For kids who grow up in rough neighborhoods, sometimes they feel as if joining gangs are their only chances of survival. With a crime rate of 43.03 per 1,000 residents, Richmond, Virginia is considered the most dangerous city in the state. However, Norman Cottrell, founder of Virginia Music Corporation, is taking strides to help kids learn that there are better alternatives of living than turning to the streets.

Norman Cottrell Founder of Virginia Music Corp.

Norman Cottrell grew up in Richmond, Virginia where he is currently a Music Education major at Southern University and A&M College. He started his music career in middle school because he wanted to stay out of trouble and decided to pick up the saxophone. With the guidance of his band directors, Norman was able to overcome the challenges most kids face on the streets and, ever since then, he has made it his goal to make a difference in his community through music. So, he created the Virginia Music Corporation to fulfill this goal through a program called the Virginia All-Star Band.

Can you tell us more about the Virginia Music Corporation and the work you accomplish?

The Virginia Music Corporation is a non profit organization that was founded to help educate, elevate, and advance the wellness of students nationwide and the culture that surrounds them. Since our birth as a corporation we’ve helped a high school band program prepare for a battle of the bands, helped students prepare for their auditions, and helped the community by providing therapeutic musical events in times of tension. 

We started as a band program known as the Virginia All-Star Band in 2017. The mission to advance the wellness of the community and its students through music hasn’t changed. Our job from the beginning has always been educating, elevating, and uplifting the fine art programs and the students that do not receive assistance from the education system. We do it out of love for the culture and we can’t wait to continue serving the community.

What was your life like before you got into music?

I grew up in the east end of Richmond and before I got into music I was in martial arts and baseball. My first job was armed security and that was the scariest job of my life. I was sixteen years old and they put me in control of an apartment complex, but didn’t give me any armor. All I had was a pistol and that was it. Being in an apartment complex that spoke mostly Spanish made it very difficult, but the residents and I never had any issues, regardless of the language barrier. We always had smiles on our faces and did the best to keep the community safe. Afterwards, I graduated high school and didn’t have the money to go to college. So I worked at multiple jobs for three years to save up enough money to pursue my calling of being a music educator. The first university I attended was Virginia Union University and from there I transferred to Southern University and A&M College.

Do you think the struggles Richmond, Virginia has are unique to the community?
Virginia All-Star Band in Richmond, Virginia
Virginia All-Star Band in Richmond, Virginia

I believe every community in the U.S. has its struggles and Virginia’s music and fine arts culture as a whole doesn’t get the support it deserves.

Was your family supportive of your decision to go into music?

It’s kind of hard to explain; sometimes they’re supportive and other times they’re not. One example is when I chose to go to a HBCU and they didn’t like that decision, but I made the choice a long time ago to end this generational curse.

Who do you turn to when you need a strong support system?

I have my faith, my Juke family, and my small circle of friends that I grew up with. They’ve always supported me, motivated me, and that’s what helped me get through the challenges of being a student, band director, and business man.

What’s something surprising you learned about music that you apply to being an entrepreneur?

Music is more than just learning how to play. Music programs taught me discipline, perseverance, patience, and many more skills I can name. But if it’s one lesson that stuck with me through my journey as a musician it is the quote “What you put in is what you get out”. I’ve applied this mantra to my school work, myself as a musician, and from day one to year four of this Corporation. I knew if I didn’t go the distance to make a difference for the culture that raised me I wasn’t doing enough. So I would go hours out of  the way to pick up students who wanted to play—just so they could be a part of a small full band, play music, and fellowship to learn more about the different styles of marching bands.

How does playing music make you feel?

It depends. I like playing and writing music. Every time I do either one of them, time goes by faster or I always feel a sense of relief and peace.

What drove you to want to start up your own organization?

When I noticed my band directors giving their all with what little they had to properly fund and equip the band is when I was motivated to make a difference. When I thought about this corporation I did not have a name, but I knew I wanted to alleviate the underfunding, the support that wasn’t there for the music culture, and the struggles band directors and students have dealt with years before I joined a band program. Two years later, our band program grew into an organization known as the Virginia Music Corp. and our perspective on our purpose has shifted to something even bigger. Now we’re not only looking to help the music culture in the state and around the world, but we want to extend our services to the fine art programs as well. The fine art programs are culture and music is just one of the many fine arts of this world that drives us to do it for the culture.

What has been the biggest struggle you have faced so far?

The biggest struggle I had from the beginning was no funding, getting students to participate, and band programs involved with what we have to offer them. In the beginning, we were new and few people didn’t like the fact that I was teaching before I graduated and that I was a white band director teaching HBCU style music. Nonetheless, I didn’t let that get to me and I continued marching on and striving to make a difference in the world through music.

What kind of legacy do you hope Virginia Music Corporation leaves in the world?

The legacy I hope the Virginia Music Corp. leaves in this world is one that is powerful enough to unite people derived from all cultures of life through music and brings back the pure prideful musicianship the culture needs.

Want to learn more about Virginia Music Corp.? Connect with them on Instagram.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.