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Music kids on tour throughout Valley

by Linda Hiller

When the Douglas High School Jazzcats and Madrigals go on their annual Holiday Breeze Tour of Carson Valley elementary schools, everyone sings a happy tune.

The tour is organized and run by DHS band teacher Bill Zabelsky, who has been teaching in the Douglas County School District for two decades.

“These are my favorite days of the school year,” said Zabelsky, or “Mr. Z” as the kids call him. “When we go on tour in the winter with the Holiday Breeze Tour and in the spring with the Whirlwind Tour, I love it because I actually get to see my students’ faces and their reactions to how the grade school kids see them and love them.”

Many of the schools report the two assemblies as the favorites of both teachers and students.

At Jacks Valley Elementary School, teacher Sue Worthen, who carpooled to work with Zabelsky in the late 1970s when they both began teaching in the district, said the concerts are always a highlight for her.

“The best part is spotting the kids we had here, and seeing how they’ve grown,” she said.

Mark Paloolian, longtime 4th grade teacher at JVES, said his students anticipate the concerts with enthusiasm.

“It’s great. These concerts give the students something to aim for as they go through the school system, too,” he said. “It’s a special treat to hear the music and know that our students may someday achieve that.”

C.C. Meneley Elementary School Principal Brian Frazier said the assembly is optional for teachers and students at his school.

“No one would ever miss it, though,” he said. “The kids get all riled up and it gives us a chance to teach them podium etiquette – where they don’t start clapping until after the conductor has stepped away from the podium.”

– Elaborate preparations. Zabelsky has been taking his high school musicians on the spring tour for 14 years and the holiday tour for seven years.

Each two-day tour involves a lot of preparation on the part of Mr. Zabelsky and the students. He gets the numbers taught and polished, coordinates precise performance schedules with the six Carson Valley elementary schools, reserves the equipment truck and school bus, and makes sure the singers and players are OK with missing up to two days of school.

Then, the morning of the tour, a final rehearsal takes place before 7 a.m., and after that, the 30 jazz band members and 14 Madrigal singers put on their costumes – Renaissance-era clothing for the singers, black tuxedo-like wool band costumes for the jazz musicians, and don’t forget the notorious brown monk robe for Mr. Zabelsky.

Not phased by light-hearted references of his resemblance to Friar Tuck in the costume (“I shave my head to make it more realistic,” he jokes), Zabelsky always wears this brown hooded robe – made by the mother of one of a student years ago. During performances, he often twirls the green rope belt like Charlie Chaplin, strolling around bouncily as the band plays on its own.

As they arrive by bus at the first school, the musicians become a roadie crew and scurry out of the bus to unload the equipment truck of what must be thousands of pounds of equipment and instruments, and set up the stage.

– You are there. Last Thursday and Friday, almost every Carson Valley grade school student was treated to the music of the Holiday Breeze Tour.

As the Madrigals filed in to start the show with “Here We Come A-Caroling” in a style that, by itself, demanded silence, the singers immediately grabbed the attention of the excited, squirmy youngsters filling each school’s gym or multi-purpose room.

The “big kid” Madrigals also perform songs including “Sing with Joy,” “Silver Bells,” “Deck the Halls,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” (otherwise known as “The Gloria Song,”), “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Throughout this vocal performance, many young audience members – surely future Madrigal singers – sit transfixed, mouthing the words to familiar songs.

– Here comes the band. When the Jazzcats take over, the room fills with the lively sounds of brass, woodwind, piano and the jazzy drum beat. They start with an energetic “Frosty the Snowman,” which gets the children clapping and singing along.

They move on to songs including “Winter Wonderland,” “Let it Snow,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and by the time “Jingle Bells” hits the first note, the kids are in a frenzy, practically yelling the words to the song.

As “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” begins and those musicians not performing that number move out into the crowd looking for dance partners, nearly every child’s hand shoots up and waves vigorously to volunteer.

– Alumni return. Throughout each 40-minute concert, the enthusiasm of the children buoy up the musicians, just as Zabelsky predicted.

“We even got asked for our autographs,” said Jennifer Zabelsky, a 1999 DHS graduate and (surprise!) active member of the music department while at the school. She and a few other 1999 graduates, all now attending UNR, took a break from finals to came see some of the Holiday Breeze Tour for “old times’ sake.”

“I remember it was fun playing, but tiring, traveling from school to school,” said Andy Patrick, also a 1999 DHS graduate and current student at UNR. “These kids were the best audiences.”

Nick Agosta, another returnee, said he missed going on the tours each year.

“College is really different,” he said. “It’s nice to come back and see the Madrigals and jazz band.”

All three of those returning alumni are music education majors.

– Will it continue? “I am concerned, because we’re not getting as many students starting into the program, since we now do music for six months and art for the next six months,” Zabelsky said. “After my seniors leave this year, I’m going to take a big hit.”

At Scarselli, music teacher Per Rasmussen, said the concert toursby the DHS musicians is a great motivator for his band and vocal students, but he wonders if it’s enough.

“I’m afraid that in three to four years, Z will begin to feel the pinch,” he said. “This year I only have 16 students here – they are all very good, but when they have six months away from music, it’s hard to keep them practicing.”

– One giant rehearsal. One of the most tangible benefits for the musicians after repeating their concert six times in two days, is the intense rehearsal it provides.

“The tour really gives them a chance to perform, so we always do it before the concert, and by the time of the concert they’ve got it down,” Zabelsky said. “By the last school, we’re so tired, but it’s perfect.”

– You’re invited. The annual DHS Christmas concert, this year billed as Millennium Magic, will be held tomorrow evening, Dec. 16, starting at 7:30 p.m.

The entire music department – the Nightingale singers, Image choir, Madrigals, Jazzcats and the concert band will perform. Zabelsky and vocal teacher Kirsten Gleissner will direct.

A $3 donation per person admission is requested, and reserved seat tickets for $5 each are available through Zabelsky. For more information, call the school, 782-5136.