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Niagara Falls teacher shares her love of music with students and the community

NIAGARA FALLS – Singer/songwriter Christina Custode isn’t a household name – yet. But she is already a star to her biggest fans, her elementary students in the Niagara Falls School District.

Custode, 27, also has been getting recognition outside of the school and beyond her community after her first full-length album, released in 2014, was under consideration for Grammy nominations in five categories in 2015, including best new artist and song of the year for her original song, “Fire.”

“Simply being up for a nomination to receive a Grammy is a dream come true,” said Custode.

But the music business is nothing new for Custode. She has music in her blood.

Her father, Lewis “Lew” Custode, is a professional trumpet player and vocalist who plays with the Barroom Buzzards and in the jazz duo Custode and Parisi.

She said she has been playing piano since she was old enough to “plink, plink, plink” on her toy piano and went on to become a classically trained pianist at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.

Her original music, which has been called “clear and honest,” has received several Artvoice awards and the publication has named her Buffalo’s Best Female Vocalist and Buffalo’s Best Original Music Act in multiple years.

“I grew up in a house filled with music,” Custode recalls in her biography. “We would sing all the parts to ‘West Side Story’ on the way to school and if we didn’t finish, we would pick up the next day. I had thought that was normal behavior for all my school friends.”

Custode graduated from Niagara Wheatfield High School in 2006 and is the only child of Lew and Maria Custode. Her mother, though not a professional musician, played drums in high school. Christina has both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastman in piano performance and music education.

She has been a music teacher at Niagara Street Elementary School since 2012 and also directs the fifth- and sixth-grade chorus. She also works at several other elementary schools in the district.

How did you get started in music?

There was always music in the house. I would sing and put on my own performances – in my living room on the front porch, I was constantly singing, singing, singing. I asked for a toy piano when I was about 6 years old, maybe even smaller, like 3 or 4. I just loved the darn thing. So when it was time to pick an instrument, I said I would love to play the piano. My dad said I would have to take lessons. I started formal lessons at 8.

Do you have to make a choice between being a teacher and being a professional musician?

That’s a question I get asked a lot. I feel like it’s a multifaceted career. They exist separately in the world. But any musician is going to be teaching. We teach each other. We teach people on our bandstand. You teach your performers when you are orchestrating stuff. For me it’s more of a holistic approach.

Is choosing to live in the Niagara Falls area a hindrance to your career? Shouldn’t you live in New York City or L.A.?

I don’t think that’s the way this business works any more. When you go to New York City, there are millions of talented people swarming the streets. It’s almost like a flooded market. With the way Internet connections have been in the past five or 10 years, you can come from anywhere. I have performed in New York City and all along the East Coast. Where I call home doesn’t affect my capabilities whatsoever. I find that it gives me more mobility to pick and choose. We are a 45-minute plane ride away (from New York City). Chicago is another hour and a half the other way.

How would you describe your music?

My music is up front. There’s not a lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s centered around songwriting and stories. It’s not tricks or sounds or machines. It’s honest and open. It’s true-life events.

Do you have these great life stories that you are trying to tell? You are still so young.

I’ve been through a lot for my age, to say the least. Everything I’ve written has come from personal experience. It’s a very personal relationship between myself and my songs and the audience. I’ve lost many people and it is tough. Music is where I go. You absolutely hear loss and heartbreak in my songs. You hear betrayal and hurt, but you also hear joy and persistence.

Is there a song you call your favorite?

It’s hard to pick. You spend all this time laboring over them and you become attached to them in their own way. A couple of favorites are “Each Time,” written about the loss of a young man’s life. It’s very simple and touched me from the moment I wrote it and every time I perform it. I also am very partial towards “High Water,” that I wrote about a couple in a bar that captures a lot of relationships that are going on around us.

Is there a secret to making a hit?

I think the best way is to not to think about making a hit. I don’t sit down hoping for commercial success when I write a song. That’s not how it goes. The true huge hits are honest and people identify with that song and feel like they are a part of that emotion. I don’t think John Lennon sat down and said, “Let’s write a hit,” when he wrote “Imagine.”

Has there been a breakout performance or album for you?

As a musician, you never give yourself that pat on the back and say, “Wow, I’m really good at this.” We are always looking ahead and planning what is coming next. My thing has been Googling my name – you are on Page 17 and then on Page 7 and now the first three pages are saturated with my stuff. There are different barometers that people use.

Is there something that you hate about the music industry?

It isn’t any specific genre that bothers me, but it’s the disappointment when you invest in an artist as a listener and then you hear them perform live and they are nothing like they sounded on the album. You discover the smoke and mirrors. As a listener I feel very misled.

What about music reality shows, like “American Idol” or “The Voice?”

I watch these shows as a viewer and the exposure for an artist is great, but that’s just not the path I am on. I’m not here to become the next overnight success. Like Britney Spears, here and gone in seven years, have a breakdown and shave my head. I’m more interested in finding the listener who identifies with my music.

The Grammy recognition must have been exciting.

I was considered in five categories. You are considered and then they drop it down to the five nominees. I was not a nominee, but just to be in that group was an honor. That absolutely increased awareness and the footprint we had.

Was that your first album?

That was my first full-length. Before that I released an 8-track EP in 2010.

Have your heard yourself on the radio?

I’ve heard it on Pandora and Internet radio. I got a little bit of broadband play with my Christmas song on 102.5. And WECK gives my new album spins quite frequently. That’s always a cool thing.

Where do people come to hear you play?

That’s an interesting thing. I used to do frequent engagements at smaller venues. Now I have been doing more fundraisers and charitable functions. On May 21 I will be at the Lewiston Stone House at a fundraiser for JDRF, (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) from 2 to 6 p.m. I’m doing another for Habitat for Humanity on June 23 at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center from 6 to 9 p.m. If anyone needs to know where I’m playing, they can look on my website. I’m sure once the summer festivals pick up, there will be a lot more to announce

Do you know where you want to be in the future? Is it as a performer or as a teacher?

I can’t choose between education and performance. I am a musician between the time I wake up and the time I go to sleep. My goal for the future is just to continue sharing my music with people that appreciate what I create. If that can take me to the radio and other places, that’s fantastic, but if it doesn’t, I’m not going to change how I’m writing and what I am doing.

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To hear Custode’s music or find out where she is performing you can go online at www.ChristinaCustode.com.

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. email: nfischer@buffnews.com