An ear for music

Community Music School provides comfort, support for MSU student


It was music that saved him. At two and a half years old, Evan Fiorella was in a car accident that left him in a coma.

It was unclear whether he would ever live a normal life.

Doctors told his mother, who also had lost her husband in the crash, he likely would be in a vegetative state — remaining unresponsive for the rest of his life.

Katie Stiefel / The State News

Video: An Ear For Music

But then his grandmother held him in her arms and sang made-up songs, and the music brought a faint smile to Evan’s face.

From then on, music was the answer.

It brought warmth to his mother’s heart to see her son belt “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at the age of 6.

It brought him closer to his stepfather as he carried him up the stairs of a local high school so he could get to music practice when he was 13.

Most importantly it brought him to MSU.

Now 21, Evan is a full-time pre-college student at the MSU Community Music School, or CMS. The school has designed a program specifically for him, allowing him to undergo music therapy for his speech and receive intensive daily music lessons.

“The prognosis was that he would live his life in a persistent vegetative state, with no ability to communicate through any means, with no ability to voluntarily control any part of his body,” said Evan’s mother, Ridgeville, Ontario, resident Alison Fiorella. “Nothing came back quickly or without extreme effort. But over all these years, those teeny, tiny gains have added up to some very remarkable abilities.”

CMS has given Evan a chance to turn his passion into a future. And MSU is giving CMS a chance as well, moving the school to an on-campus location and recognizing its importance to people, such as Evan.

“We have one of the leading early childhood music programs in the country,” said Dean of the MSU College of Music Jim Forger. “In terms of developing a whole range of schools for children, CMS is a major contribution.”

A new discovery
Even before the crash, Evan had a love of music instilled in him by his mother and father.

After the accident, music became the dominant force driving force in Evan’s life.

His stepfather, Chris Calaguiro, transformed their living room to a music room.

Teachers encouraged him from elementary to high school.

When Evan did not qualify to play in his high school band because he could not read music, his elementary school band leader created an Alumni Jazz Band, recruited Evan to play tambourine and took the group to perform for nursing homes in New York City.

When Evan was 13, Fiorella began looking for summer camps for her son in Ontario. Instead, she found what she was looking for in the Eric “RicStar” Winter Music Therapy Camp — 295 miles away in East Lansing.

On arrival, it was clear Evan had found his niche.

In the 13-year-old’s mind, the CMS provided a sense of camaraderie through music.

“I felt that I was in a community with special needs musicians,” Evan said.

It was there Evan first saw the pamphlets outlining the lessons CMS offered.

“Evan’s response was, ‘I wish we lived in Michigan,’” Fiorella said. “I think this is when he first began to imagine how great it would be to have access to the CMS all year long.”

A bright idea
Evan’s commitment to the camp grew along with his skills.

He began writing his own songs and composing the lyrics for the therapy camp’s theme song.

He attended the camp for eight years until he graduated from high school in 2011. Fiorella had searched numerous options for her son for after high school, but nothing felt right. So she asked her son.

“Evan responded that he wanted to go to Michigan and be a full-time student at the CMS,” Fiorella said. “I’ll never forget that moment. Here was Evan, seeing a possibility that the rest of us had overlooked.”

During camp, Evan had formed a lasting friendship with Cindy Edgerton, the director of music therapy clinical services at CMS.

The two began making music together during his second summer at camp.

“We had a connection right from when we first met,” Edgerton said. “He is able to celebrate his abilities so much through music. When he’s in a group, he can communicate without hesitation through that. Music helps with the nonverbal aspects of his speech — we’re working to help his timing, and his pronunciation has shown improvement.”

Calaguiro embraced his stepson’s new adventure — volunteering to travel and stay with Evan while he was in East Lansing.

“To witness firsthand Evan not only attending CMS, but also succeeding at school is huge,” Calaguiro said. “Too huge for me to describe in words.”

The big move
Despite the geographical distance between the school and their home in Ontario, Fiorella and Calaguiro took Evan’s dream and quickly made it a reality.

During the school year, Calaguiro lives full-time with his stepson at Staybridge Suites, a extended-stay hotel in Okemos, which Evan jokingly calls his dorm room.

“We go shopping and make most of our food. The best part is we can eat pie late at night, and Alison can’t do anything about it,” Calaguiro said.

CMS has had its own move as well.

After 20 years of providing music services to Greater Lansing, the school officially opened the doors to its new on-campus facility, paid for by MSU, at 4930 S. Hagadorn Road on Jan. 20.

The move came as a result of an expired building lease at the school’s former location on Timberlane Road, but Rhonda Buckley, the school’s executive director, said she has high expectations for program expansion.

“We can better integrate into the life of the university and collaborate with some of the other partners on campus,” Buckley said. “The new building will allow us to have even more student involvement.”

Evan has maintained his passion for music in spite of the distance from his mother and two younger brothers.

“Evan loves music,” Calaguiro said. “He plays his piano at least an hour every day, and, if time allows, he plays much longer.”

Fiorella said her son is in good hands.

“Chris has been a key element to bringing ‘life’ back into Evan’s life,” she said. “Where I may have an idea, Chris is the action that brings ideas to reality. He thinks outside of the box and sees endless possibilities.”

When it comes to dedication, Edgerton said she saw it in Fiorella’s family right from the start.
“They are in it forever,” she said. “They don’t want Evan to miss out on anything, and it is amazing what they do.”

A bright future
As a pre-college student, Evan carries a full courseload of music-related classes at CMS.

His program, the first of its kind at the school, involves various music therapy classes meant to improve his speech and music abilities.

He also is involved in planning events such as jam sessions for students and bringing CMS students to nursing homes.

CMS has expanded its reach within the MSU community as well, forging relationships with local organizations, such as The Ten Pound Fiddle and the East Lansing Film Festival.

“The more we open up, the more we broaden the services we have available, the more people we’re able to reach,” Edgerton said. “It’s not just for people with special needs. We need to open our eyes to people and allow them to express themselves and to accomplish their own goals.”

Forger said as long as music remains important on campus, so will CMS.

“Music is a part of everyone’s life to one degree or another,” he said. “It’s is one of those intangible qualities that enhances the life of most people in different ways.”

As for Fiorella, she said her son’s future through the CMS has taught her a thing or two about her own life.

“Through Evan, I have learned to hang on to dreams,” she said. “For us, the CMS is a place where dreams come true.”

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