or anything, but OPHS band and QMB played a major role in my life from 1997-2001. Thank you very much for this!

Ahhh, this brought back some great memories… There was nowhere quite like that music wing back @ OPHS. It was a place the music kids could really feel at home & people like Mr. G, Dick Holden, & Revett/Carducci ran their own show completely. That wing was an entirely different world from the rest of the building.

I can safely say without that haven (which I barely recognized, let alone appreciated at the time) I wouldn’t have pursued the arts in college, let alone had the passion to earn three degrees & begin my professional life in that field. Kudos to everyone who stuck with it longer than I.

Great essay, Aaron. I especially appreciate this thought: “They [our teachers] saw a passion and they not only allowed, but they helped.” I’m not sure I ever stopped to reflect upon the value of this truth until now… so thanks!
PS – Add me (OPHS Class of 2000) to the list of Arts professionals… I work in Engagement at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY.

Hi Aaron, this is Anne Denis 00′. Your article put a big smile on my face, it is spot on of my experiences at OPHS. I remember playing French Horn with Carmina and taking every possible music class the school offered, and during study hall going to the choir room to practice piano. I’m ABD status in a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Piano Performance. I live and work in Portland Or teaching piano and am an organist at a church.

Great post!
I’m glad This showed up in my FB feed. I graduated in 1994 with Stacy Kovacs, the best drummer of our generation thanks to OP. I always wanted to play battery, but was steered into viola, oboe, etc. my artistic talent was NOT musical, but my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Wagatha, told my parents I was an artist who needed private lessons. By the time I got to OPHS, teachers like Mr. Widget and my top mentor in OPHS, Mrs. Evedon, did everything you described above for me with visual art. Because of that art education, twenty years later, I have a BFA in sculpture, and an MA in Theatre and Performance. My own work is in light and installation, but I’m also an artist in residence at Women and Children’s hospital, where I do my best to share what the creative process has done for all of us with the patients and families. (This post also revealed that some younger Buffalo artists I’ve worked with also have OP roots…)

Hi Aaron! Cathy Rinella from ’02. This is a great essay, and you’re absolutely right. There was definitely something both fortunate and unique about OPHS. Despite the size of the school, all of the teachers always seemed on the same page – wanting to support the students and being understanding of each child’s passions. I had an art teacher who didn’t understand at first why I wasn’t bothering to take more classes in the visual arts. After attending one of the OPHS band concerts I was playing, however, she approached me in class to tell me how well it sounded and encourage my interest in music. That was the beauty of the school – it wasn’t just music teachers supporting music, it was EVERYONE. One of the biggest events of the school year was the spring Musical, and the entire school turned up for it. The marching band always got cheers and applause, being in theatre was cool, and if you were a singer or instrumentalist, you were respected for having musical ability. I love all of the music teachers we had (from Vitale to Carducci, and everyone in between), but the older I get the more I realize that the school itself was incredibly unique.

Went to OSU for Tuba (BM in Music Performance and Music History), now an audio engineer, sound designer and radio host in Columbus, OH.

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