Years ago, while working as a high school teacher and soccer coach in California, Cory Cullinan—a.k.a. Doctor Noize—wanted to teach a class on classical music history. His school’s administrators didn’t think there would be any interest, so Cullinan seized casual moments to try and drum up curiosity about the class. While kicking a soccer ball with students, Cullinan began to tell stories.
“I”d say things like, ‘You know, this guy Beethoven wrote music after he went deaf.” I learned that kids will be interested if you can attach characters and stories to the music,” says Cullinan, now a Lone Tree dad of two daughters.
It was this concept that led him to begin writing and recording children’s music on the side, in hopes of elevating kids” appreciation of classical music in a fun way. His first album, The Ballad of Phineas McBoof featuring a rock star monkey, was part popular music, part orchestral opera, and part story.
“Basically, I wrote what I”d want to listen to with my own kids,” says Cullinan, a Stanford-educated music and political science major, who focused on classical music history, electronic music, and voice.
As it turned out, other parents wanted to listen to that kind of music with their kids, too. The album’s song “Banana” became a national number one hit song on XM Sirius Kids Radio—a station Cullinan didn’t know existed at the time.
“That was the thing that really put Doctor Noize on the map—if I can be considered on the map,” Cullinan laughs. Following the success of “Banana” Cullinan began playing live shows as Doctor Noize, during which he sings, plays multiple instruments, and uses electronic looping technology, all while inspiring kids to be musicians themselves.
Cue The Orchestra
In 2010, the McConnell Foundation in Redding, California, commissioned Cullinan to write a live family show that would be performed alongside an orchestra, with the help of conductor Kyle Pickett, Cullinan’s old friend from Stanford.
The live shows—long-form musical theater for kids and newcomers—began selling out large auditoriums. Cullinan began playing across the country with orchestras including the North State Symphony in California, the Springfield Symphony in Missouri, the Juneau Symphony in Alaska, and Lone Tree Symphony near his home.
“My favorite moment was when a trumpet player told me he had tears in his eyes, after I”d told a story about Beethoven, and he heard the kids screaming for Beethoven,” Cullinan says. “I think kids are the most creative and adventurous audiences, so I don’t think it is a crazy idea to introduce kids to (classical music).”
Help From Grammy Winners
The success of the live orchestral shows inspired Cullinan to develop his latest album last summer, Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony, in hopes of bringing even more sophisticated musical theater to kids. The album features Grammy Award-winning opera singers Nathan Gunn and Isabel Leonard, the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Colorado Children’s Chorale, as well as Pickett. “They all agreed because they thought it was a fun, worthy project,” Cullinan says.
In fact, Gunn and Leonard agreed to be part of a Kickstarter online fundraising campaign video for the project.
“We talked about that if we were going to do this, we wanted to do it with a great orchestra, and to do that we needed more money,” Cullinan says. “We also wanted to show that there was interest in the market, and if we didn’t raise the money it meant that people probably weren’t interested.” The Kickstarter campaign raised more money than expected and Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony became a reality.
“(This album) is really what I wanted to bring to the world,” Cullinan says.
Making a Living on Music
Cullinan no longer teaches, and now divides his time as a dad to daughters Sidney, 13, and Riley, 11, children’s musician, recording artist, and owner of Reach Studios—the recording studio in his basement, which shares space with his indoor turf soccer field. He’s also created illustrated books, apps, and teaching curriculum, and has teamed up with children’s author Coert Voorhees to produce the albums, Grammaropolis and Punctuate This!
“The funniest thing about being a kids” musician is that I”ll play a show in a 500-seat auditorium and the next day it will be an acoustic show in a library,” Cullinan says. “As a musician, you have to be ready to do anything and just show up out of dedication to the cause.”
It’s tremendously hard work, he says, and credits his wife Janette’s consistent career as a corporate trainer as a big reason why he’s been able to continue a career in music.
“The hardest part is figuring out what the world can use and make a living out of it as a creative person,” Cullinan says. “The years I succeed at it, I am grateful.”
Lydia Rueger is an Arvada-based writer, editor, and mother of two.