There’s a special relationship between the VCU Peppas and composer Steven Cunningham who writes and arranges music for the band. As a former band member Steven understands the group dynamics and the brand that the VCU pep band has established over recent years. A graduate of VCU’s music program in 2011, he played with the pep band all 4 of his undergraduate years and has been composing for the group since his junior year at VCU.
Post VCU Cunningham has completed his masters degree in music at UMD and will be continuing his studies pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts there beginning in the 2014 fall semester. In addition to his collaboration with Kopacsi and the Peppas he continues to free lance with multiple groups from both Richmond, VA and Washington, DC. As hectic as it’s been over the last few years he found a way to balance graduate school and his many projects. He acknowledges the demands are only going to get crazier with this next pursuit but says he enjoys the challenge and loves the fact that people call him to work with them.
When asked to recount his favorite memory with the Peppas, Cunningham gives a view into the beginning of it all. Going back to his freshman year and his very first rehearsal with the Peppas. They were looking for someone to perform solo on a song and he volunteered. Not having much experience in improvisation, the opportunity gave him a chance to grow. Steven said that “playing solos at the games gave me confidence, huge sound (to be heard in the Siegel Center and outside without a microphone), and a chance to explore new ideas that I came across during my time at VCU.” That foundation and appreciation for this unique opportunity comes through in Cunningham’s advice to incoming pep band members,
“Play as often as you can and have fun at the games. The VCU Pep Band experience is completely different from other band programs. You’re going play for the best team, fans, city in the nation. We were on people.com!!! That should say something to you.”
“harmony, rhythmic figures, and dynamics are essential”.
If you are wondering how he made the jump from soloist to composer, it’s simple, Kopacsi caught wind that Steven was enrolled in a writing class called “Jazz Arranging”. Ryan approached him with a couple of tunes to write out. The collaboration was a success and Cunningham has been arranging the band’s pieces ever since. Cunningham says working with Kopacsi is interesting because he gets the opportunity to add ideas to songs. He might add more notes to a bass line or change something about the song form to make it work it for the band. In his opinion the most challenging aspect of writing is making sure every part is covered stating that “harmony, rhythmic figures, and dynamics are essential”.
It’s obvious during pre-game performances and half time shows that fans of the Peppas have their favorite tunes. The group usually gets some love from visitors as well. A VCU pep band show encompasses not just the instrumental performance but also singing, chanting, and some impressive and constant motion. The audience aside, we were curious which piece was the favorite of the man who puts his heart into transforming other people’s music into this unique experience. Cunningham’s favorite arrangement is the “Havoc Suite” which is comprised of “Holy Grail”, “Somewhere in America”, and “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”. All of the songs are by Jay-Z. He said “The Havoc Suite was a challenge, in terms of notating everything and making the transitions work between songs. I enjoyed playing it and the crowd certainly loved it at VCU and in Brooklyn.”
The Peppas have been called the 6th man on the court for their ability to help the team. This resident composer has a lot to do with that impact. He says the most enjoyable thing about about his work with the band has been seeing the songs performed at the games and how the crowd responds to it. The teams respond to the crowd energy, so there is a direct correlation. As of August 25, 2014 Cunningham was finishing up his latest composition for the upcoming 2014-15 season. He said the latest tune has probably been the most difficult to date, but given the chance what he’d really love to do is write an original piece for the band. Considering the popularity of his work to date, including the Miley Cyrus “Wrecking Ball” arrangement that went viral during the 2013-14 season, that could be a big hit with the fan base and just one more opportunity for Cunningham to make his mark with the Peppas.