Q & A with Steven Cunningham about His Career

 Your Crystal Ball

—From approximately what age did you think: “I’m going to be a musician for my career”?

I would say when I turned 17.

—Has your career taken the path you had envisioned back then?

I believe so. I knew that I wanted to become a teacher and professional musician at some point. I never thought that I would be graduating with a Doctorate in Music at age 27, though.


Musical Impact

—Can you briefly describe a live performance you performed in that marked a turning point in your younger musical life (say, under age 25)?

I remember being asked to perform Taps for a fellow high school marching band member who passed away in a car accident. Playing Taps for him at a football game was an emotional experience. The toughest part was talking to his mother after the performance. This moment showed me that music is more than notes on a page: it is life.

—Can you briefly describe a live performance you observed as an audience member that marked a turning point in your younger musical life?

My first time seeing a professional trumpet player was at the VCU Festival of Winds, Brass, and Percussion during my senior year of high school. I got to see Rex Richardson perform both classical and jazz solos. That experience encouraged me to continue with music in college and one day lead to a career.



—Do you feel as though your formal musical studies provided you an anchor for your current career?

Yes: having the desire to meet deadlines and perform at a high level is important to me. This desire helps me with other aspects of being a professional musician.

—Can you remember the one or two most surprising things about being in your career that no one told you, that you had to learn on your own?

I needed to learn that health, rest, and musical relationships are extremely important to professional musicians. Traveling is great, but it can wear down my mind and body. I knew that this was important during graduate school; I just did not know how tough it was going to be.


Likes and Dislikes

—What’s the best part of your current, music-related career?

The best part is working with and learning from my peers.

—What’s the worst part?

The worst part is paying rent in Washington, D.C.!


Ups and Downs

—Name up to five people who inspired and/or made a pronounced difference in achieving your musical goals—and in a brief phrase, tell why for each. (We’ll take for granted that you have to leave out many, many other deserving names.)

  • Rex Richardson discovered me at the VCU Festival of Winds, Brass, and Percussion back in 2007. He gave me a free trumpet lesson (my first trumpet lesson). That is why I picked VCU for my undergrad studies.
  • My parents, for supporting my musical interest ,
  • Chris Gekker, for accepting into UMD’s graduate program.
  • Ryan Kopaci, for giving me a chance to write music for the VCU Pep Band while he was there.

—Don’t name—but loosely describe—how one or more persons discouraged you from being a musician (or from entering your current music-related career).

One high school guidance counselor tried to discourage me from applying to a four-year university. He did not believe I could make it academically and that I should go to a junior college.

Some band directors told me that if I majored in music performance I would not make a living in the music industry. Teaching K-12 was the only option in their mind.


Favorite Recordings

—Name up to three, single-CD recordings that you think everyone on earth should own. (Artist, Title, Label would be great….)

  • The Shaolin Aeronauts, Flight of the Ancients (Freestyle Records).
  • ERIMAJ, Conflict of a Man (Lockhart Dynasty).
  • Slavic Soul Party!, NY Underground Tapes (Barbès Records).

—Name up to three more that simply provide you great personal listening pleasure every time you hear them.

  • Trombone Shorty, Backatown (The Verve Music Group).
  • Odd see, People Hear What They See (Mello Music Group).
  • Blitz the Ambassador, Diasporadical (Jakarta).


Parting Thoughts

—If you could give only one sentence of advice to a high school or college student considering a career in music, what would you say?

You never know where music will take you: stick with it, and follow through.

—And what’s the best way someone school-age could prepare to do what you currently do?

Listen; learn music by ear; study theory; and more importantly, have fun!