When Greg Zabel auditioned to enter the UCF music program, the song he played on his upright bass was the 1940s standard “In the Mood” made famous by bandleader Glenn Miller.
After Zabel walks across the stage Thursday at one of UCF’s six commencement ceremonies, he’ll have a week to pack his suitcase and fly to Cincinnati to start his professional music career – touring with today’s Glenn Miller Orchestra.
“There are probably 250 professional college programs nationwide that would like to see their students have this opportunity,” said Jeff Rupert, UCF’s director of jazz studies. “He’s come from a novice to an accomplished and versatile musician. It is difficult, but the ingredients for this kind of success stem from focus, discipline and getting pertinent information through the UCF curriculum.”
Zabel said he’s psyched about becoming the group’s bass player. After recently hearing about the job opening, he contacted the band and discovered it was coming to Orlando for a concert. “I auditioned when they were in town and they offered me the job!”
Zabel, an Orlando native and graduate of Dr. Phillips High School, first started playing piano at 8, took up guitar and trumpet at 11, and picked up the bass when he was a 16-year-old sophomore in the school’s jazz band.
“When I applied to UCF, I chose bass as my main instrument after I realized it was the one I was best at,” he said. “Plus, I love the sound and the role the bass plays in any ensemble.”
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A big part of the audition process is what potential the instructors see in students.
What they saw in Zabel was “a willingness to learn and develop despite inexperience,” said Richard Drexler, who teaches jazz bass.
“As teachers, a large part of our task is fostering a hunger for knowledge, rather than disseminating specific knowledge,” Drexler said “When a student such as Greg exhibits that outlook, the future holds promise.”
Zabel said his time at UCF has exposed him to different genres of music – jazz combos, big bands, classical bands and orchestras – which has required him to learn and use different skills.
“He did triple duty at the recent UCF Celebrates the Arts festival,” said Jeff Moore, director of the School of Performing Arts. Zabel played in a combo at an opening-night reception, in the symphony orchestra performance of music by composer Phillip Glass, and then with the Flying Horse Big Band in Shakespeare Swings!.
“One of our goals is that the curriculum helps the students be competitive in the field and experience success when they graduate; Greg is an excellent example of that,” Moore said.
Zabel said his influences span all types of musicians, from upright bassist Ray Brown, to electric bassists Jaco and Felix Pastorius, guitarists Wes Montgomery, banjoist Béla Fleck, pianists Chick Corea and others.
“Although one might only be able to hear the influence of the bassists in my playing, I am nonetheless inspired by the other instrumentalists because of their general outlook on music and their blending of styles and cultures,” he said.
The biggest lesson Zabel said he is taking away from UCF is “how to become my own teacher.”
“Professors Jeff Rupert, Richard Drexler, Per Danielsson, Michael Hill and others have instilled in me processes by which to improve different aspects of my playing. They have also encouraged me to have a desire to discover new challenges and opportunities that will ensure I always grow as a musician.”
Because of that lesson, coupled with the visiting clinicians, composers and musicians “who told us why and how to work hard in order to succeed in music, I feel confident as I enter the ‘real world’ because of the knowledge they shared.”
Zabel will graduate during the commencement ceremony at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 7.