10 hands, one family never too many instruments

Posted: Sunday, December 26, 2010

The first time I saw the Zahasky family, I was outside a friend's house watching our three young children fight over two tricycles.

Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

Actually, I didn't see the Zahaskys as much as I heard them - string band music, unmistakably live, wafting from a neighbor's house. I looked for the source: people of various sizes jumping on a trampoline, while simultaneously playing guitar, fiddle and mandolin; an adolescent boy in a top hat sat on a wooden chair, bowing a huge double bass.

My next encounter, I didn't even hear them - I heard about them, several summers ago, when we sent a visiting friend hiking up, then tramming down, Mt. Roberts.

"Dude!" he exclaimed into his cell phone. "There's a family band playing bluegrass up here - and they totally wail!"

Over the next year, I learned bits and pieces about them. That same friend hired Paul Zahasky, father of the family, to dig a foundation - he runs a side excavating business - and they got to talking. The kids, it turned out, were homeschooled. The band was part of the homeschooling. They'd just bought a tour bus and were planning dates throughout the Lower 48.

I was intrigued, and - I'll admit it - a little creeped out. We've all heard stories about the Jackson Five, the Partridge Family, the Von Trapp Family Singers. I remember this other family band that played in the Times Square subway station, in sequined costumes no less, the parents violently happy, the older kids wearing expressions like they wished a hole would open up and swallow them.

So when I got the opportunity to interview the Zahasky family in advance of their annual New Year's Day concert - they perform as the Alaska String Band - I jumped at it.

The Zahasky compound oozed Christmas. Seriously. It was like something out of Alaskan Homes magazine, the holiday issue. The family trickled down one by one: Paul, his wife Melissa and their children, Laura, 19, Quinn, 16, and Abby, 13. They all play guitar, some also play fiddle, mandolin and banjo, everyone sings and Quinn plays bass (though he's replaced the top hat with a newsboy cap).

Various instruments hung on the wall, including a teeny fiddle - the family "training" fiddle, I discovered - several guitars perched in floor stands by the Christmas tree and a double bass practically seated at the dining table.

Within minutes, they produced fresh-brewed coffee and cookies - on china plates, no less. We all started talking about snow, the Alaska Folk Festival, some ridiculous project I was happy to get a break from. I almost forgot what I was doing there.

Turns out, the Zahaskys aren't creepy at all. They're just a bunch of really nice people who genuinely enjoy spending time together. Here's the story (quick version):

Paul and Melissa met in 1980 playing music "to accompany a singing Christmas tree." Within five years they married, moving into their house in 1987 - now a several story decorator's dream - back when it was a one-room cabin. Then they procreated.

Though Melissa was a professional music teacher and always dreamed of playing music with her children, she was careful not to push it on them.

"Mom and dad were always playing, and I wanted to be part of it," said Laura of her choice to pursue lessons at age 10.

"The best way to get a kid to play an instrument," said Paul, "is to lay it on the couch and then tell him not to touch it."

Quinn chose bass the way most bassists do: the band needed one. At 10, he was too short to play the upright, so he began on an electric. Abby started playing fiddle when she was eight.

"I felt left out," Abby said. Apparently, she also stole Quinn's banjo and mandolin, and soon learned to play those, too.

Eventually, the family started playing gigs - at churches, AFF and the Gold Creek Salmon Bake - as "a way to teach the kids how to use music, and that people are grateful for it."

Looking for family-friendly venues, the Zahaskys approached Mt. Roberts Tramway, which hired them to play at the upper terminal 3-4 times a week during summer. When fall came, they were sad to stop performing. So they saved up, bought an old tour bus and in 2006 toured coffee houses and churches down south.

"It wasn't long before we saw we could all play music full time," said Melissa. "And we knew we had a limited window."

In 2008, as a family, the Zahaskys decided to take it to the next level.

Now they tour five months out of the year, play around Alaska during the summer and spend the holidays in Juneau.

While at home, they practice all over the house, mostly spontaneously.

"We do vocal harmonies in the entry way," said Laura of the only "designated" rehearsal space. "The acoustics are good, but also there's nothing to throw in there."

"We call it the room of death," said Abby.

"We have plenty of fights," explained Quinn, "but they never last long."

"Because it works out that mom's always right," said Melissa.

"Being a family is primary," said Paul. "Music is secondary. Essentially, we're saying that we like each other; music's just how we say it."

The Alaska String Band performs its annual community concert at 7 p.m. on Saturday, at Holy Trinity Church. Tickets are available at Hearthside Books, Rainy Retreat Books and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. Children under 18 are free.

• Geoff Kirsch is a professional writer. View more of his work at www.geoffkirsch.com.

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