Our People: Allison Zanelli

By Jill Nicholas

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Allison Zanelli
Allison Zanelli

We're tempted to think Allison Zanelli was born with two pairs of hands . . . one the delicate set that are a pianist's trademark, the other those of a sculptor made for mucking about in cement.

Polar opposites as the two are, Allison's a whizz at both.

She's taught music, accompanied and performed in Rotorua for aeons and more recently, made "a bit of pocket money" out of her garden art branded Uniquely Yours New Zealand.

Here's another Allison Zanelli incongruity; her initials bookend the alphabet.

There's more to come . . . her second name's May, M of course marking the mid-point of the letter spectrum and by another quirk of fate her late husband, Antonio Mario Zanelli, shared the same character grouping.

Such double paring must surely border on the unique.

That's a word we're going to repeat because we can find no better to glove-fit this talented person whose artistic abilities were acknowledged recently with a Zonta Woman of Achievement award.

Chatting with her post-presentation, we find a life story that's a smorgasbord of pathos and joy, the kind writers crave to create but tend to fall into the trap of being mawkish.

Allison would be appalled if we let sentimentality govern the telling of her tale. Wallowing in a past that left her a widow in her 30s isn't her style.

Our compass points for navigating our way through this realist's life are the archives she's rigorously kept as her life unfolds. As we move from topic to topic she dashes off, returning with arm loads of era-relevant memorabilia.

A 'f'instance' is her first sheet music, bought with money earned at her after-school job in McKenzie's Tutanekai St variety store.

Although crumbling, she still shows it to students to demonstrate the art of recognising melody.

That's how she learned to play. "I'd pick out as much as I could until the melody registered."

Allison was self-taught until the music teacher mother of a McKenzie's colleague took her on.

For accuracy's sake there had been another before her; "A raging alcoholic, my father traded an old car for my piano lessons, but he shot through in that car so they were short-lived."

Speaking of Allison's dad we back-track to her birth; she came close to being born on a bus.

"My mother had been staying with Dad's mum in Hastings and went into labour on the bus back to Waipawa, I arrived just after it was diverted to the hospital. "I've been a gypsy traveller ever since."

Her first move came at two weeks when her family took on an 80-acre block at Awhitu, but without bridging finance, breaking in the land broke the bank.

"Dad walked us off when I was about 8 and joined the Farm Labour Scheme."

Ngongotaha was his second positing; Allison's musical career began there.

"My teacher in Standard 3 or 4, John Brinkler, taught me to read music and play the recorder."

As a foundation pupil at Sunset Intermediate, she joined the school band and taught herself the piano "by copying a girlfriend who had lessons."

In her first year at Western Heights High she was school pianist and played with the teenaged Sulphur City Swingers.

"We practised in a Fordlands garage, were in great demand, I thought I was so sophisticated in my homemade lurex dresses."

Despite failing school cert first time around "I found academic subjects boring", she made it into Hamilton Teachers' College and acquired her musical letters.

Shortly after setting sail on her OE the entertainment officer jumped ship, Allison took over as pianist and dancer "hiding away in the back row, but that more or less paid my passage."

Her homeward journey was far less glamorous, hitchhiking across Europe and Asia with an English man.

"We were strictly friends."

Reacquainting herself with New Zealand, she became an international award-winning encyclopaedia saleswoman, specialising in children's editions. "Being a teacher helped."

In that career's final stages she met Mario Zanelli, then working at the historic Brent's Hotel.
They married in 1980, on New Year's Day eleven years later he died in his native Italy.

Discovering his bowel cancer was inoperable, Allison insisted they and their two daughters, then 5 and 8, return to his birthplace.

"He was in denial, I said 'you must let your parents see you', we'd lived there 14 months with our first baby."

Some years earlier Mario and a friend opened Zanelli's, the restaurant that still carries his name.

When he died Allison's practical side took over. "I had to think of our kids, get our feet back on the ground." She returned to Girls' High where she'd previously taught, heading the music department.

At an inter-school Trivial Pursuits night two years after Mario's death she met Dave Matthews, head of Boy's High's maths department. "I didn't even particularly like Trivial Pursuits." They married in 2002.

Together they've taught English "to rich families' kids" at a Shanghai boarding school. . . "an amazing experience" and continue to travel widely.

Music and concrete work apart, her present passion's tutoring brain-injured clients at the Linton Park Community Centre.

We query if she has any undocumented regrets. "I'd loved to have been a concert pianist but realistically I didn't have the talent."

Which leaves us worrying why the diffident 'Mrs A to Z' fails to realises the full extent of the multi-talents she does have.

- Rotorua Daily Post

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