Melanie Popejoy thinks of teaching, first and foremost, as “a people business,” she said.
“I get to connect with people every day and try to help them live their best lives and be their best selves by using the tools of music. And that, to me, is the most rewarding part of it all," she said. "We do not teach music; we teach people through music.”
Popejoy, who serves as associate director of choral activities at UND, has been selected as the Educator of the Year by the North Dakota Music Educators Association.
“I have taught in five states,” Popejoy said. “I have met thousands of students. I truly believe I have shared moments with those students that have impacted my life forever. And I’m hoping it has done the same with them.”
It is clear that she has impacted the lives of students and others she’s met throughout her 40-year career as a music educator.
She is “one of Grand Forks’ most remarkable treasures,” said Greg Nelson, who, as finance director of the Grand Cities Children’s Choir, has worked with Popejoy since 2003. “Melanie has taught vocal music to literally thousands of children from grade school through college age.
“She has positively influenced every life that she has touched, and every one of her students has a story of how Mrs. Popejoy has made a difference in their lives,” Nelson said.
She has led the choir twice on trips to New York where more than 100 members performed on stage at Carnegie Hall. On the second trip, in March 2020, the group was barely ensconced on the plane for the return flight before “the world shut down when COVID-19 hit,” Nelson said.
“We were one of the last concerts in Carnegie Hall,” Popejoy said.
The invitations to perform at Carnegie Hall were facilitated by her former student, Greg Gilpin, a world-renowned conductor and composer, who lives in Indianapolis.
She also led the GCCC on a four-day performance tour of Washington, D.C., in 2017, while in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, and navigating the nation’s capital in a wheelchair, Nelson said.
Popejoy has mentored at least 20 music teachers who are teaching in North Dakota schools -- many of them in Grand Forks, Nelson said.
Not only should her “teaching abilities be recognized and celebrated,” he said, “but her ability to make her students feel that they are part of a community that cares for them.”
She has been the catalyst for raising thousands of dollars for the families of GCCC members who died, he said. Among them was Jonah Borth, who was shot and killed in Northwood, N.D., in January 2020.
Popejoy, who came to Grand Forks with her husband James Popejoy, director of bands and professor of music at UND, in 2000, holds a bachelor's degree in music education and master's of arts degree in music education from Central Missouri State University. In her 40-year career, she has taught in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Texas before accepting a teaching position at Valley Middle School here.
She has conducted numerous honor and festival ensembles and garnered many teaching awards, including the North Dakota Choral Director of the Year and the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Leadership Award.
Popejoy, founder and artistic director of the Grand Cities Children’s Choir, started the choir in 2002 with 75 singers in grades 6-8. The choir has averaged 250-275 singers each year, along with 25-35 student mentors in grades 10-12, all of whom have been graduates of the GCCC program, Nelson said.
“I’ve always admired the work of the Grand Forks public school teachers,” Popejoy said.
Early in her career in Grand Forks as a member of the middle school music staff, she had the opportunity to work with other teachers as part of the school district’s SPA, Summer Performing Arts, program.
“We had such a wonderful time with kids from all over the district -- and even outside of the district -- coming together; that kind of planted the seed of what could really be done with a group of singers,” she said.
“I was just very much drawn to look at the level of musicianship and how the students were really empowered by being with each other and being with other students who loved music as much as they did, and wanted to excel at it.”
She approached Dean Opp and Brad Sherwood, SPA directors, about running the program during the school year and met with a favorable response, which led to securing the choir “under the SPA umbrella,” she said.
She launched GCCC in the fall 2002, hoping for 30-40 kids for the inaugural season, “and we had about 100 kids audition,” she said.
The organization has grown to five choirs, five directors and five pianists, providing students entering grades 3-9 the opportunity to participate.
Sherwood, long-time music educator at Red River High School, music coordinator for the school district, and program director for SPA, has abundant praise for Popejoy.
“Melanie Popejoy is one of the finest music educators I have ever known,” he said.
Sherwood was serving as the district’s music director when Popejoy applied for the vocal position at Valley Middle School, he said. “Her experience, credentials and personal drive made it clear that she was perfect for the position.”
When she later approached him and Opp, then-SPA director, about starting a children’s choir that would extend students’ SPA experience throughout the school year, he said, “Recognizing her passion, talent and enthusiasm, we did what we could to take care of as many logistical obstacles as possible. We were smart enough to get out of her way and assist where we could.
“In short order, the Grand Cities Children’s Choir was born,” Sherwood said. “Starting with a singular choir and soon growing to five ensembles with more than 300 kids participating.”
As a visitor to her UND classroom, Sherwood witnessed a vocal teacher who “poured heart and soul out to future music educators,” he said. In her work to prepare new music teachers entering the field and with the GCCC has all been done “with love, compassion, intellect and patience. Students, parents, administrators and colleagues recognize that she is a true master of the craft.”
Popejoy is a “truly warm and caring, down-to-earth human being that has spent a lifetime giving the gift of music to hundreds of students of all ages,” he said.
Music and social-emotional wellbeing
As a teacher, Popejoy has witnessed how the pandemic has accentuated the importance and value of music.
“Music has always, always helped students with their social-emotional wellbeing. We have heard that time and time again as music educators since music education began,” she said, “but especially this year we have experienced and understood the need to be able to have a way to release any kind of emotion that we feel -- whether it be joy, whether it be frustration, whether it be sorrow."
Further, music education is critical for students to develop 21st century work skills early on, because it deals with collaboration, creative-thinking and problem-solving, Popejoy said.
“Our musicians are problem-solving through every measure, with every note that they sing; they’re thinking and analyzing,” she said. “Because of that, music crosses the processes in the brain, it mixes the right side and the left side, and it’s one of the few subjects that students get in their school day that does that.”
Music education is also crucial to increasing cultural awareness, she said. “Music is a part of our culture, it’s a part of who we are. .... (And) it’s very important for us to know not only our own music, but it’s important for us then to understand other cultures by delving into their music.”
Popejoy has seen firsthand the effect that music education has on students’ lives.
“There are so many young people who find their successes in the area of music; they might not feel successful at some other things,” she said. “And we need to offer our students a well-rounded education so that we can find a lot of different areas where students can feel success.”
When asked what gives her the most satisfaction in teaching music, Popejoy did not hesitate.
“It is such a joy and a privilege to get to be a piece of someone’s life when they come back and tell you, ‘You know, I might not have been the best musician, but what you taught me was how to be proud of the work that I did and to stand tall.’ Or when a student tells you, ‘You’ve inspired me to come in every day and give my best to anything that I do,’ ” she said.
“I mean, we make wonderful music and those moments are fabulous and fill our souls for sure. But when you can see how the music education that you have offered to students has paid off in their lives and made it better, or caused them to do something they would never have done before, that is the greatest joy a teacher can have.”