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Zephyrhills High band rallies and relies on community


The Tuesday morning band class had Zephyrhills High director Russell Schmidt asking his kids to dig deep. They'd just finished a quick run-through of the theme from Chariots of Fire, an upbeat piece they would march to in the Pasco County Fair Parade and were having a little trouble switching gears to a more somber selection called Blessed Are They from A German Requiem.

"Don't let go of that note. It's a memory you want to hold on to," Schmidt urged his students before bringing the practice to an abrupt halt.

"It's too bubbly. Too bright," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Put your instruments down and close your eyes," he said, softening his voice. "Now think of something sad. Think of someone who died. Think of a pet that died. How does that make you feel?"

"That's what a requiem is," he said as some sniffled and a flute player in the front row wiped away tears.

"It's emotional."

• • •

The Zephyrhills High School band is having its 60th birthday this school year. There's no big gala planned — just the usual array of parades, evaluations and concerts. Marching season, concert season with jazz band in the mix.

Sixty years might not seem an extraordinary milestone, especially with plans under way for the school's 100th anniversary next year.

Still, what might be considered remarkable is that Schmidt, 47, is just the third to direct the school band, and he's aiming to stick around.

"I have the best job at the best high school in the county," he says.

Besides, sticking around was the deal, so to speak, when Schmidt's predecessor, Paul Steuart, handed him the baton 12 years ago.

"The one thing Paul told me before he left," Schmidt said, "was that I had to stay until I retired — or at least for 24 years."

Not a problem. Especially when you're teaching kids who want to be in your class.

There's another appeal of teaching at a small-town school that's been attended by many a student's parents and grandparents, too. Here, school bands regularly perform for Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs and at grand openings for local businesses that, in turn, offer their hearty and often, financial support.

"We have a lot of community support here," said principal Gerri Painter. "We have a very unique atmosphere that lends itself to people really developing a bond. Many teachers have stayed and completed their whole career here."

That would be Schmidt's plan.

"I fell in love with Zephyrhills," said Schmidt, who graduated from Gulf High in 1980. "It's still a fairly comfortable small town. It reminds me of what New Port Richey was like 20 to 25 years ago."

"Zephyrhills High is a community school. There aren't many of those left."

"I think it's just a good place to work," said Steuart, 70. "The community has always been extremely supportive and that makes it a nice place."

• • •

Longevity is a tradition started in 1948 when John T.V. Clark, a trumpet player from Lakeland who was just back from navigating on a B-24 bomber in World War II, came to Zephyrhills to oversee the junior and high school bands.

Clark, a highly trained musician known for keeping his lip up by playing jazz riffs on his daily commute from Lakeland to Zephyrhills, set a high standard. He started from scratch, lobbying for uniforms and more instruments for a band of about 20 students and writing a new halftime show every week. Wise off and you'd run laps. Chew gum in his class and you'd wear it on your nose.

"He could play everything," said Luann Gore, a former band student whose mother and uncle played during Clark's early years. "He would be directing and playing piano with his left hand, trumpet with his right hand and tapping out rhythms on the bass drum with his left foot," said Gore, who now teaches chorus at Zephyrhills High.

In his spare time he moonlighted, said his widow, Jo Clark, often playing in local back-up bands when stars such as Mel Torme, Vic Damone and Patty Page came to town.

Clark's tenure ended in 1971 after he brought in Steuart, an old friend and tuba player who'd grown up in Tampa. Clark opted to teach junior high and turned the high school band over to Steuart, who implemented the tradition of taking trips every two years to perform in festivals and at events in Washington, D.C., and upstate New York.

"The idea there," said Schmidt, "was to make sure that after the kids left here, they would have been on two trips: one more local and at least one out-of-state."

Schmidt, who took over in 1997, is a trumpet player who still follows many of his predecessors' traditions while establishing his own imprint.

While working toward his master's degree, he has pressed forward with technology by establishing a sound engineering class and still uses big band arrangements Clark wrote years ago.

And while Schmidt sees the concert band as the main focus, he is adamant about keeping those marching band trips going. This year he had his students stretch some more by learning and performing two different halftime shows.

"That was fun," said clarinet player Amy VanCuren, 17.

"That's the neat thing," Schmidt said. "Kids can have fun and try so many different things here. We know that they're not all going to go on to be professional musicians. Maybe one or two will. But the average kid finishes here and looks back at a lot of fun memories."

Sixty years' worth.

Listen, read up

•Want to hear the Zephyrhills High Band play Chariots of Fire, Blessed Are They and a variety of selections from the concert and jazz bands? Then plan on attending the Spring Band Concert at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 in the school's activity center.

• To read more about the history of Zephyrhills High, go to

•To read testimonials from former students of Zephyrhills High band director John T.V. Clark, go to

Zephyrhills High band rallies and relies on community 02/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 3:08pm]
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