Musical magic on center stage

Best of the best young musicians in region get even better at annual UND honor festival

James Popejoy

James Popejoy, director of bands at UND, rehearses with the 125-piece Honor Band, comprising some of the best high school musicians from North Dakota and western Minnesota on Saturday at Chester Fritz Auditorium. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

It’s a sight unlike any other in the region.

As over 400 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors took the stage on Sunday, a Chester Fritz Auditorium full of parents, instructors and community members roared.

It’s the culmination of the 33rd Annual UND Honor Band, Choir & Strings Festival — an event for which more than 850 students auditioned. Coming from every corner of the state, as well as from western Minnesota, high schoolers converged on campus Friday afternoon for a weekend of rehearsals, master classes and interaction with UND’s finest in music.

Sunday’s 1:30 p.m. concert featured performances from four groups before their final performance as one. The groups comprised Honor Strings, led by Simona Barbu; Mixed Honor Choir, led by Dean Jilek; Women’s Honor Choir, led by Melanie Popejoy; and the 125-piece Honor Band, led by James Popejoy.

Popejoy, director of bands and professor of music at the University, and Jilek, director of choral activities, stood to meet them and conduct the weekend’s climactic piece, “From Sea to Shining Sea.”

Music festival 2018

The stage of the Chester Fritz Auditorium was at max capacity as over 400 of the region’s best in high school music gathered for an epic finale. Out of frame are the remaining students on strings. Dean Jilek conducts the choral group at the front as James Popejoy conducts the instrumentation behind. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Education in mind

After 18 years of making the festival a reality, Popejoy sees its role quite clearly.

“Our goal is to provide a music education opportunity, a unique one, for the students in the state and region,” he said. “Certainly there are people who think it’s all about recruiting, and while we’re interested in recruiting great students here, that’s not why we do it.”

When asked what he enjoyed the most about having high school students on campus, Popejoy referred to the rehearsal experience as the most rewarding.

“It’s fun to do the performances,” he told UND Today. “But the bottom line is standing in front of the group in rehearsal and working with them — making music together. We work hard to make music every moment we’re together. You see the growth from them right in that moment, you see a light bulb go off inside their head. You can tell that they’ve grown and changed, and they can see it and hear it too. It’s quite electric!”

Music festival 2018

Members of the UND Mixed Honor Choir, led by Director of Choral Activities Dean Jilek, sing during Sunday’s concert featuring all four groups. The Mixed Honor Choir performed a variety of pieces, showcasing the talent of the region’s standout students. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Observable growth

Sarah Harlow, one of Grand Forks Central High School’s band directors, knows firsthand the growth that can occur during those moments. Seven students from Harlow’s school successfully auditioned for the festival.

Harlow made the UND Honor Band as a student at Central High School in 2006, 2007 and 2008 playing clarinet. It was an experience that set her trajectory to become a music instructor. Now she’s observing her own students from a position of leadership.

“Being able to play with other great musicians, being able to create a higher level of music, was incredibly valuable,” she said.  “It gave me the confidence in auditioning and being accepted into ensembles. I ended up going into music education as a career path.

“The rehearsal process and etiquette, under the guidance of collegiate conductors and directors like Dr. Popejoy, really helps them grow not just as musicians but as people. They learn how their one little part contributes to the whole.”

Masterclass caliber

Having their “one little part” contribute to the whole is a crucial aspect to the high schoolers’ weekend on campus. Apart from rehearsals, UND Music faculty took participants from each instrument group and held unique practice sessions called “sectionals.”

During these sectionals, it’s the students’ chance to hear themselves in the context of the piece they’re practicing. It also represents an opportunity for students to learn more tricks of the trade.

“Most of these students come from a music program where their instructor, while qualified to teach all of the instruments, is an expert on one instrument,” Popejoy explained. “This Festival provides them an opportunity to work with our faculty and students who are specialists on their instrument.”

His objective for sectional leaders is to instill not just the nuances of making music, but also to shape them to be better players for the future — lessons that these students can take back to their respective schools around the state.

“While we want them to do well during rehearsals and the concert, we’re interested in what they’re going to do from here on out,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the students to ask questions about all kinds of things.

“What I can say, in my 18 years doing this, is that the students are so appreciative. They thank you, they’re respectful and they’re interested. Those kinds of things are priceless, and the fact that they understand that it’s about molding them for the future and whatever they do… it’s exciting.”