Maestro in the musical classroom


Juan Pedraza

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Maestro in the musical classroom

Coaxing lush performances from a 60-piece college music ensemble, Professor James Popejoy epitomizes the complete musician: coach, friend, guide, leader, mentor -- and above all -- teacher.

Popejoy, director of bands for the University of North Dakota Department of Music, is all of that and more to his students, including the students in his ensembles who are not music majors.

On stage in the traditional conductor's tuxedo tailcoat several times a year, Popejoy wields the baton for two large ensembles that score big with audiences and peers: the University Band, a non-audition group consisting of 95 percent non-music majors; and the Wind Ensemble, an auditioned group of primarily music majors.

The UND Wind Ensemble tours regularly, having established a reputation for music excellence in state, regional and national conferences. For example, the Wind Ensemble has been selectedto present a featured performance at the prestigious 2012 Western International Band Clinic in Seattle this November.

Music is Popejoy's life, both personally and professionally, and in addition to teaching, he continues to perform regularly as a jazz and classical musician throughout the region. His wife, Melanie, is herself a master music educator who recently joined the UND faculty as associate director of choral activities.

As many of the definitions of "conductor" will show, the most important part besides a mastery of musicianship and technique is to be an artist. For music educators like Popejoy, the added ingredient must be the welfare of the students themselves.

"It is deeply rooted in educational philosophy that if you are going to teach music through performance, the goal is to reach that vital audience in front of us—our students," said Popejoy, who mastered several instruments as part of his education.

"Learning music through performing is, of course, somewhat different for students than how they learn in music theory or music history courses, or anything else that we do in the classroom," Popejoy said. "Using that premise, then the literature—the music we rehearse and perform—is our textbook.

"This selection process also determines what we choose not to teach them since it is not possible to cover everything each semester."

The Good and the Bad

"For me there are only two kinds of music: good music or bad music," he said. "I'm always trying to select the best music available for my students." Popejoy insists that good music is not just from a particular time period or style, such as hip-hop versus classical versus jazz, or pop or theater music versus film music.

"It's really about choosing good music and appropriate literature that fits the ensemble you're working with," Popejoy said.

The music that is selected is mastered—so Popejoy dedicates most of his summers to working out what music to teach his students through performance.

"The repertoire that I select is the most important task that I have," said Popejoy, who taught in both high school and college music programs before coming to UND. "In the summer, I'm always busy finishing up projects from the previous academic year, as well as starting the process of determining 'what are we going to play next year?'"

Popejoy does not believe in delegating that task to the students.

"It's not that I don't want the student's input, but this important task is my responsibility," he said.

There's a lot more to it than writing down a list of "cool" music to play.

"It's about the flow of music and the program needs to end well. I work hard to make each concert program one that flows well for both the performers and the audience, while also being fairly eclectic and interesting."

For Popejoy, that means few, if any, "themed" concerts.

"Not because this is a bad concept, but because when you choose music that must fit a particular theme, it's not always the best music," he said.

Preparing for and performing concerts is a big deal every semester.

"Each ensemble is a learning laboratory experience and we have a responsibility to many audiences," Popejoy said.

Ultimately, though, it's about most important audience -- the students.

"Even many of the non-music majors make an effort to stay with the ensemble the entire time they're in college," he said. "For non-music majors to make the commitment to play in an ensemble like this one for four or five years is noteworthy considering all the rehearsal time and dedication that is required.

"If we didn't have those students, our ensembles would not be at the level that we have. I really love working with these groups because the students in them really want to be there!"

Popejoy is the recipient of UND's Faculty Award for Individual Excellence in Teaching; last year he also received his second North Dakota Spirit Faculty Achievement Award.

Juan Pedraza

Writer and Editor, University Relations

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