The people who know Carson High School’s band director best still get a little stumped when someone else asks for “Mr. Zabelsky.” He’s simply “Mr. Z” or just “Z” in his own e-mail signature.
“Mr. Z was my music teacher
when I went to Gardnerville Elementary School long, long ago, so I still have a
tough time calling him by his first name because he will always be Mr. Z to
me,” Principal Gavin Ward said. “He has a heart for music, teaching and
students. It is a huge commitment to lead a band program at a large
comprehensive high school. It is amazing that he has done this for so
Bill Zabelsky didn’t realize he wouldn’t get to play that last great concert when Gov. Steve Sisolak called for the closure of Nevada’s schools in March due to COVID-19. But looking back on the program he’s developed at CHS in the past eight years and on his career in music in nearly 42 years, he’s set to retire at the end of the school year in a few weeks, and he’s still ready to end the year confident that he’s made a difference for students in Douglas County and Carson City.
“Ever since the ninth grade, I’d wanted to be a band
director, and I’ve been living the dream, and now part of me says get the hell
out,” he said with a laugh.
Zabelsky began teaching in March 1979. He spent the majority
of his career leading the Douglas High School Fighting Tiger Marching Band, the
final ensemble of students that he unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to
say goodbye to once he resigned before arriving at Carson in 2013, he said.
“I walked into Carson … and it gradually got to the point
where it was my program, and we did it pretty well,” he said.
He abandoned the traditional manner of march, adopting some
new techniques and an Eastern style that became his trademark, he said. Since
then, the program at CHS has grown stronger. After two years, Zabelsky added
another ensemble and cadet band, and this year, the cadet band included only
“Music is back at Carson,” he said.
His career always be more than just about the music. It’d be
dedicated to making sure his students would be disciplined, developing pride in
themselves and discovering what they could become through music.
“They learned to cooperate, and they had to focus,” he said.
“They needed to be accountable to everyone else. They had to work on their own.
My favorite one is passion; they had to be passionate in what they were doing.
With the Christmas concert this year, the wind ensemble wasn’t real happy with
their performance. They knew it, I knew it that they could have played better.
It was a real lesson that you can’t take things for granted.”
Mr. Z did pass on his love for music education to others.
Jacob Richetta, who was a drum major under Zabelsky as a student at Carson but
is now a freshman at the University of Nevada, Reno, said he always felt he
could always go to him for any question he had about theory.
“He was always really fun and funny in class,” Richetta
said. “He always wanted his ensembles to be the best they could, and I started
where the program was mediocre, and at the end of my senior year, it was where
the jazz band and ensemble were getting two-star ratings. But the wind ensembles
were always the best and the marching band is where he put his heart and soul …
and he was known, in his time at Douglas, for being the marching band king.”
Zabelsky wanted to develop a program the school would be
proud of, and there were moments that will always stand out along the way, he
said. This year, the Blue Thunder Marching Band was chosen to play in the
Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco for a third consecutive year, and
while they were still awaiting for results from this year, last year the band
placed first and second. Moments like playing “Jubilateo” by Samuel Hazo when
his percussion section stood out or performing pieces like “Stars and Stripes
Forever” also speak to what his bands are capable of and mold them into solid
units, he said.
Zabelsky was named the state’s top music teacher by the
Nevada Music Educators Association in 2013 prior to leaving Douglas. He credits
many along the way for the success he’s had at both schools throughout the
“I just thought being a band director would be glorious,” he
said. “I’m a head band geek, and it’s been quite exciting. Time flies. There
are times when you think, ‘Is Friday ever going to get here?’ But somebody said
if you like what you’re doing, you never work a day in your life, and that’s
pretty accurate.’ ”
Raynell Heaton, treasurer of the school’s band boosters and
a grandmother with a grandson in the wind ensemble, said she was close to the
clarinet section, helping Zabelsky by substituting for him as needed because it’s
a challenge to find anyone willing to do so for a music teacher.
“He has so much knowledge,” he said. “He knows so much about
creating a successful ensemble. It’s an amazing group and his younger bands
were coming up and moving on. He’s been talking about retiring for a while, and
I’d always say, ‘No, Bill, you can’t retire, you can’t leave!’ ”
Heaton said his strength was in showing the students what
they’re capable of as musicians and young adults.
“Some kids are more serious about music than others,” she
said. “Some kids are there just because they like band and that’s great, and
then some really want to become band directors and he’s been a really good
resource. From my perspective, he does a really job showing them what they can
do. He doesn’t stand over them and say do this and this.”
Ward said he would miss Zabelsky’s musical repertoire echoing through the high school’s halls.
“His work has impacted
thousands of students in a positive manner and in creating a love of music,”
Ward said. “I will miss seeing him lead our fantastic jazz band when they
perform in Senator Square in the mornings before school starts during spirit