Sisters take family on European excursion with Iowa Ambassadors of Music

Two steps — upon entering the Mizerak home, that’s all it takes before you understand the importance of music to this family. In the dining room to the right of the entryway sit numerous instruments inside their cases. As you walk toward the kitchen, you can look to your right and tucked against the wall in the living room is a piano that showcases years of love from the three girls that honed their talents on the keys.

Bryon Tinder, Gilbert’s renowned high school band director, refers to the Mizeraks as a once-in-a-career family to have as students. Over the years, he’s taught more than a few musical savants, which makes his words about Aubrey, Gretchen, and Laurel Mizerak all the more impactful.

All three sisters — Aubrey was the first and is still the only four-year all-state band member prior to graduation from Gilbert in 2022, while identical twins Gretchen and Laurel will be juniors this fall who are on pace to join their sister as four-time all-staters — are talented musicians, that’s obvious to even a novice the moment Laurel sits at the piano and begins to play, or when Aubrey raises her bassoon, or when the clarinet comes to life in Gretchen’s hands. But talent is only part of this inspiring story. The other part is their passion for music, which radiates from their eyes as they speak. The smiles are contagious, and so are the laughs as they playfully banter with one another.

This is what they do. This is what they love.

All three started on the piano at a young age and they continue to take lessons to this day. In addition to the bassoon, Aubrey also plays the trombone, something she taught herself so she could join the Gilbert jazz band while in high school. Laurel and Gretchen can dazzle on the clarinet, while Laurel also plays the tenor saxophone and Gretchen dabbles on the trombone.

Yes … wow.

“Aubrey’s one of those kids you want to be the face of your program,” Tinder said. “She’s the kind of kid that affects the culture of your room in such a positive way and the other kids look up to her. And the twins are unbelievable musicians. Laurel has been first chair at all-state band twice … it’s just ridiculous how good they are.”

Now here’s the funny part: Parents Andrew and Krista Mizerak don’t play an instrument. Never have. Yeah, it makes the sisters and Krista chuckle as well when they talk about it.

“My mom and dad don’t play, but they gave me an appreciation of the arts,” Aubrey, who will be a sophomore in the fall at the University of North Dakota where she studies music therapy, said.

The talent the sisters possess recently allowed the entire family to experience a European trip with the Iowa Ambassadors of Music that left all five Mizerak members with enough memories to last a lifetime.

Fifteen days. Five countries. Numerous concerts with more than 200 other talented musicians from across the state and another 100-plus singers that made up the choir.

And playing music was only a small piece of what made the trip so memorable. As classically trained musicians, the sisters were able to explore areas where some of the world’s greatest composers were once stationed.

The sisters talked for more than an hour about everything they were able to see and do while on the trip. They reminisced. They laughed. They explained how special it was to do it as a family.

“We’re always a unit of five, so it was really special we were able to experience this lifetime trip together,” Gretchen said.

Tinder was the person who sent the Mizeraks on the path toward this trip when he nominated all three sisters for the Iowa Ambassadors of Music program in the spring of 2022. They received word that all three had been selected in March of 2023, which was followed by chair auditions in May and then a pre-camp at Grinnell College in early July prior to their departure on July 6.

Aubrey admits she was a little apprehensive since she’s a college student, but she quickly realized she was one of many post-high school graduates to make the trip.

“I was worried … but there were quite a few students going in their first, second, and third year of college. There were even a few going into their fourth year, so that was nice. There were people who I could relate to a little more.”

All three admitted it was somewhat intimidating in the beginning, being with that many musicians of different backgrounds and skill levels, most of whom were strangers. There’s a good chance many of those musicians felt that same way about the Mizeraks though.

“The quality of the musicians and choir members was really high, but it was so cool,” Krista said as she sat the head of the Mizerak dinner table with her daughters surrounding her. “But when you say intimidating, these two (pointing at the twins) do a lot of the intimidating by the nature of their skills.”

“Yeah, everybody knew Laurel because she was the first chair clarinet,” Gretchen added.

Following a lengthy flight across the pond, the trip began with a three-day stay in London, followed by a three-day stop in Paris. From there it was on to Crans-Montana, Switzerland for three more days, and three days in Rothenburg, Germany after that. The trip concluded with three days in Salzburg, Austria.

The highlights were many; too many to count, really.

A concert at Embankment Gardens in London was cut short because of rain, but that didn’t put a damper on the family’s time in the city. They took in a stage production of Les Misérables and toured some of London’s most famous settings.

A scorching hot concert in a park in Paris was also cut short due to the heat, and yet Gretchen’s eyes sparkle as she talks about dining at a small cafe near the Eiffel Tower.

“People were strolling around the park, so many of the locals just stopped by and listened to the concert,” Aubrey said about their time in Paris. “It definitely helped that we were outside everywhere because then people could come and watch.”

The short stint in Switzerland at the mountain town Crans-Montana was a favorite of the girls. They were also able to travel to Montreux, the home of the famous Montreux Jazz Festival.

And the castles. They were everywhere.

“The people in the towns knew about the whole ambassadors thing, so they came out and were singing along,” Gretchen said of the Switzerland concert. “I had to stop playing at one point because I was smiling so much.”

“It was standing room only for the Swiss concert,” Krista said.

The Swiss fondue party was a favorite as well.

“It was so fun,” Gretchen said. “They taught us to dance and it was just really neat.”

“That was probably everybody’s favorite place,” Aubrey chimed in.

Germany and it’s traditional architecture and unique culture didn’t disappoint either. It’s also where one of the most poignant moments of the trip occurred when the group visited the site of the concentration camp at Dachau. The choir was able to sing inside the chapel at Dachau and it left an impression on everyone.

“There was not a single dry eye inside that church,” Aubrey said. “It was such a good experience to visit there. We’re a whole continent away from the directness of what happened, so to actually see it was incredible.”

“It really resonated differently,” Gretchen said.

The final stop in Austria also held significant meaning for the Mizeraks, as they visited Vienna. They also got to see where The Sound of Music was filmed and visit some of the real landmarks of the von Trapp family.

But more than anything, all three sisters say what made the trip special was that they experienced it together. They bathed in the different cultures together and with like-minded musicians, many of whom they now call friends.

“It was nice to have something in common with everyone,” Laurel said. “A lot of times you think of a vacation and you think you’re going to lay around for a week, but there were so many things we got to see and experience. It was nice to put the phone down, stop, and take it all in.”

The plane, train, and bus rides. The concerts. The exploring. The … everything — was perfect.

“Music brings people together,” Gretchen said. “You could see that in all of the communities coming together, and us as musicians making connections with other kids and the advisors on the trip.”

“It was a once in a lifetime trip,” Aubrey said. “It really was.”