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Maria Aurigema on how she balances teaching and performing ‘gut-punching’ blues

Local guitarist and singer Maria Aurigema said she was drawn to the blues because it’s “raw and simple and real,” a description that aptly describes her live performances.

She has opened for headliners on the Artpark stage an impressive eight times, as well as playing music festivals in Lakeside, Mont., and Eureka Springs, Ark.

Aurigema performs from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday at the Wilson Boat House, 57 Harbor St., Wilson. She also is the season-opener for the Blue Mondays series sponsored by the Lewiston Council on the Arts; she will play at 7 p.m. July 11 at Hennepin Park Gazebo, located on the corner of Center and Fourth streets in Lewiston.

“She’s big-time,” said Eva Nicklas, artistic director of the arts council. “She knows the audience loves her and we are so excited to have her opening our series for us.”

“Take Me” was Aurigema’s first release, followed by “Long Way Home,” which features all original music. It’s available on iTunes, CDBaby.com or at www.MariaAurigema.com.

“I do love the sound of the guitar in any style really – jazz, classical, fusion, heavy metal, country, bluegrass ... I love it all,” Aurigema said. “But I really get that ‘punched in the stomach feeling’ when it’s the blues.”

A native of North Tonawanda, Aurigema also teaches elementary school music for the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.

“Teaching goes hand in hand for me when it comes to performing,” she said. “Teaching makes me a better performer and performing makes me a better teacher.”

“The kids are the best,” she added. “Each kid is different. They are all unique individuals and all learn in different ways. You have to adapt to each child and adjust your teaching to what they need. It is quite incredible and you are always learning and adapting. You will never know it all. And if you think you do, then you shouldn’t teach anymore.”

Having just concluded another school year, Aurigema is gearing up for more live performances through the summer. She recently took some time to chat about her two parallel careers.

What’s your first musical memory?

I was always drawn to music as a kid. Powerful or emotional songs would always affect me early on. I could just feel emotion in music. But when I heard Jimmy Page play the guitar, it hit me in the gut ... hard. His guitar playing spoke to me. I had begun taking guitar lessons in third grade (mom’s idea) but I wasn’t that into it. In seventh grade, I wanted to play guitar again after hearing Zeppelin ... but then it was my idea.

You must know that at age 13, I was unclear of what blues music really was. Led Zeppelin was my introduction to the blues. You see, it’s the blues part of it all that spoke to me most. But I would play everything else but the blues.

One day I went, “Oh, I see. So this is what I am supposed to do.” Playing the blues has always come easy to me, but I was always trying to play other things.

How did you happen to choose the instruments you play?

There was a guitar sitting in the corner of our apartment and mom said, “Would you like to take guitar lessons?” So I did. I had to walk to the music store as a kid and I hated carrying that big ugly guitar case. I was super shy. I still am. I also began playing flute in fourth grade at Grant School in North Tonawanda.

How old were you when you began performing?

Well, the kids at school and I were always jamming and trying to put bands together. We would always jam at talent shows or in someone’s basement. But back then it wasn’t yet clear what I was supposed to be doing musically on the guitar. I didn’t write music and I didn’t sing at that point. I dabbled with song lyrics but disliked much of what I wrote, and swore I would never sing.

Then life starts to happen, and you can taste pain and love and happiness in the same way that you can taste food. Those tastes are strong and they don’t go away after you have experienced them. They soften over time but they become a part of you, and you never forget them. That is when you can write about them and sing them, even if you never thought you could. These things are yours and yours alone. They don’t come from anywhere but you, and only you know the real story about them.

How long have you been teaching, and have you always been with Ken-Ton?

I started teaching music at St. Amelia School and St. Leo School, and then began working in Ken-Ton a few years later. Ken-Ton knows what a great music program they have. The music staff is top-notch. These teachers eat, breathe and sleep music. I wish all school districts could feel and enjoy the support we get as a music department in Ken-Ton.

Do you concentrate on teaching during the school year, and then switch gears and devote more time and attention to performing during the summer months? If so, is that a tough transition?

Yes. In many ways that is correct and it has taken me much time to realize that. I take everything I do seriously, and I want to give everything my best. It all takes time, and time is getting shorter and faster. It is a double-edged sword to be creative; it is great on one hand and can be torture on the other.

When all the elements are working in harmony, playing music is complete freedom of the spirit and the soul. It is beautiful and peaceful when that harmony is achieved. In many ways, the logistics are the hardest part of performing and creating. There are many details involved in putting on a show. When you take good care of all of the logistics, then you can focus on creating and performing.

You split your time between an apartment in downtown Buffalo and a cottage in Wilson. Do you draw inspiration from both environments?

I love the contrast between city and country. If you can have a bit of both, you are whole. I love Buffalo and I am saturated in its rebirth. I also love swans, and croaking frogs, and that darn muskrat that keeps digging up my garden. For me, city and country is a balance, just like teaching and performing.

Your husband, Michael Haggerty, also an educator, is a drummer. Do you ever play together?

Yes, we jam together often. His band and my band are all friends, so we like to shake it up and sit in with each other from time to time.

What is your favorite venue to play?

My favorite shows usually have an element of adventure to them, or they are the venues where lots of friends and fans will come out to the show, like the Wilson Boat House and Sunset Grill. Events that welcome the blues are always fun to play, too, like Canal Fest Bike Night, Blue Monday in Lewiston, Canal Bank Shuffle and the Southside Shuffle in Canada.

Playing in Arkansas and Montana? Total adventure.

And opening for Tuesdays at Artpark eight times was truly fantastic. Meeting other musicians is such great fun, and the crowds have been amazing!

Aurigema will play Bike Night at Canal Fest in North Tonawanda from 7 to 10 p.m. July 22; and Sunset Bar & Grill, 3 O’Connell Island, Wilson, from 3 to 7 p.m. July 31 and 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 10. Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.