From the stage in the Common Grounds coffee shop to the Richmond Coliseum, Eastern Mennonite University alumni and current students are foraying into the Virginia music scene. They make percussion, stringed instruments, and digital turntables sing. And some find avenues to perform professionally before they even walk across the commencement stage.
EMU News interviewed two recent alumni and a current student, thanks to tips from music department chair Professor David Berry.
Bruce Cypress ’20 is one such artist. Music has always been a part of his life, he says, starting with playing drums at age seven in his hometown church in Smithfield, Va. Then, during his junior year studying interdisciplinary music at EMU, he started DJing.
“At first it was more so another musical experiment. However, now, fast forward to today and it’s more than just a career. It has elevated my musical journey more than I could have ever imagined,” Cypress says. He’s performed all over the state, including at EMU, James Madison University, and Mary Baldwin University, but one performance stands out from the rest. In 2018, he opened for British singer-songwriter Ella Mai at the Richmond Coliseum, just months before she won Billboard’s “Top R&B Artist” award.
“Becoming a DJ has truly turned my dreams into reality. Each performance is one great experience after another,” Cypress says, but opening for Ella Mai “during VCU’s homecoming is an experience I will never forget.”
During the pandemic, he’s been limited to playing occasional small gigs, and has been using the time to create more of his own mixes and playlists. His go-to genres are hiphop, neo-soul, and Afro-beat.
“My style while performing really depends on who I am performing for,” Cypress explains. “I can truly say there has not been two events or live performances alike.”
Current student Ethan Beiler, of Cochranville, Pa., has been playing piano at community events with local group Just Jazzin’. His favorite memory of performing with the band was at a donor gala for a nonprofit in Staunton.
“The setting was very fancy and professional, so it made us feel pretty special as the band,” says Beiler. “We started with calm music while they ate, and then brought out the dance tunes when they were ready. Many were fast paced, and I just remember playing and finding chords as fast as I could while people danced around us. It was a ton of fun.”
Beiler is set to graduate this spring with a mechanical engineering degree and minors in music and business administration. He was recruited into Just Jazzin’ by Professor Bob Curry, who also leads the EMU Jazz Band. Unfortunately, Beiler hasn’t been able to continue playing with Just Jazzin’ during the pandemic.
“Our band, and typical audience, is mostly made up of older people who may be more at risk. This has made us extra careful,” he explains.
Joseph Harder ’20, who studied interdisciplinary music as an undergrad, plays drums in the three-piece outfit Prince Bellerose. They’ve been limited to playing gigs outdoors during the pandemic, and released their first EP, “Dark Love Songs,” in August.
“We are anticipating that these [gigs] will largely dry up as the weather gets cold, so we are shifting focus to begin preparing to return to the studio to record some new material over the winter,” Harder says.
Serendipity brought Harder into the band – last summer, he got a last-minute free ticket to attend the Red Wing Roots Music festival. He joined an impromptu jam session with a few other musicians, and about a week later, Prince Bellerose reached out, asking him to audition. Harder describes their sound as “a marriage of moody 70’s soul and modern indie rock, with a hint of manic anxiety and dazed melancholy – all spiced with touches of classic rock.”
Harder is a 2020 fellow with the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, and works sporadically as a session drummer in recording studios, but he’s not exactly sure where his musical aptitude will lead him.
“There’s no denying that performance has a certain addictive quality – there is something fresh and exciting about every performance,” he says. “Creation draws me out of my head. However, the music industry is a fickle beast that I am wary of surrendering myself to. I love music, and am very much interested in pursuing it in some professional capacity.”
The band has played at area hotspots like The Golden Pony, Pro Re Nata Brewery in Crozet, and The Southern Cafe and Music Hall in Charlottesville, but Harder says that playing in Common Grounds last winter was one of his favorite performances.
“We’ve always loved playing in packed basements – they foster a certain infectious energy that is hard to create anywhere else. The Common Grounds show did a remarkable job of bringing that energy to a much larger basement than we were used to, and we loved it,” he says.
For current students who want to break the ice of professional musicianship, Harder encourages them to attend shows whenever they can (well, when we all can again).
“Get involved in the broader Harrisonburg community!” he says. “There are so many fantastic musicians looking for people to play with. Find people to jam with and dream with … Find a cheap old guitar and play whatever tickles your imagination.”
If you’re a musical student or recent alum who’s playing shows in our area or beyond, please let us know!
Check out our coverage of the new, student-produced hit single “Meatball Mac,” inspired by the culinary stylings of the EMU cafeteria team.