Guitar Hero

From his garage band to Lionel Richie’s band, Ben Mauro uses lessons learned at Onondaga and a tireless work ethic to climb to the top.
From his garage band to Lionel Richie’s band, Ben Mauro uses lessons learned at Onondaga and a tireless work ethic to climb to the top.

Music has always been part of former Onondaga student Ben Mauro’s life. In middle school he played French horn and was a member of All-County Band. At age 16 he started playing guitar wherever and whenever he could and never stopped. Today he’s at the top of his profession, a highly sought-after live guitar player who has performed in some of the world’s biggest arenas on-stage with industry giants.

During a break in his hectic touring schedule Mauro returned to the Onondaga campus in May. He visited the new Academic II building, home of the College’s signature Music program, and spent time with students, sharing his stories and answering their questions. “Anything’s possible,” Mauro told students. “Through persistence, hard work, and love of playing guitar, I was able to make a career out of being a musician. You can do it too.”

Mauro poses for a picture with his parents, Dolores (left) and John (right) after speaking with students at Onondaga.
Mauro and his parents, Dolores (left) and John (right) in Onondaga’s Academic II building.

Mauro grew up in Camillus, the son of two teachers. His mother Dolores was a professor in the Nursing department at Onondaga, and his father John taught in the Liverpool School District. While Mauro was a student at West Genesee High School he formed a garage band. “We’d play at my dad’s parties and high school variety shows,” Mauro said. Despite occasional noise complaints from neighbors, he kept rehearsing late into the night. “My parents were behind me with one condition. They said, ‘If you make it your career, you make it your job, you have our support.’”

 

Mauro calls Dr. Joe Jewell (above) one of the most important people in his development. Jewell taught classical guitar at Onondaga for nine years. He is now Associate Professor of Guitar and Commercial Music Studies at Fullerton College in California.
Mauro calls Dr. Joe Jewell (above) one of the most important people in his development. Jewell taught classical guitar at Onondaga for nine years. He is now Associate Professor of Guitar and Commercial Music Studies at Fullerton College in California.

Mauro came to Onondaga in 1987 and began building what would be the foundation for his career. “The training I got here really prepared me to do anything.” Mauro studied classical guitar under Professor Joe Jewell and discovered he loved it. “If you can master classical music you can play anything. You need proper technique to play it well.” Jewell turned out to be one of the most influential people in Mauro’s development. “He didn’t give compliments easily. When he told you you sounded good, you knew youreally sounded good. His compliments meant a lot.”

Mauro had a strong bond with fellow music students at Onondaga. “We all had the same dreams, passion, and desire to get better. It felt like home. We were part of a community. I remember all of us hanging out in the cafeteria after class with our guitars out. We were all inspired by each other. It was very memorable.”

If you were in a band in the Syracuse area, one of the top local places to play was Shifty’s Bar and Grill on Burnet Avenue. One night a week Shifty’s was reserved for open mic night. “If you had the courage to perform solo and perform well, it was a great opportunity,” Mauro said. Eventually he got up the nerve to play solo there, and it had a significant impact on him. “It was huge in my development. It’s where I learned how to perform alone, and I met someone there I wound up forming a bigger band with.”

Eventually Mauro left Syracuse and went out on his own, playing with whomever he could, whenever and wherever he could. His goal was to play every night, and at one point he was a member of 10 bands simultaneously. “I was always happy playing guitar, no matter how much I was struggling financially. I was happy to be able to support myself.” For more than a decade Mauro would make his living crisscrossing the country, his life an endless string of hotels and highways.

Everywhere Mauro goes he shoots video and interviews on his cell phone and uses them in a show he posts on YouTube called “Let’s Go.” Mauro put together an entire episode on his return to the Syracuse area. You can watch it here. It includes visits to Onondaga, West Genesee High School, Liverpool Elementary, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park, Gannon’s Isle Ice Cream, Heid’s, and the Dinosaur Restaurant.

Mauro often scoured classified ads, searching for bands in need of a guitarist. In 1999 one of those ads turned into an audition to play with music icon Lionel Richie. His illustrious career included more than 100 million albums sold worldwide, and he was one of only two songwriters in history to have number one records for nine consecutive years. Mauro’s audition was in the theater next to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He played “Brickhouse,” a hit song by the Commodores. Richie belonged to the Commodores before going solo, and Mauro was familiar with “Brickhouse” having played several Commodores songs during his days in Syracuse.

The audition went well and Mauro was invited to come see that night’s show. When he arrived Mauro was surprised to be asked to play live on stage! When the concert was over Richie passed Mauro backstage and said to him, “See you on the next one.” Just like that Mauro was a member of the band, packing up and heading to Dubai for their next concert. “Lionel has a reputation for hiring great musicians. Getting hired by him was validation of my entire career.”

Fifteen years later Mauro is still touring with Richie. But as was the case in the 1990s when he was in as many as 10 different bands at the same time, Mauro needs a steady income, and that means working when Richie isn’t. In his “spare time” he’s toured with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Prince, Peter Frampton, Don Felder of the Eagles, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the first American Idol tour featuring Kelly Clarkson. He’s also been able to showcase his talents on numerous network television shows including Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The View, and Good Morning America.

Mauro’s return to Central New York in May also included a return to Shifty’s where he held a release party for his second EP, “Take Your Time.” Despite the tens of thousands of miles he’s traveled and the countless bars, nightclubs, and arenas he’s played in, places like Shifty’s and Onondaga still feel like home. “Seeing the College now and what it’s grown into is amazing. It wasn’t anything like this when I was a student here.”

Mauro speaks with students in the instrument and choral rehearsal room in Academic II.
Mauro speaks with students in the instrument and choral rehearsal room in Academic II.

During his conversation with students, they were very attentive and hung on his every word. Greg Terrill, a guitar player who came to Onondaga from Cicero-North Syracuse High School, found himself inspired by Mauro’s message. “I learned to succeed you have to make it your life. He gave me a much clearer focus on what I need to do. He came through here and experienced success. There’s no reason I can’t do the same.”

Love and Music

Husband and wife music teachers and Onondaga alums Erik and Kari Lutters visit the Recital Hall in Onondaga’s Academic II building.
Husband and wife music teachers and Onondaga alums Erik and Kari Lutters visit the Recital Hall in Onondaga’s Academic II building.

Kari and Erik Lutters’ story reads like a fairy tale. They met in OCC’s Music Department, fell in love, got married, and today teach music in the same school district.

Both are from Central New York – Erik is a 2005 graduate of East Syracuse Minoa High School, and Kari graduated from Solvay High School in 2006. They met when Erik was a freshman at Onondaga and Kari a high school senior. She was studying privately with Department Chair Rob Bridge, D.M.A., and joined OCC’s indoor drum line and Latin Band while still in high school. Both fondly recall their time at the College. “All of us in the percussion studio were very close-knit,” said Kari. “We would always practice and talk together, and today we all stay in touch.”

After OCC both continued college in the Rochester area, Erik at the Eastman School of Music and Kari at Nazareth College. In a sign of things to come, both student-taught at the same time in the suburban Victor School District.

On their wedding day in June 2012, they received an unexpected phone call. The Huevelton School District in St. Lawrence County asked both to come in to interview for music teacher positions. “We cancelled our honeymoon to go to our job interviews,” said Erik. Kari added, “But we knew the possibility of getting jobs together was a good enough wedding present. We were worried about getting jobs in the same state, let alone the same school district.”

Today they teach in Huevelton, a one-building school district in which the Lutters’ are its music department. Kari teaches general music and chorus, Erik teaches general music and band. They also direct marching band, jazz band, select chorus, and school musicals.

In early 2014 the Lutters’ visited OCC’s Academic II building which is anchored by the Music Department. They took the Recital Hall stage for a reunion of the Percussion Suite. “Playing in the new building was amazing,” said Erik. “It’s well deserved for the Music Department because they work so hard,” said Kari.

Student Commencement Posters

Students, families, and friends who attended OCC’s 51st Commencement ceremony were treated to a new exhibit inside the SRC Arena and Events Center. The accomplishments of 15 graduating students were highlighted in vibrant 30 inch by 40 inch posters positioned around the upper ring of the arena. From Nancy Stevens who earned her Onondaga degree 33 years after graduating from West Point, to Commencement speaker Melinda Agnew who worked tirelessly while raising three daughters as a single parent, it was a diverse and outstanding group of graduates. View each of their commencement posters.

Star Students and Athletes

OCC student-athletes Rachael Gac and Warren Hill were honored during the spring 2014 semester for excellence both in the classroom and on the playing field. They were selected for SUNY Chancellor’s Scholar Athletic Awards by a panel of athletic directors from across the SUNY system as well as the Provost’s office.

Rachael Gac
Rachael Gac

During her freshman year Gac became the first women’s soccer player in OCC history to be named a 1st Team All-American. The midfielder led the Lazers to a College record 13 wins. The team was ranked in the top 15 nationally during the season and advanced to the NJCAA Regional Semifinals. Gac came to Onondaga from Schalmont High School in Schenectady, New York and is majoring in General Studies.

Warren Hill
Warren Hill

Hill, who graduated from Onondaga in May 2014, was a sophomore from Hagersville High School in Oshweken, Ontario majoring in Humanities. Hill was also a goalie on OCC’s men’s lacrosse team. In May the Lazers won their 6th consecutive national title and eighth overall, and they completed the season with an 87 game winning streak, the longest in the history of college lacrosse at any level. Hill has transferred to Syracuse University where he is majoring in sociology and playing lacrosse.

Visit from the Champ

Women's Basketball attendees wait patiently for an autograph from Breanna Stewart.
Women’s Basketball Camp attendees wait patiently for an autograph from Breanna Stewart.
OCC Women's Basketball Coach Mike Wheeler presents Breanna with an OCC t-shirt.
OCC Women’s Basketball Coach Mike Wheeler presents Breanna with an OCC t-shirt.

Young athletes attending OCC’s Basketball Camp in Allyn Hall gymnasium got the thrill of a lifetime when an unexpected visitor arrived. Loud cheers and applause greeted Breanna Stewart, arguably the best collegiate Women’s Basketball player in the country. In her first two season with the University of Connecticut, the Huskies have won two national championships and Stewart has been named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player both times.

Stewart held a question-and-answer session with campers. Most questions focused on basketball, but there was the occasional non-basketball question such as, “Do you like tacos?” “Yes I do!” she replied. After answering questions, the 6’ 4″ Stewart towered over awe-struck young women as she patiently signed autographs for each of the 80 campers and posed for dozens of cell phone pictures.

Having the opportunity to meet a champion made quite an impression on the campers:

  • “It inspires me to be better and live up to my full potential as Breanna did.” -Allison Cole
  • “I’m not going to be as tall as her but I hope one day I can go into the WNBA. She’s really good and I hope I can be at least half of that.” -Alexia Chemotti
Breanna with OCC President Dr. Casey Crabill and senior vice president David Murphy. She's holding an "ESPY Award" she had just won from ESPN.
Breanna with OCC President Dr. Casey Crabill and senior vice president David Murphy.

They weren’t the only ones having fun. Stewart got just as much out of the visit. “I love the opportunity to spend time in the community and give back,” she said. “I want to show people, especially young girls in this community, they can reach their dreams if they really set their minds to it.”

Stewart’s visit to OCC was the result of a strong connection between the College and Cicero-North Syracuse High School from where Stewart graduated. Her high school coach, Eric Smith, spoke at camp earlier in the week. OCC’s Women’s Basketball coach Mike Wheeler is a C-NS alum, and a freshman on his team this year will be Samantha Roberts, a former high school teammate of Stewart. “Having Breanna come to our camp was wonderful,” said Wheeler. “She’s a fantastic person and a tremendous role model for all women’s basketball players.”