Huntington West Virginia's Ritter Park fountain

Local Student Hits All the Right Notes with the Fund for Gifted Musicians

Isaac Stephens has always loved music. As a toddler, he joined his mom, a vocalist, on stage at performances, holding her hand while she sang. Like other young kids, he drummed constantly on household objects—though unlike other young kids, he always kept a steady beat. He began playing the drums and guitar at the age of 6, and at the age of 12 he joined the school band. He went on to study jazz performance at the University of Louisville and plans to pursue a career as a jazz musician.

“My parents exposed me to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and R&B—real people playing real instruments with real expression,” he said. “Seeing how those people were able to express what they were feeling and experiencing was incredible to me. I thought, ‘I want to be able to do that.’”

Stephens, a native of Greenup County, Kentucky, said he was fortunate to grow up in a community that has always been supportive of the arts.

“Greenup County is a place where people actually care about furthering our heritage through music,” he said. “Music is such an important part of who we are and where we’ve been—as Kentuckians, as Americans and as human beings. To lose that would be devastating, and I’m lucky to be from an area that recognizes that.”

Stephens said his family, his band directors and his community as a whole have all inspired, challenged and guided him along the path he’s on today—as well as a local donor who established the Fund for Gifted Musicians at Foundation for the Tri-State Community. The anonymous donor not only shaped Stephens’ musical education and future but also gave him a new perspective on giving back.

“To know that someone is supporting me, not just financially but by believing in me, has helped me immeasurably,” Stephens said. “If I’m not practicing, it’s that constant reminder: ‘Someone believes in you. Go practice.’ If I’m thinking about my future, it’s that push to keep jazz music alive, not just for myself but also for other people. People fought for this music and for me to be able to do what I love. What reason do I have not to do the same for others?”

Stephens plays several instruments, from the saxophone, the first instrument he played in the school band, to the trombone, which he learned watching his uncle play, to the trumpet, an instrument he decided to learn after hearing his band director practicing at school. He still plays the guitar and drums as well.

“If there’s something I can’t do, I want to learn how to do it,” he said. “It’s how I’ve always been. I’ve always tried to be versatile and play as many instruments as possible.”

Stephens stays busy practicing and performing, both in and outside of school. A two-time scholarship winner from the Fund for Gifted Musicians, he used his first scholarship award to attend a summer jazz camp at Morehead State University and the second award to attend a camp at the University of Louisville, an experience that solidified his decision to earn his undergraduate degree there.

Pursuing a career in jazz music is no small feat, and it certainly hasn’t come without sacrifice. There’s no substitute for hard work and perseverance, Stephens said. And if you have the chance to hone your musical ability outside of regular lessons or band practice, whether with a mentor, class, camp or workshop, his advice is simple: Do it.

“I work with some music students back home, and my advice to them is to seek out any and all help available to them,” he said. “There’s no reason why you can’t be good at what you’re doing. If you want to learn an instrument and be good at it, that’s up to you, not anybody else. Do what you have to do to get better at your instrument and achieve your goals.”

Thanks to scholarships offered through the Fund for Gifted Musicians at Foundation for the Tri-State Community, eighth through 12th graders in Boyd and Greenup counties have the chance to further their study of jazz or classical music with extracurricular music opportunities, from summer camps to workshops to master classes. For more information or to obtain a scholarship application, call the Foundation at 606-324-3888.