By Andrew Rogers
Canalside Chronicles Staff
McDonell (left) and his band mate Michael Bracci (right) record in McDonell’s studio
By day Ryan McDonell teaches art to disabled and at risk students. By night he plays guitar in his heavy metal band, Where Machines Die.
Starting in the early 1990’s, McDonell became heavily invested in the Rochester metal scene. Although few videos and audio clips are available, McDonell’s first band, Bug House, was a popular thrash metal band in the 90’s. In 1993, Bug House released its debut album on Watchmen Records. “We sold out The Water Street Music Hall on our release night,” said McDonell.
“You remember that band Staind from the 90’s?” McDonell asked, “We were the first band to get thanked on their album because their singer was about to give up and we went fishing with his dad and talked him into coming back and finishing a show.”
The exhausting tour schedule eventually got to McDonell and made him rethink his career goals. “We toured extensively. That’s what made me go back to college. I got burned out sleeping on floors,” McDonell said.
At the age of 25, McDonell returned to college at The College at Brockport to pursue a career in education. He then finished his master’s degree at Nazareth College where he taught for five years. After that he went on to teach art at Brockport High School where he continues to teach today.
The students at Brockport regard McDonell as one of their favorite teachers. In 2014 he was recognized in the school’s yearbook as the teacher of the year. One student said he liked McDonell because “he understands our generation and isn’t a stuck up teacher like everybody else is.”
Another student, Dylan Vergari described how McDonell education extends beyond the classroom, something that McDonell himself has said is one of his goals as a teacher.
“He is always trying to teach us more than just school but more about life and being a good person to everyone. And he sees things from all perspectives making it easy for him to learn,” Vergari said.
McDonell’s ability to put himself in the shoes of others is what makes him a perfect fit to teach disabled and at risk students. His work with these students is what he says is the most satisfying part of his job.
McDonell works in a program called BASE, which is a program for at risk students. Students in BASE may be homeless, pregnant, addicted to drugs or suffering from domestic abuse at home. McDonell describes them as “A great bunch of kids just dealt a very rough hand”.
In his classroom McDonell focuses on promoting six things: higher level learning, questioning, extensive problem solving, not holding back the truth, open discussion and, most importantly, creating a relaxing environment. “I know they’re under so much pressure so I try to work with those students” McDonell said.
As well as working in the BASE program, McDonell is the only art teacher at Brockport High School who works in the 12-1-1 program which helps kids who have mental or physical disabilities. The program is just as rewarding for the teacher as it is the student McDonell said, “The thing these kids will do will amaze you.”
The most gratifying moment in his career, both in music and in education, came from working with students with disabilities. McDonell recalled the moment with a smile on his face, “One lady wrote me an email that said her son with cerebral palsy came home with a smile for the first time in 17 years because of his art project.”
McDonell’s life as a musician is not over. He still plays guitar in his band Where Machines Die. Where Machines Die does not perform live but finding the balance between teaching and creating music is still difficult. “It’s draining, I’m really exhausted a lot of the time and then I have to find time for the music” McDonell said.
Where Machines Die have one album released, Rust Belt Blues. The band has an album in the works that is nearly finished, but McDonnell was reluctant to release the title or give a time frame for when it will be released. Rust Belt Blues is available on Spotify, Apple Music and Bandcamp.
Twenty years after leaving the touring life behind him, McDonell has no regrets, saying that “I feel it’s important to work in Brockport. I feel like the culture, we keep working on it. It’s become a better and nicer place to work. The students are more and more accepting of everything. From transgender students to gay students. There’s not a lot of mockery.”