It's sixth-period wind ensemble. About 60 Snohomish High School students restless for winter vacation tune their instruments. A practice trill on the bells. Bleats from the French...

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It’s sixth-period wind ensemble. About 60 Snohomish High School students restless for winter vacation tune their instruments. A practice trill on the bells. Bleats from the French horns. Rude remarks between the trombones and trumpets.

And then a skinny man wearing a yellow “Livestrong” bracelet raises his baton.

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Music bursts out, the loud and brassy blast that opens the seasonal “Sleigh Ride,” complete with simulated horse clops and the spirited crack of a whip.

Pete Wilson, who has taught music in the Snohomish district for 23 years, grins. He hadn’t expected to be at school this day. He came straight from radiation treatment in Seattle just to pass out new sheet music to the students before they left for winter vacation.

His neck looks sunburned. The treatments, he later says, have left the inside of his throat equally seared. His students have had a substitute director since November.

The new piece is from the overture to the opera “Colas Breugnon” by Dmitri Kabalevsky. The music is beyond the abilities of many student musicians, the 51-year-old Wilson says, but not these kids. Many of them have taken his music classes since middle school.

Help for family

An account has been established to help Pete Wilson and his family. Contributions can be made at any Bank of America branch. Checks should be made payable to the “Benevolent Account for Pete Wilson.”

“Sleigh Ride” doesn’t tax the musicians or their director. It’s pure fun, the loping cadence and corny sound effects. When the last up-tempo notes are struck and someone in the back whinnies, Wilson goes on grinning.

“It’s nice to see you again,” he says.

A band director’s life is measured in performance dates. The jazz band played Oct. 25, the concert band three nights later. That was after surgeons had removed a swollen lymph node from Wilson’s neck and found it contained squamous-cell carcinoma. A cancerous tonsil was removed Oct. 18.

Wilson still thought he could go to Seattle for radiation and chemotherapy, race back to Snohomish and direct all five bands. When he realized that wasn’t possible, even for someone with as much energy as he possesses, he still managed to fit in one more performance of his jazz band on Nov. 13, two days before he started chemotherapy.

Parent Judy Lennard said Wilson tends to deflect credit for the bands’ success onto students. But she said he inherited a disorganized program and a neglected marching band.

Wilson, who has lived in Snohomish for 18 years with his wife, Barbara, and raised his two sons there, knew what the bands meant to the city. The marching band performs at football games, the pep band at basketball contests. The day after Thanksgiving, the band was in historic downtown Snohomish, welcoming Santa.

Wilson regularly arrived at school at 6:30 a.m. to rehearse the jazz band. He came back at night for marching-band rehearsals. When Snohomish teachers went on strike in 2002, Wilson stood across the street as the marching band practiced, waving his arms and shouting, directing the tubas one way, the clarinets the other.

“He’s a wild man,” Lennard says.

In October, when Wilson informed parents and families of his diagnosis and that he’d have to take time off, Lennard said that almost immediately, “an army of parents and community members wanted to be involved.”

At the end of the fall concert, Lennard took the stage and turned over to Wilson three shopping bags full of cards, gift certificates and checks.

Wilson’s wife, who works as an aide in the high-school library, says the community response has been “absolutely incredible.”

Doctors told Wilson that by this time, he’d be on a liquid diet and unable to swallow. He sees a measure of success in his ability to still eat solid food. Still, the outline of a feeding tube presses at the inside of his shirt. Cancer treatments have damaged his hearing and his saliva glands.

But what Wilson is worrying about are arrangements for spring concerts, band competitions and the class trip band members take every three years. Wilson ticks off the dates from memory: a jazz contest Jan. 29, a solo ensemble competition Feb. 5 and a performance for the symphonic band Feb. 8.

Lennard has tried to get Wilson to make contingency plans, in case he’s not able to be there. His reply is always the same.

“I’ll be here,” he says.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or