You might call Willie Cornish ’22 top brass – a musician with an ear for marching into leadership.
Director of Athletic Bands Jay Bocook recalls when the university’s pandemic protocols last winter left the concert band down to one tuba player.
“Well, Willie said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll learn to play to tuba,’” Bocook says. “It’s quite a sacrifice for somebody to stop playing their main instrument for a while to learn a brand new one – tuba of all things, very different from French horn – just to help out the band program.”
Cornish, you see, started playing horn in junior high school because he liked its sound better than the trumpet, which he picked up in fourth grade. Now, Bocook says, “At least we have a bass instrument because he’s back there.”
And on April 13, Cornish will present his composition, “The Butterfly Effect,” during Furman Engaged , a virtual celebration this year of the immersive learning experiences available through The Furman Advantage. At the center of the day’s activities will be the public sharing of students’ work, representing the final step of these deep learning experiences, which include internships, research, service learning, study away, creative projects, first-year writing seminars and capstone experiences.
This year, more than 650 students, including Cornish, will share their experiences.
In his notes about his six-minute piece, he cites the “metaphor of a small action, such as a butterfly flapping its wings, completely altering the direction and behavior of a large tornado/storm.”
Adds Cornish: “With storms, I’m just really, really interested in the idea of the ‘butterfly effect,’ like how one small action can cause a huge chain reaction.” The music major lets his works – and others’ words – do the talking.
Lyrics for his two-song cycle come from the poems excerpted here:
Emma Lazarus: “Storm” (1884)
O’erhead still flame those strange electric thrills.
A moment more, – behold! yon bolt struck home,
And over ruined fields the storm hath come!
And Jean Toomer: “Storm Ending” (1923)
Dripping rain like golden honey—
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.
His choice of poets was deliberate: one, a renowned female writer, whose work appears on the Statue of Liberty; the other, a Black man, a “canonical writer” during the Harlem Renaissance, according to Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Hopefully, people will be able to experience pretty much those dramatic things that happen in life, and then the more subdued things,” says Cornish of his composition for piano and soprano.
And that’s no surprise given that his resume lists 17 works ranging from a West African percussion ensemble to solo guitar to a woodwind quintet. (Just take a listen to his 571-song Spotify playlist.)
Cornish draws musical and leadership inspiration from his mother, La’Jan Cephas, who played clarinet and serves as a city commissioner in Cambridge, Maryland. (His maternal grandfather, Lance Cephas, played alto sax.) And he bears his father’s name and entrepreneurial spirit: Willie Sr. owns a hair salon in his Fort Mill, South Carolina, hometown.
Now Willie is tuning up for graduate school, and then a career composing for TV and film and videogames.
“The sky’s the limit,” Bocook says. “He’s just one of those guys that will do whatever he can to make anybody’s situation better.”