In February of Shaun Popp’s senior year of high school, thanks in large part to his band director, Popp selected music education as his major in college.
“I was very active in speech and debate — and I was actually a state champion in Kentucky for speech,” Popp said. “I did theater; I thought maybe I wanted to do something in communications or go into radio or broadcasting. I gave some thought to going into politics, but I’m not really a politician. I even thought of going into the ministry at one point — and that would have been interesting.”
But band was always his true passion, with Popp having played the saxophone since he was in the seventh grade. He said he always enjoyed it.
“I was only a few months from graduation, and I attended what would be known as an all-region band clinic, and I played under a guest conductor there and had a great time — it was a good experience,” Popp said. “I knew then I wanted to major in music.”
In October, Popp was named the new director of bands for Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. He has served as assistant director of bands and coordinator for music education at Henderson since 2013.
“We are so excited and proud for Dr. Popp to take direction of the band program at Henderson,” said William Higgins, chair of the music department, in a statement released by the school. “He has played a part in all decision-making for Henderson bands in the past six years and has always provided wonderful insight and knowledge.
“He will make a superb director of bands and will expertly mentor a whole new generation of Reddies.”
Former Director of Bands Steven Knight left the position to take a job at Allen High School in Texas. He has served as director of bands and assistant professor of music from 2016 to 2019. Popp said Knight had the opportunity to take a position closer to his wife.
“She lived about four hours away from here, so he accepted a position to be closer to her,” Popp said. “I believe his wife is teaching at McKinney, Texas.”
Popp also served under Carrie Pawelski. The two of them came to Henderson at the same time.
“We started year three together, but then about three weeks in, she left to take a job in New York so she could be closer to family who were ill,” Popp said. “[This job] requires a lot of time, and it is hard to have a lot of balance between your professional life and your personal life, but the fact that both of them left is no reflection on the university. … I’m glad to have this opportunity.”
Popp is originally from Sassafras, Kentucky, having graduated from Knott County Central High School in 1996. In 2000, he earned his undergrad degree in music education from Morehead State University in Kentucky. He did his master’s work part time at the University of Louisville while also teaching in the public school system, before graduating with the degree in 2010. He earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in music education and wind conducting at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 2013.
“When I was finishing up my doctorate, I was offered three jobs before it was all said and done, and Henderson State was by far the best option,” Popp said.
“Of all the campuses that I visited and interviewed at, I particularly liked the way I felt when I was here. It was a particularly welcoming atmosphere, and I felt like I really connected with the students and the faculty,” he said.
“Dr. Popp has demonstrated his dedication to the success of our students,” acting Henderson President Elaine Kneebone said in a press release from the school. “I am grateful for his commitment to the university and his leadership.”
Popp said that because he waited so late in the year to decide on a major when he was in high school, his band director, Bob Saylor, was worried there wouldn’t be any scholarship money for him. But Popp eventually got a scholarship to Morehead State.
“I had a really good experience with my high school band director,” Popp said. “He was a mentor of mine and had a lot to do with why I chose to go into teaching and why I wanted to do this.
“Music is a very difficult major. It takes an enormous amount of time compared to other majors. It is very rigorous and extremely time-consuming.”
Popp said that during his first year, he had a lot of doubts and almost considered dropping from the program, but eventually, he got adjusted.
“My saxophone teacher was extremely motivational and an influential figure and is part of the reason why I stayed on as a music major,” Popp said. “When I went through my internship process, I really enjoyed working with students — at all levels.
“Now I can’t really imagine doing anything else. This is my 20th year of teaching altogether.”
Once Popp decided on his major, he knew he wanted to be a band director at a university.
“But I knew I needed my experience in public school before teaching at a university,” he said, “because basically, when you are a college band director and teacher, you are teaching college students how to be band directors for high schools; therefore, you have to have been one yourself.
“I had to spend some practical time teaching in the public schools before I could think about going on for advanced degrees and ultimately getting into higher education.”
Popp said that when he was initially hired as assistant director of bands at Henderson, it was for an interim position.
“It ended up being a late search when they posted the job, so I was given a one-year contract,” he said. “And in the middle of my first year, I had to interview for my job again, and they did a second national search, interviewing me and some others. … I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career as an assistant band director, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the job. Ultimately, I wanted to have my own program.
“I was presented with other opportunities where I could have left, but I chose not to. I chose to stay because the other options that I have looked at were not better than this place.”
Popp said that as the new director of bands at HSU, he has three goals in mind for the program.
“I want to recruit new students and increase the overall enrollment in the band program,” he said. “I want to eventually include international travel, such as the [Showband of Arkansas] participating in the Chinese New Year Parade in China, and I would like to include the wind ensemble in a performance tour of Europe.”
Popp said he uses his experience as a high school band director to inform his college students on how to deal with parents, budgeting and classroom management.
“As the director of bands for Henderson, I am responsible for all the administrative aspects of the program — I have a great deal of administrative duties,” he said. “The director of bands controls the budget, spending, sheet music and items that need to be repaired or replaced.
“There are a lot of budget and organization things that go with the position, but you are also one of the dynamic figures as far as recruiting.
“I am visiting with high school students, handing out business cards, flyers and various things about campus,” he said. “Our role is to educate prospective students.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or email@example.com.