Humans at Sam: Deborah Popham

It’s 1960 and a man walks to the corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, New York. Across the way he sees a violinist climbing out of a taxi. Surprised by his good fortune, he approaches the musician and asks, “Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The stranger sighs and shakes his head. He replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Though the origins of this joke are widely speculated, the punchline continues to amuse the turned-around travelers of New York. But one doesn’t have to venture as far as 57th Street to find a performer worthy of Carnegie Hall. In fact, he doesn’t even have to leave campus.

Deborah Popham, an Assistant Professor of Music and the Coordinator of Vocal Studies here at Sam, once performed at the legendary venue. Today she combines her efforts to both sing and encourage her students to achieve their own Carnegie-worthy dreams.

“Most of my job is teaching private voice lessons for all types of voice majors, so I have Performance, Music Education and Music Therapy majors,” Popham said. “And as Coordinator, I organize the department – with the help of my colleagues – and make sure things are functioning smoothly.”

This semester she also teaches a course called Voice Pedagogy and Techniques, which is the study of the voice and how it works. The class also delves into how to teach the subject so that Popham’s students can one day become the instructors.

Such a skill doesn’t appear after one college course, but rather through years of practice, practice, practice. Ironically, Popham didn’t always know she wanted to be either a singer or a professor, despite growing up in a family of educators and amateur musicians.

“My parents played instruments, so music was always a part of our lives,” Popham said. “But [no one in my family] did it professionally except my grandmother, who was a music teacher in public schools.”

It wasn’t until Popham’s junior year of high school that she realized she wanted to work in the music world, but even that expanded into music education once she began her studies at the University of Akron.

“My plan was to go out into the performing world and try to make my living that way, but the more I started teaching to help pay my way through school, the more I learned about the mechanics behind it,” she said. “So instead of taking the audition route, I stayed and got my doctorate degree.”

That isn’t to say she didn’t pursue a performance career as well. On the contrary, Popham has starred in recitals and operas across the United States and internationally, claiming roles such as Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites and Michaëla in Carmen. But while both recitals and operas are enjoyable to see come together, solo work is often easier to finalize. This is especially true when trying to balance a career in performance and another in teaching.

“I like them both, but they’re very different,” Popham said. “Operas require a lot of people, time and scheduling while in recitals it’s just you and the pianist, so you get to make all of the decisions and have more musical freedom.”

Recitals are also meant to be short and intimate whereas operas are to be performed on a grander scale. Recitals usually revolve around Art Song, a genre that represents many different composers and styles of music, typically written between the 17th century and the present.

Popham’s performance at Carnegie Hall was a recital. She sang pieces by the French composer Reynaldo Hahn, the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, and a number of English-language composers like Ben Moore, whose work explored poetry from a feminine perspective.

Popham describes her Carnegie debut as her greatest accomplishment as a singer.

“It was a once in a lifetime thing, but I’d be happy to go back if they invite me,” she said. “That’d be very difficult to top as a singer, but as a teacher, I would say [my biggest accomplishment] is being able to see my students perform and carry on the tradition of teaching the next generation that what we do is important, and teaching them how to do it for themselves.”

This is the ultimate goal of every teacher, no matter their style, experience or location. After a year at North Eastern State University in Oklahoma and six years at Shorter University in Georgia, Popham arrived at SHSU with this goal in mind.

“I’d like my students to transform their passion for music… to always find joy in what they’re doing because I think that’s contagious, and everyone else wants to be involved in that.”

There is no doubt this student-teacher dynamic is a two-way street.

“It never fails to amaze me how I learn from my students,” Popham said. “To me, that’s one of the exciting things about being at a university, because they’re in a place where they start being inquisitive and asking questions. They’ve got great quality, and it’s nice to have a job that I enjoy.”

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