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Marching proudly from Carson High

Band director preparing for retirement looks back on career in high school music

By Jessica Garcia jgarcia@nevadaappeal.com

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 long.”

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 freshmen.

“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 years.

“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 weeks.”