Artists Weekly: Melody Choplin

Photo courtesy of Simon Bleasdale/flickr

Photo courtesy of Simon Bleasdale/flickr

Thomas Bremen
    Staff Writer

Melody Choplin’s office reads much like any creative person’s might. Traces of her work clutter the room. Instruments line the walls and spare parts and tools cover her workbench. She likes it this way; she’s too busy fixing to worry about neatness.

Choplin is an instrument repair technician for the School of Music. She maintains department instruments, makes repairs and manages instrument lockers.

She dedicates her life to learning and improving her craft, and now she adds the task of guiding others to do the same through an instrument repair course. The class is one of the first of its kind and Choplin wrote the book on it—literally.

She has seen her book, “Stuff Band Directors Need to Know: A Practical Repair Guide for Everyday Problems” sold on Amazon as a textbook for over $300. When Choplin first discovered this price she was shocked. She jokingly wondered where her money was, as she sells the book for $35.

Though she can put a price on her book, she maintains that dedication to craft is invaluable. Her position in academia allows her to influence future generations of music educators. It allows her the opportunity to guide students in the ways that she wishes she had herself.

In her class she stresses the importance of instrument repair knowledge to band directors.

“I’ve heard the statistic,” Choplin explained. “That 40% of band students quit between 6th grade band and high school.”

She said the problem is usually a bad instrument, and it all comes down to the instructor’s knowledge. They need to be able to diagnose instrument problems to allow students the best chance at success.

Choplin herself grew up as a pianist-turned-clarinetist in middle school and high school band. She devoted all her available time to practicing piano and clarinet. Often, she joked, this was to the detriment of her algebra homework.

In high school, she earned 5th chair behind four seniors in marching band. Being right up front with the older kids intimidated her, but pushed her to be a better musician. Even at that point, she couldn’t imagine any other life outside of music.

Choplin went on to study music performance in college. She ended up with her degree, but without any direction. She considered graduate school but her heart wasn’t in it. Then, one of her instructors gave her advice that’s stuck with her:

“One of my instructors told me something very profound that I hadn’t ever thought about—and that’s what I mean by guidance—is that he said ‘You don’t have to teach and you don’t have to perform to be a musician. There’s lots and lots of jobs within the field of music that have nothing to do with teaching or performing.’”

The impact of this advice was profound on the rest of her career. Her professor went on to talk about possible options for her and that’s when he mentioned repair.

“He told me, ‘So you know you’re good with your hands. You’re good with what you do. You’ve got a mechanical mind; maybe you should look into that. We always need good repair techs.’ And I thought ‘Okay, I’ll check it out,’” Choplin remembered.

From there, she did what anyone would do in the pre-internet age: she took a look in her local library. She found an old project notebook with a laminated page of four repair schools on it. If there was a god, she posited, he had a hand in that time of her life.

“It just lined right up where it was supposed to be,” she said. “Money-wise, time wise, career wise. It lined it up.”

That moment began her now 26-year-long career as a repair technician. She lucked into her situation, but had some critical guidance—including holy guidance—along the way.

“I came into this career sideways, like a lot of people do,” Choplin explained. “And it’s been that way ever since.”

She went on: “My skill set has changed over the last 26 years. I’ve not stopped learning or expanding what I do…and here I am now with the ability to hopefully make a difference to music educators and college students in a bunch of different ways.”

Choplin strives to provide a reality check for her students based on her years of experience. She’s been through good and bad times, including one of the repair shops where she worked filing bankruptcy.

Choplin attends as many conferences and professional development events as she can. She works with members of her field from all over the country and collects “bits and pieces” from them.

She’ll learn a new burnishing technique from one person, and learn about a new tool from another. To her, that experience is one of the most rewarding of what she does.

“Anyone who says they’ve learned all they can learn is full of crap,” she half-joked. This attitude summarizes Melody Choplin well. She’s dedicated and enthusiastic about her craft, eager to learn and ready to give a helpful yet firm reality check to anyone who asks.

“Again, guidance,” she added. “I’ve had more than one student come in here and decide they want to go into the technical field. I said ‘Yeah, you can do that if you want to, but this is a career; this is not a sideline gig.’”

Categories: Artist Weekly, Arts & Entertainment

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