Dan Pepper’s love for music is as clear as his admiration for two of his Augustana College professors. Currently the music director at Sudlow Intermediate School in Davenport, Iowa, and the youth choir director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Pepper speaks with pride at calling Dr. Michael Zemek and Dr. Jon Hurty colleagues these days.
A 2009 Augustana graduate, Pepper sang in the Augustana Choir under Dr. Hurty all four years at Augie, and Dr. Zemek was his faculty advisor.
“I enjoyed working with both of them and seeing them as educators,” he said. “That sort of pushed me into really wanting to be a good choral director and music educator.”
In fact, in 2010 he replaced Zemek—who, moving to a role with another church, recommended Pepper—as the youth choir director at St. Paul Lutheran Church. There, Pepper worked alongside Hurty, who was director of the adult choir at the time.
“Having first seen him as an excellent student, it was particularly gratifying to me to work alongside Dan in a professional position,” said Hurty. “He had developed into this confident and mature choral director. It’s exciting to see firsthand the development of young music educators as they move into their professional lives.”
Pepper, who received his master’s in music education from Northern Iowa University in 2016, has been the music director at Sudlow Intermediate School since 2011. Zemek has called Pepper’s approach “hugely innovative, particularly in the middle-school setting.”
For one thing, Zemek said, “he’s built a whole curriculum with ukuleles, and has developed a cart to store the ukuleles and take them to classrooms. He’s even put the plans up online, and people are buying them.”
A former trombone player and drum major in high school, Pepper sees the voice as an instrument that’s a bit more personal than other instruments.
“I see the importance of not only offering students an opportunity to sing but to also learn an instrument. Not every student likes to sing. Their voice is their instrument and kids can feel insecure if they are not strong singers. Putting ukuleles into these students’ hands opens up their willingness to try.”
With kids, he tries different approaches at different levels. Breathing correctly and singing with a supported tone are two elements he stresses with eighth-graders. But he also wants to make sure they get enjoyment out of it, realizing that as they go further in choir, they will go deeper into the music theory, too.
“Students should walk away from a piece of music knowing that it is written for a reason, and there’s someone that put a pen to paper to express a musical idea,” he said. “The journey of discovering what that reason is—that is what I want students to walk away with.”
Working with young people, some of whom may become college-level music students, Pepper himself is becoming a mentor. Living in the Quad Cities, he has returned to Augustana to speak to current music education majors, and has mentored several during their student-teaching assignments at Sudlow Intermediate School.
As his former advisor Dr. Zemek said, “he’s still paying it back to us.”
Married to fellow Augie grad Melissa (Flowers ’09) Pepper, the couple has two boys.
Favorite class: Choral Conducting with Dr. Zemek
Favorite spot on campus: Larson Hall in Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts
Favorite off-campus spot: The Blue Cat in Rock Island