Recipient of ‘Educator of the Year’ award, local UND choral teacher reflects on

“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.

Starting GCCC

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.


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