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Carrying a familiar tune back to Ridgely Middle School

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After skills he learned from his music teachers in Baltimore County Public Schools allowed Mac Calvaresi to see the world from behind a drum set, he is returning to his old middle school to share his talents with a new generation.

Calvaresi, 28, will take over the string program at Ridgely Middle School this school year, returning to his roots as a cellist after spending the better part of a decade drumming for the rock band Cinder Road, which opened for the band KISS in 2008.

"I saw the entire world, and I never would have done that if it weren't for (former Dulaney High School band director) Jim Paxton saying 'Hey, do you want to play cymbals in the marching band?' " Calvaresi said.

"It was huge for me, and I want to give that back," he said.

Calvaresi said his musical career began when, as a child, he performed Billy Joel's "Piano Man" on a toy harmonica at family parties. He chose the cello over percussion when it was time to begin formal training as a fifth-grader at Carroll Manor Elementary School.

He played for two years at Cockeysville Middle School before joining Pat Sahlin's string program at Ridgely as an eighth-grader.

There, while setting up for a talent show, Calvaresi began to play a drum set that had been set up in the corner.

He could "hear them filling up the room," Calvaresi said. "I was so excited by it."

Though he kept playing cello, his interest in percussion grew. Paxton, former band director at Dulaney High, recognized Calvaresi's fascination with the marching band. When Calvaresi was in his sophomore year, Paxton asked him to replace a cymbalist who moved to Florida.

"He just wanted to play so badly," Paxton said. "He taught himself a lot and listened to a lot of people who were knowledgeable in percussion. He just took off."

Paxton said Calvaresi played in all of his groups, including the jazz band, orchestra and musical pits. He was a two-year drum line captain, all the while keeping up with the cello.

As a senior, his commitments grew outside school. One night at a party, a friend insisted that he try out for a local band.

"I thought, 'Are you crazy? I'm not going to audition. I don't play the drums, I'm a cellist,' " he said.

He went anyway and — playing the same drum set from that day in the Ridgely gym, which Paxton had given him earlier that year — earned a spot in the local cover band Plunge.

"I thought I was joining some goofy garage band that would do nothing," Calvaresi said. "By the time I was a freshman in college, we were playing five, six nights a week, all over the area."

As time went on, the band went global, performing for troops in Greenland, Guam, Japan and South Korea through a deal with the Armed Forces Entertainment network.

Eventually, the band signed a label deal with EMI, changed its name to Cinder Road — an homage to the singer and guitar player's Cockeysville addresses — and recorded its first full-length album, "Superhuman."

The band's first major tour, in support of the Grammy-nominated rock band Daughtry, was in January 2007. But the crown jewel came the following spring, when Cinder Road spent three months in Europe on the KISS Alive/35 tour.

Still, Calvaresi found himself examining his options when the band returned home.

"You can be opening up for the biggest band in the world and be living on peanut butter and jelly, trying to figure out how to put gas in the van," Calvaresi said. "I didn't make anything that I could keep, just enough to really sort of get by. It's a shame that the industry is the way it is, but we definitely got to do more than I ever thought."

Bills piled up. Then Calvaresi, who took two years of music education classes at Towson University before switching to a performance major because he couldn't justify a profession that was less lucrative than being in a band, began substitute teaching.

It was then that he fell back in love with education. After subbing for a while, he needed something more permanent.

"I thought to myself, 'I don't want to be a substitute teacher forever, just waiting for the next tour. I need a career,' " Calvaresi said.

One night, he checked the county's website and saw an opening for a string teacher at Ridgely Middle. He stopped by the next day to see Sue Wilson, band director at Ridgely, and eventually secured a long-term substitute position. He built a rapport with the students, but was unable to take the full-time position without his teaching certificate.

So on top of subbing for all of last year at Cockeysville Middle School, Calvaresi went back to school to earn his certificate.

Once he finished, Wilson said, Cockeysville wanted to hire him to teach Spanish.

"He wanted to hold out for music," she said, "and I'm glad he did."

For her part, Wilson is thrilled to be teaching alongside Calvaresi.

"I'm so excited I can't tell you," she said. "The parents and the kids are going to be ecstatic. He left such an impression on them."

Both Wilson and Paxton think their former student is destined for success as a music teacher.

"Good Lord, he's got the right formula," Paxton said. "He really relates to kids well. He has the right methods. With his character and personality, the kids just love working with him. They really listen."

"He's an inspiration to the kids," Wilson said. "He's full of energy, and he does well with the middle-school kids. It takes a special teacher to be able to do that. He can get them inspired."

As a substitute, Calvaresi used little pieces of his rock star past to keep kids engaged and interested.

But he doesn't expect his new students to view him as anything other than Mr. Calvaresi, string teacher.

"It's good that I did substitute teaching and got the hang of that," Calvaresi said. "Plus, I'm there at the beginning of the year. From day one, that classroom is mine, so I can establish expectations and have a good social contract with the kids."

Calvaresi's rock band experience won't be a problem in the classroom, Wilson said.

"They won't view him (as a rock star) because he plays a mean cello," she said. "We have so many parents that are Baltimore Symphony musicians that you need someone who can play. That's what's important: him being viewed as a player.

"The kids are so impressed by his ability that the rock star stuff doesn't come up much. They want to emulate the way he plays."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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