The man behind the music

Steven Cunningham rehearses one of the pieces he arranged with the VCU Pep Band. Cunningham arranged the Peppa’s rendition of Miley Cyrus’ hit “Wrecking Ball,” which went viral earlier this month after the band performed it at the Siegel Center. Photo by Audry Dubon.

Sarah King
Staff Writer

The Miley Cyrus hit “Wrecking Ball” made another comeback when the VCU pep band performed the song during the men’s basketball game against George Mason University. Unknown to most, none of their recent buzz would have been possible without the work of one former Peppa.

“The only thing I know about Miley Cyrus is ‘twerk.’ I should probably do some research on that, I don’t really remember the lyrics.  I remember seeing that cat on YouTube. I guess people loved it,” said Steven Cunningham, in reaction to the the Peppas hit-rendition of “Wrecking Ball.” The band’s performance made national headlines last week and was featured on People magazine online.

Cunningham, a 2011 graduate of VCU’s music program, is responsible for writing and arranging all of the pieces for the Peppas.  Cunningham played in the pep band all four of his undergraduate years, but did not begin writing music for the group until his junior year.

“Stephen writes probably about 90 percent of the music for the band now that he’s in graduate school at (University of Maryland),” said Ryan Kopacsi, the director of the Peppas. “If there’s a song I want done, I call him and let him know how I want it written out and then I listen to it and if there’s anything I want changed or corrected we go from there.”

Cunningham said the process of writing the music for the Peppas is time-consuming and strenuous because he is in graduate school studying music full-time. It typically takes him one day to arrange a piece.

“He’s perfect for the pep band because he’s such a great musician and he knows the identity of the Peppas,” said Mitchell Redd, a 2010 VCU graduate who played trumpet alongside Cunningham in the pep band. Redd still plays with the Peppas at games occasionally. “He can really get his thoughts down and make music that’s unique to the band because of his experience and understanding of the group,” said Redd.

Cunningham said he learns all the songs by ear on the piano and then arranges all the parts individually for the different instruments in the band, which is what contributes to the time consuming nature of his work.

“I have to make the right decisions because I have to decide what instruments play what parts,” Cunningham said. “A lot of musicians underestimate a song like ‘Wrecking Ball’ because it’s a pop song that’s being played by an instrumental band.”

Despite the time commitment, Cuningham said he continues to write for the band because he loves being involved. The crowd’s reaction to his music only encourages Cunningham to write more.

“Even though I didn’t write the actual song, putting your heart into something, and making it balanced, and hearing it performed live is so great,” Cunningham said.

The pep band has been on the rise since the basketball team’s Final Four debut, and the national exposure the band has received has increased as well.  Although they were not expecting the national attention “Wrecking Ball” received when People magazine featured the performance online last week, Kopacsi and Redd were not surprised.

“I kind of expected the song to be as big a hit as it was,” Kopacsi said. “I know it’s a popular song and it’s not a terrible song, and I think what we did with it definitely made it entertaining.”

Redd agreed with Kopacsi, saying he has seen the kind of impact the band can have on an audience and the song took off pretty easily.

Cunningham went to Brooklyn, N.Y. with the band the first time they performed ‘Wrecking Ball’ and he said he was shocked at how well received the number was.

“It was crazy,” Cunningham said. “I wasn’t expecting it. I spent extra hard work on that tune to make sure it was right, and it got played and people loved it. It was Ryan’s idea for the kitty and when he did it people just went crazy. I wasn’t expecting — that’s big time, that’s celebrities. It makes me proud that I wrote that.”

Since graduating from VCU, Cunningham has freelanced and hopes to eventually be a music professor. He plays trumpet exclusively and said his move from Richmond to College Park, Maryland took some getting used to.

“I compare Richmond to New Orleans — there are so many nationalities, people get along better, the music scene is vast,” Cunningham said. “Maryland is definitely a college campus, and it took some time to get used to that — like having grass. They cut it all the time.”

Cunningham has performed at major venues including but not limited to the Washington National Cathedral, Carnegie Hall, Empire Theater and the Hippodrome.

“Stephen is very laid back, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who works really hard on his craft of playing the trumpet and arranging and composing,” Redd said.

Cunningham has written and arranged pieces for several groups in the Richmond area including Legion of Doom, the Flavor Project, Brunswick, the Brotherhood and the KG experience. Cunningham said he is currently attending graduate school to build experience and get the necessary degrees to become a music professor.

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