Encouraging Composition in the Secondary Instrumental Ensemble

Mike Lawson • Features • January 26, 2015

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Tyler S. GrantA Conversation with Alabama’s Prodigy Composer and Conductor

Music is often cited as one of the few avenues through which students are able to exercise creativity or “exercise their creative muscle,” yet those musical activities requiring imagination and ingenuity or that spark creativity – improvisation, arranging, and composition – are too often absent from the “conventional” ensemble experience. The exclusion of these worthwhile pursuits is often rationalized by a perceived need to devote all available instructional time to the preparation of performance literature. Perhaps instrumental music educators also feel that their own, often limited, experiences and training in improvisation, arranging, and composing disqualifies (or “precludes”) them from competently addressing these skills.

Tyler S. GrantWith the goal of cultivating student interest in composition, Tyler S. Grant (b. 1995) recounts his experiences as a burgeoning composer and active student in school music programs. Tyler composed his first piece at age 10 and published his first work for band, “Along the Beaches of Normandy” (published by FJH Music) at the age of 13. He has since produced nearly 20 award-winning compositions and commissioned works for concert band, marching band, and chamber ensembles, and serves as a speaker, clinician, and guest conductor for school bands and honors ensembles across the country. In this interview, Grant describes how his interest in composition was fostered by his ensemble directors, student peers, and fellow composers.

Describe your musical life leading up to this point. How have you participated in music?

I always was very fond of music from my earliest memories. Whether it was listening to classical music, rock music, or anything else I could find, I recall always having a love for it even though I was not yet formally trained. From fourth grade on, I would become part of numerous concert and marching band programs, and even join a few community orchestras and chamber groups.

What is the earliest compositional experience you can recall?

The earliest compositional experience I can recall would probably be in fourth grade, just after enrolling in beginning band. I remember doing a lot of score study, even if I didn’t call it “score study” at the time. I would go and steal scores off of the music teacher’s stand and look at how the other instruments work together. After that, I remember just going into a music store, finding some manuscript paper, and sketching ideas down; it wasn’t anything good, but I was just sketching little ideas that led to me composing large-scale works. I would also remember playing little melodies on the piano, but could never figure out the best way to remember them. The only solution that I found was to do the laborious task of writing it all down.

Tyler S. Grant (c) Morgan Meyers

How was your interest in composition first discovered, and, once discovered, how did your early school music teachers facilitate that interest?

It was my fourth grade beginning band teacher who first discovered that I had sketched some stuff out on manuscript paper. She told me that the method book we used included a free version of Finale Notepad. She recommended that I take that software and put it on my computer so that I could begin printing my pieces. That was a major stepping stone for me because I could not only see the music in a clear format, but I could also have it played back to me. 

Another way that my teachers used to facilitate this is by recommending and lending scores for me to study. The way bands seem to have always worked is that the teacher is the only one who has access to the score of the work. Unless the student asks for permission to look at it, it would not phase a director if they were the only ones to ever look at the score. I think that this not only encourages composition, but it also gives students who are likely to become music majors a chance to see how the music they play on their instrument works with the surrounding sections. In other words, they are a piece of the puzzle that never has the chance to see the big picture that they are making. Nowadays, professional recordings and full length perusal-scores are all over the web, and students don’t even have to pay to see these resources. All it takes is for the director to inform the students and let them know that these resources are available.

Your first work premiered before an audience while you were just a sixth grader. How did that come about?

I was a member of a local youth orchestra, and I was asked to take one of my early band works and transcribe it for orchestra. The work was composed a year earlier and never made it to publication. That gave me the opportunity to write for a different genre as well as get to work on my conducting.

Grant, age 16, rehearsing the 2011 University of Montevallo Young Musicians’ Camp Wind EnsembleAnd what did you learn from this initial experience?

I learned many things! I learned that, first and foremost, a flat key in a young orchestra piece is a very poor key. Those poor string players worked very hard to try and learn those notes; they certainly had a great attitude about it! I also learned about orchestration and about how to make various timbres. I feel that this experience marked the beginning of numerous trial-and-error experiences that would help me grow. Since I also was the conductor of the work, I was able to begin developing my musical belief system and learn how to get past conducting patterns, how to begin making the music more expressive through how the musicians worked together. It was this experience that helped me learn that the conductor is not just a human metronome; they craft the music according to their musical belief system and make it come to life.

How did your middle and high school directors continue to encourage your pursuit? 

While in both middle and high school, my directors gave me the chance to not just write for the band, but also gave me the chance to take scores home to study and suggested new works to listen to. This better gave me an understanding on how to orchestrate for band as well as how band music has evolved over the years. My seventh grade year, I made a move to a small private school with a small concert band. Once my new director learned that I was interested in composition, he invited me to write a work for our concert band – that would eventually become my first published work. He liked my interest in composition and gave me opportunities to write for the various ensembles that our school offered. By the time I left that school, I had composed works for concert band, marching band, brass ensemble, percussion ensemble, and even solo works. During my senior year, I attended a large public school, where the director asked me to do some various projects for the band. He was very helpful in finding new scores to study and really encouraged me to explore some of the older works in the repertoire. I was also blessed to have an AP Music Theory Class offered where I could learn more about chord structure and song form.

Grant, age 18, conducting the 2013 premiere of “Anthem of an Era” commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the University of Montevallo Young Musicians’ Camp (c) Dr. Lori ArdovinoAre there other musicians or composers who, throughout your process, review your work, encourage you, provide advice, and facilitate this on-going endeavor?

Yes! Over the years of working with a publisher and meeting new composers, I have created a support system of people who look at my works and provide me with feedback, such as orchestration tips, voicing errors, and range issues. They often help me get a piece to its full potential before sending it off to print. Many of them also have helped me in dealing with the business side of the music industry such as copyrights and royalties. While there are many young composer mentor projects out there, sometimes the best way to get a composer to mentor you for a significant period of time is to find someone who is approachable and ask any questions you may have. They will be able to relay to you their past mistakes, past successes and, overall, be able to encourage you in a way no other person will.

Do you feel that your abilities as a performer have improved because you’re also a composer, that is, have you seen that there’s been some transfer from one to the other?

I think that my performing abilities have definitely been improved since I have started composing. I find that many people around me in an ensemble struggle with the idea that music moves point to point, and that many young musicians like to play note to note. In other words, I naturally focus first on the journey that the composer wants to take me on instead of focusing only on the key and rhythms. While key signatures and rhythms are important, I think it is very important that we question “why” the music is laid out like it is and not just “what” we are being asked to play.

Grant, age 18, speaking at the Simmons Middle School (Hoover, AL) Band Halloween Costume Concert – 2013How has composition served as a motivational tool for you to continue in instrumental music?

I have found that my time in instrumental music has exposed me to terrific literature that I would have otherwise not been exposed to. Usually within a day or two of playing a new piece, I am online looking for a way to view the score. I feel that taking a new piece, studying the score, and then sitting in the center of an ensemble that is playing the work gives me a boost of creativity and motivation. If I feel that I am restricted to only learn as much as I am taught, then I am not motivated. Having the ability to take a piece of literature and do something with it, rather than just play it, really helps me maintain a strong interest. Often times, younger students use this same principal to explore other methods of music-making. One example of this is students who use the program GarageBand; with just this one program, I have seen many fellow students who have explored the world of electronic music and even ways to record their own playing. They are using methods and techniques that they learned in band and they are creating multi-track recordings on GarageBand and keeping their interest at a very high level. Many directors who encourage these fun activities, I have found, are also the ones who have a higher retention rate from year to year.

What other musical or non-musical lessons have your experiences as a composer taught you?

Musically, it has taught me a lot about music theory and how various chord-structures work together to extract a certain emotion. Another major skill that it has led me to learn is conducting. Shortly after my first piece was in print, I began receiving invitations from all over the country to come and guest-conduct. Since I was only a middle-schooler, it forced me to learn how to rehearse an ensemble at an early age. I was blessed with many great mentors in this area who taught me how to work on the conductor’s podium. Many of my peers who are still studying music education are terrified of standing in front of an ensemble and rehearsing. While conducting an ensemble is a tough job, I am confident enough in myself, from the years of doing it, to get in front of a band and rehearse. 

Aside from music, the biggest lesson it has taught me would be how to manage my time in order to get a project finished. In a given year, I work on a number of projects for bands and chamber groups, so I have to factor in time for each project, time for travel engagements, and time for unexpected delays.

 Grant, age 18, at work station.What advice would you offer students who may be interested in composing?

I would encourage them to simply begin writing on a small scale. For example, if a student is interested in composing who happens to be a trombone player, then a good first step is to write some music for solo trombone. From there, I would encourage them to branch out and try writing for other instruments and have friends play them. There is no substitute for learning from trial-and-error.

I also would encourage them to never listen to the voices of anyone that tells them that they “aren’t good enough” or that “writing music is unusual.” Sometimes parents and peers can be a negative voice in a student’s mind that can cause them not to achieve their potential, even if they mean well. When I was in middle school, I was constantly picked on and mocked for wanting to be a composer, and felt that it was a struggle to keep reaching for my goals. I would encourage them to go against what the negative voices tell them, in order to reach their goals.

How might you suggest instrumental music educators foster an atmosphere fit for student composition?

In a nutshell, be willing to answer their questions. Sometimes a student asks questions as a way of saying, “I’m really interested in something, but I don’t know how to express it.” Educators can show support to those students simply by adding value to the questions they ask. To have success in any art, you must take small, yet smart, risks. The questions that they ask are their way of gathering information so that one day they have the opportunity to take those risks.

I think another aspect that music educators need to be cautious of is overemphasizing the competitive aspect of music. While some of the various musical assessments, competitions, festivals, and honor band auditions are important to the development of the students, it can be easy for the students to focus only on the competitive side of music and neglect the artistic side of music. Music was never intended to be competitive, so we need to be careful how our students perceive the definition of musicianship.

Grant, age 14, conducting the Hampton Cove Middle School Band (Hampton Cove, AL) – 2009What specific musical skills or exercises would you encourage instrumental music educators to incorporate into their classes to achieve these ends?

For young musicians, beginning and young band level, one of the easiest exercises to do is to have the students write melodies using the notes and rhythms the students have learned thus far. This can be done in a large scale format, like having the whole class do it together, or you can encourage students to do it on their own time. It may even be fun to set aside 5-10 minutes once a week to allow the students to share their compositions with the class. As always, the students may be hesitant to have a composition performed to a class for fear of ridicule from their peers, but there will always be a few students who help break the ice and make it fun for everyone.

How might you suggest instrumental music educators encourage composition at the high school level then?

With today’s technology, students have access to numerous notation softwares such as NoteFlight, Finale PrintMusic, or Sibelius First, for instance, that are either free or available at a low cost. If a student expresses interest in arranging or composing, one of the best ways to encourage them is offering to read their works with the ensemble. Whenever they hear their work played, especially for the first time, it gives the student an overwhelming feeling of encouragement that can make them want to continue writing. Even though some will not pursue composition as a career, it certainly will make them a better musician in their efforts.

And what is your compositional process today?

The process always tends to change from project to project. Nowadays, I work mostly by commission, so I always begin by thinking about the instrumentation, grade level, duration, and the overall structure. After I have thought about it for a while, I will usually start thinking about the thematic material for the work and how it will lay into the structure I have imagined. From there, I typically find myself connecting pieces of this large puzzle I have created into a work that, hopefully, is able to impact the performer and listener in a positive way. Once I have a rough draft finished, I will then have one of my friends and fellow composers review the work and offer suggestions on how to make it better. Lastly, I send the work off to a publisher or to the commissioning group to begin the performance process. 


  • The inclusion of music in the school curriculum is often justified as an outlet for student creativity, yet opportunities for ensemble participants to improvise, arrange, and compose are often limited. Based on the personal experiences and compositional process described by Grant, music educators might consider the following suggestions:
  • Take advantage of those opportunities for composition offered in many beginner and intermediate level method books. Assign these exercises for homework and allow students to perform their completed works during class.
  • Require students to practice notating new pitches, rhythms, and other musical elements as they are introduced and performed. These new concepts may also become required components of brief, single-part composition assignments.
  • Encourage students to dictate familiar melodies. With age and experience, these arrangements may include multiple parts and inspire students to eventually compose original music.
  • Utilize the conductors’ score as a teaching tool in ensemble rehearsals and make scores available to students for further study and analysis.
  • Provide brief tutorials for those music technologies associated with the student method book in use. Expose students to notation software, many of which are available for free online. Consider requesting access to your school’s computer lab for this purpose.
  • Create an atmosphere where musical experimentation is valued.
  • Be willing to answer student questions specific to arranging/composing or seek answers from colleagues and experts.
  • Invite composers to serve as rehearsal clinicians or to guest conduct one of their works at a performance. Speaking engagements may be arranged via teleconferencing where time or geographical location might preclude on-campus visits.


Dr. Edward C. HoffmanEdward C. Hoffman, III, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Music and Head of Music Education at the University of Montevallo, Alabama, where he coordinates the undergraduate music education programs, teaches graduate coursework in the Master of Education in Music program, and directs the summer Young Musicians’ Camp. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Hoffman taught Pre K-8 general music and directed a variety of elementary, middle, and high school vocal and instrumental ensembles. He earned the Ph.D. in Music from the University of Nebraska, the Master of Education degree in Music from Auburn University, and bachelor’s degrees in both music performance and music education, magna cum laude, from the University of Southern Mississippi.

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