Faculty spotlight: Dr. Michael Zemek’s promotion is music to our ears


Linh Tran

Dr. Zemek, highest row, giving comments to a presenting student.

Kayla Palliser

When you walk alongside the construction and sealed off rooms of Bergendoff, you will find a door at the far end of the hall. Inside, neatly stacked papers cover most of the available desk space and post-it reminders cling to the edges of the computer. A few diplomas are mounted high up on the left wall above a filing cabinet, partially hidden behind extra office supplies. When you turn around to leave the office, framed photos of young children and a happy couple smile from behind the glass. It’s impossible to miss them — they are placed directly in the eyeline from the desk chair.

The name outside the door reads “Dr. Michael Zemek.”

Since he first walked through the door in 2004, Zemek has been a positive influence in the music department. Recently, Zemek was promoted to division dean of arts and communication, while still teaching music education classes and conducting Jenny Lind Choir. When he’s not teaching, he enjoys spending time with his wife and three daughters, cooking, exploring and being active in his church.

Zemek grew up in Saint Peter, Minnesota, where his community valued music. Since he was a student himself, Zemek has always sought out new challenges.

“I like a challenge. I got A’s in all my classes. The things that were hardest for me were music classes,” Zemek said. “It wasn’t the thing that I could easily do, but it was the thing that gave me the most satisfaction.”

A passion for music led Zemek to meet his wife when they were both counselors at a music camp in 1997. His wife, Dr. Sangeetha Rayapati, currently serves as mayor of Moline and works as professor of music and voice area coordinator in Augustana’s music department. Zemek and Rayapati serve their communities in different ways. 

“The way that she’s serving her communities and making a difference for people is her way,” Zemek said. “We support each other, but we make space for the other one to excel and do their thing.”

Zemek and Rayapati moved to the Quad Cities in 2001 when Rayapati was hired at Augustana, while Zemek finished his degree at University of Illinois. In 2004, Zemek applied for a part-time position at Augustana after teaching in Davenport for three years.

“They were looking for somebody, and we were having a baby and I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to take that part-time position. I’m going to take care of our kid and I’m going to write my dissertation,’” Zemek said. “And then as soon as I got the part time job, all of a sudden it grew into more and more.”

Since he first took the position in 2004, Zemek has served as a professor, conductor, department co-chair and now holds the title of division dean. Division deans act as the chief officers over their respective divisions. This position is new to the academic structure of Augustana, although it is typical elsewhere in the academic world. 

Last year, faculty members were asked to recommend a colleague for the new leadership position. Zemek received the majority of votes for the Arts and Communication division, which encompasses art, communication studies, music, theater arts and multimedia journalism and mass communication.

“When they sent out the job description for division dean, he immediately came to mind,” said Dr. Jacob Bancks, associate professor of composition and musicianship. “Somebody in this position can’t be in it for himself. He has to have the institution in mind. That’s what Michael is like. He’s here to serve, as opposed to serve himself.”

Similar to his role as a music education professor and conductor, as division dean Zemek works to care for a community of people, only on a larger scale.

“I’m a facilitator for the departments. I facilitate what they need to have happen through the administration and taking the administration back to the departments,” Zemek said. “I kind of think of teaching as facilitating, too. There are some innate connections there.”

Within the music department, Zemek has held many leadership positions. Many faculty members look to him as an example for leading a department or classroom successfully. Bancks currently serves as co-chair of the music department, a position Zemek previously held. 

“Being co-chair, I try to do things almost exactly like he did,” Bancks said. “I remember admiring how he did that job, and I often think about how I can do it in the same manner.”

Dr. Jon Hurty, director of choral activities, has worked closely with Zemek for 18 years. According to Hurty, they have gotten along well since they first met and show great respect for how the other approaches teaching. 

“I’ve observed the way he goes about doing things, and I’ve oftentimes used some of the techniques he uses in ensemble rehearsals,” Hurty said. “I would say I’ve learned from him through the way he approaches his work.”

Outside the classroom, Zemek is a self-proclaimed introvert. As a teacher, he becomes a more energized version of himself. 

“He’s a pretty relaxed person, and when he’s in front of an ensemble or in a classroom I think he has more outward energy,” Hurty said. “He knows how to work with students to demand a high level of achievement and do it in a way that’s positive, productive and effective.”

According to Zemek, the energy he brings to teaching comes naturally to him in the excitement of teaching.

“I don’t know where this energy comes from. It’s truly authentic, and it’s truly how I am. If I try to rein it in, it does not work, and I become inauthentic,” Zemek said. “I do think the students respond to it. But if it wasn’t real, you wouldn’t respond to it.”

A feeling of community draws many people to music. This is especially true for Zemek, who places a high value on community and active engagement.

“There’s a different response when people are in it,” Zemek said. “You can feel it, you can sense it, you can hear it.”

Zemek has been in charge of Jenny Lind Choir since he first came to Augustana nearly 20 years ago and has seen the ensemble evolve. He has been responsible for building and encouraging a strong feeling of community within the Jenny Lind ensemble.

“I hope that when people are in Jenny Lind, or any choir conducted, they’re there because they just need it somehow. There’s something in it that they’re drawn to and can be a part of,” Zemek said.

As a colleague and as a teacher, Zemek has a reputation for being positive and caring towards the people around him.

“He is somebody that has been a really integral part of our program here and it’s always been a positive experience for us to work together, partly because we get along well but partly because I know that he cares about the program, and he cares about the students, and he cares about the choirs to an extent that goes beyond what is required,” Hurty said.

The care Zemek shows the program and students is reflected in what Zemek values most on a daily basis. According to Zemek, he finds value in even the smallest moments of teaching.

“Every day, whether it be in class or rehearsal, there’s always that moment where something special happens, where either a student is shining or the choir is shining,” Zemek said. “That’s what I find great value in. It’s not about the day that I got tenure or got promoted.” 

Augustana has recognized his strong work ethic through promotions and leadership titles. While he enjoys leadership roles, titles are never what he’s worked towards. Most career chances he took were unplanned.

“I’ve learned that walking through the doors that open themselves – the greatest rewards come from that. I didn’t plan on being a college professor. I never planned on being a dean,” Zemek said. “Saying yes to the opportunities and then walking through that door, that’s where all of these things have come from.”