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FAU music professor guides students to success in the industry

It’s a chilly winter afternoon and students in light jackets walk in and out of the Arts and Humanities building. Eminent scholar and Professor of Music Michael Zager greets a few familiar faces in the hallway before walking inside the Commercial Music office.

Walking into Zager’s office is like walking into the Hit Factory. Gold and platinum plaques stand out from the walls.

“These all happened by accident,” says Zager of his mounted accomplishments. “Getting into the music industry was by pure fate.”

He is tall and thin, with brown and gray hairs combed straight back. His eyes are masked behind glasses and his smile is as graceful as the soft piano solo playing from his laptop. To some, he might appear to be as dry as the leaves on the trees around campus. But that is far from the truth. This is no ordinary man.

Zager holds the honored position of the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in Performing Arts at Florida Atlantic University. He also teaches Music Production, Writing Music for TV and Radio and Film Scoring at the Boca Raton campus. He teaches not just from knowledge, but from experience – lots of it.

Zager, now 65, was born in Passaic, N.J. He discovered his talent for music at an early age and began taking piano, oboe, bass and violin lessons in the third grade. In middle school, he and childhood friend Mike formed their first band.

“Our first gig was at a little girl’s birthday party. She was 10 and we were 12. We got our first $10 paycheck, and we were ecstatic,” he recalls.

After graduating from the University of Miami with a bachelor of arts degree in communication, Zager was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam war.

“I auditioned when I heard they needed an oboe player,” Zager says of his experience auditioning for the Army band. “I put the oboe in my mouth, but I couldn’t get a single squeak out of it,” he says laughing. “I hadn’t played it since high school. The only reason I got assigned was because I did very well on the ear test. And it saved me life, essentially.”

For the seven years that followed, Zager was assigned to a reserve unit at Fort Dix, N.J.

“I was in a tank unit and they didn’t have American tanks in Vietnam, so I stayed behind,” he says.

During the weekends, he would play with the National Guard band for the distressed soldiers.

“I was supposed to be killing people, but got lucky, I guess,” he says.

After getting out of the Army, Zager decided he wanted to be a composer.

"I was around many talented composers in my unit. I had a real love for the theatre, so when I got out, I started writing for theatre.” He made living playing gigs on the side with a promising jazz/rock band.

In 1968, Zager and the band, formerly known as 10 Wheel Drive, were signed to Polydor record label. “We got to play at the Fillmore in New York City,” he says proudly. “That’s how you really knew you made it.”

After the band broke up, he studied at the Mannes College of Music, where he received his degree in composition. After graduating, he took an adjunct job at the college before moving to Florida and settling down with his wife and two sons.

“I moved to Boca when I heard they might have a job opening here,” he says.

His experience as part-time professor at Mannes revealed a passion for teaching.

“I met with the executive VP of FAU at the time and she offered me the eminent scholar position. The rest is history.”

Zager is responsible for creating FAU’s undergraduate and master’s degree in commercial music studies and the university’s student-run music label- HOOT/Wisdom Recordings.

Students majoring in music recognize the impact that both the commercial music program and the label have on their education.

“I’m thankful to Professor Zager for the commercial nusic program and the label. Because of him and all of the donations that have made it possible, I got the most out of my music education,” says Johan Spalding, a recent FAU graduate.

Besides producing and composing for his own Michael Zager Band and Grammy Award- winning artists such as Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, Zager has arranged original music for commercials, network television and films. He has also written two books to support the commercial music curriculum.

In addition to a master of arts program and expansion of the label, Zager would like to see his current and former students continue to flourish in their craft.

“Most of all, I hope to have successful students coming out of the program. We have quite a few in the commercial world right now. I hope for continued success.”

Continued success, indeed. New courses are being offered in the program, including a Sound Recording course to advanced students in music engineering.

“We also have new releases in the works from our current and newest artists,” Zager said of the label’s up and coming artists. “We will be showcasing their music in Hootfest at the end of March. We hope to see a big turnout.”




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