In 2002, Melanie Popejoy floated the idea of starting a children’s choir for the region. The idea was to challenge young singers in grades 3 through 9. The choir she had in mind wouldn’t be easy to create. Teaching would be top-notch. Rehearsals would be jam-packed with instruction, and, attending rehearsals wouldn’t be optional. The kids would have to audition, and if they made it, they’d be pushed to improve vocally, but also as peer and community leaders. It was an ambitious vision, Popejoy admits. There were already other options for young vocalists—but nothing like this. “When we brought up the idea to the community we weren’t sure what the response would be,” she says, “but we should have known.”
After spending many years traveling and living in various cities for her husband’s university-based career, she had arrived in Mexico, Missouri. There she was able to participate in a major children’s choir in the St. Louis area. “I loved the thrill of seeing the students learn they could sing. Some of them didn’t know what they were capable of. Having the ability to help them was amazing,” she says.
Shortly after arriving in Grand Forks for her husband’s new job, Popejoy understood there might be an opportunity to recreate the success she was a part of and witnessed in St. Louis. “We learned right away that in Grand Forks we could grow ourselves and that investing in the community would be worth it,” she says. “We also noticed that this community really invests in its kids.”
When she told others about the idea of starting a choir, numerous people she'd never met stepped up to help and volunteer. She was hoping to get 35 to 40 singers the first year, but ended up with more than 100. Now affiliated with the Grand Forks Public Schools and a division of the Summer Performing Arts company, the Grand Cities Children’s Choir (GCCC) includes more than 250 kids, nearly 30 mentors (former singers that now teach), several professional instructors, several more volunteers and a long list of accomplishments that shows how successful Popejoy and her team have been and why the GCCC is a serious staple of the community.
Spreading The Love
GCCC performs almost year around. There are multiple singing groups based on voice type and age. In addition to the two main concerts the group puts on in the spring and fall to crowds of 800 people, the singers and teachers create, produce and put-on several other events throughout the year. Recently, they sang at various locations around town in front of seniors and others in an event they called, “Spread The Love.”
In 2014, the group sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City with a live orchestra. The kids came away with an appreciation of what they’d accomplished and also where they lived, Popejoy says. While there, they volunteered their time at different places and gave away bags of cold gear they’d brought with. During a trip to Washington D.C., the groups sang in front of the monuments and the Whitehouse. Popejoy laughs at the Whitehouse trip. As she explains it, a van pulled up in front of the Whitehouse near the singers. From the van, someone stepped out carrying the Stanley Cup. “It was hard to keep the kids singing,” she says. Some of the children ran to the cup. After explaining to the handler where the kids were from and there was basically no way the cup would be allowed to pass without letting the kids touch the cup, the kids got to touch the cup.
Confidence in singing wasn’t always easy on early trips like it was in NYC or D.C, she says, even if it should have been. The first time the group applied to represent the region (multiple states and major areas) at a major choral event, the GCCC was selected. After a trip in the early days to Omaha for an event where everything is scrutinized down to the outfit colors, the group received high praise. “The kids finally understood that they were a big deal,” she says. Since then, the GCCC has been living up to its reputation as a choral powerhouse in and out of the region.
Through a mentoring program, singers that surpass the age range often come back to remain as part of the program. Having someone there waiting for the young singers lets them know they are cared about and motivates them, Popejoy says. In addition to singing, the kids ask about school or college depending on their age. The instructors put on social nights to bring everyone together because the students are from all over the region. In the summer, they put on leadership retreats. As Popejoy says, the goal of the program was never just to sing.
Putting GCCC On The Map, Again
Next year, Popejoy and her team are turning their ambitious abilities into a unique opportunity for their singers and others from the region. The group is going back to Carnegie Hall to perform. This time, the performance will be a celebration of Grand Forks. The team plans to invite other choirs and singers linked to the area to sing with them and give them a chance to sing on a world stage that they may have never had before. “The lens in NYC will be on Grand Forks.” Between now and then, the team will continue running a highly-structured, world-class children’s choir program. Popejoy and the others are elated with how things have turned out in their 17 years with the GCCC, and, its easy to understand why the community continues to back their efforts, attend events and follow their success. All of it—from the 3rd graders learning social skills to the 9th graders learning about leading all the way to the 2020 idea of bringing the region’s best choir singers together in NYC to showcase where they live—just sounds amazing. G
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PHOTOS BY: MJD Photography
From Issue 2, 2019