UB professor lives life on the edge

Jean Kopperud takes musical risks


After finding out she was misdiagnosed with an ovarian tumor, Jean Kopperud became less involved in city life and went after her dreams. She traded her apartment for a farm in Westchester and bought her first horse two weeks later.

Since then, she’s played her clarinet on horseback and jumped out of an airplane 60 times –– 29 times while playing the clarinet.

“It took a fair amount of strength to hold the clarinet,” Kopperud said. “I was travelling at a rate of about 120 mph toward the earth with a clarinet. I did all my jumps in an unpopulated part of Florida, so if I dropped the clarinet nobody would get hurt.”

Kopperud, a professor in the music department, loves her instrument. She teaches private lessons, a freshman seminar and her “On The Edge Performance” class.

The class examines the risks individuals take before going on-stage in a number of performance capacities. “On The Edge” is open to anyone, but the class is composed of mostly musicians, actors and dancers.

Kopperud said she reads constantly and works hard to find tools to help her students to the best of her ability.

“I concentrate on my students so they can grow into what they want to be,” Kopperud said. “Working in the way I do is wildly interesting, yet, it is very exhausting, but I do it for my students.”

Before teaching at UB, however, Kopperud said she thought her life was over following an operation in her mid-40s.

She said she was scared and didn’t want to have a life full of regret.

“I was laying there and was saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never had a house in the country, [I’ve] never had a horse,” Kopperud said. “I didn’t have anything else, I wasn’t married and didn’t have children.”

Following her surgery, Kopperud said she turned her life “upside down” in two weeks.

“I had what we call in the horse world a half-halt, where suddenly I sat up and stopped for a second,” she said.

Kopperud became more involved in farm life and moved to Buffalo and began her career at UB in 2005.

The professor owns two farms on top of teaching at UB: one in Buffalo and one in West Palm Beach, Florida. Kopperud flies to her farm in Florida every Thursday and stays until Tuesday. She has animals at both farms, but all of her horses are in Florida.

Kopperud was born in Lake Preston, South Dakota, a small town of 700 people. It’s there where she said she learned a life of passion and optimism from her father, James. Kopperud started playing clarinet at ten-years-old after her mother, Bernice, forced her to play piano.

“The piano was not my [passion],” Kopperud said. “I never had a calling for it [and] I had a mean teacher and at that time it was okay for the instructor to take a ruler to your hands.”

In eighth grade, Kopperud’s teacher told her parents that she had to go to a college to study clarinet because they simply couldn’t teach her anymore. She was advanced for her age.

“At 14-years-old, I drove myself to clarinet lessons and back every week, 50 miles each way,” Kopperud said. “Since it was a farming community, I was able to get my license at 14, and never got pulled over.”

After two years studying clarinet at the University of Iowa, she dropped out. Kopperud moved to New York City and said she didn’t have many plans once she arrived.

“I unexpectedly went up to Leon Russianoff’s office, a famous clarinet teacher. [I] told him, ‘I want to study the clarinet with you,’” Kopperud said. “Russianoff said OK, showing really how crazy he was to give me that chance.”

A few weeks later, however, Russianoff told Kopperud that she could not play in NYC due to her innocence.

But Kopperud refused to give up. She enrolled in Purchase College and went on to graduate from Julliard. Kopperud, a freelancing musician, also did acting after graduation and toured in Australia and North America with Jenna Cunningham.

Today, she inspires students like Emily Belote, a junior industrial engineering major, through her “On The Edge” performance class.

“[The class] actually applies to everyone as a way to approach life with goals, planning, confidence and emotions,” Belote said.

Belote feels Kopperud’s career and attitude toward life are “truly inspiring.”

“She is willing to go to great lengths to make sure her students realize they are limitless in their potential,” Belote said.

Cunningham, a UB alum, said Kopperud teaches her students to perform with confidence in their abilities.

“She holds herself with well-deserved confidence and encourages her students to do the same,” Cunningham said. “Kopperud made me think that I was performing to myself, not the audience in front of me. I no longer have the fear of playing in front of an audience.”

Jonathan Golove, chair of the music department, said he admires Kopperud’s work ethic.

“Jean always shows up as prepared as humanly possible, and [is] always on time,” Golove said. “I find her to be a true master teacher. One who has firm ideas and provides clear structure for her students, but at the same time deals with each student as an individual.”

Kopperud said teaching isn’t her only passion, however.

“I’m passionate about my job, I love working with students,” Kopperud said. “I’m also passionate about my horses and dogs. If you lead your life right, you get everything.”

Brandon Borzillire is a contributing writer and can be reached at features@ubspectrum.com.