Music Manuscript

Thoughts on Composing for the Young Concert Band


By Ralph Ford

Over the past year, I have presented a clinic at state, district, and university conferences discussing my thoughts about the process of creating music for beginning and developing players. It has been invaluable to receive feedback from teachers in discussions about music that engages the young musician, especially those at the beginning stages of musical ability. It is through discussions such as these that I’m able to better meet the needs of the ensembles with varying abilities around the world. As a composer of music for any medium, I truly enjoy my attempts at creating works at this level for orchestra, concert band, and jazz ensemble. Those people who know me personally understand that I often think (and sometimes act) like a child. As a father of two young musicians, I examine what keeps them drawn to music. Additionally, I feel a responsibility to find a musical balance for the ʻteacher/musician/conductorʼ: to provide the best musical experience for the director as well as the students (and the audience!). When setting out to compose (or arrange) a piece for young or beginning players, I strongly consider each of the following points:

  1. Individual parts strive to be linear: As though each individual part were a solo line, I strive to make everyone’s part flow musically and logically.
  2. Everyone gets the melody, or at least a motif: This is extremely important for the developing musician. Years ago this advice was given to me by one of the best middle school directors I’ve ever known and I have tried to stick to this principle on every piece.
  3. Cross curricular opportunities are examined carefully: Finding ways to integrate music into other school curricula is a positive way to encourage connections with other academic subjects.
  4. Provide a musical ʻhookʼ to excite the players: Especially with beginners. Strong unison lines that establish a piece and re-occur during the performance seem to engage even the shyest of students.
  5. Create a piece that provides materials for concept reinforcements, i.e. the ʻreal worldʼ application of concepts from the method book(s).
  6. Create a piece that is fun to play: music that motivates practice and continued involvement in music.

The esteemed conductor and educator, Ray Cramer, once made a list that attempts to answer the question, “What comprises music of artistic merit?”Although this list has been quoted many times, I feel it is appropriate to revisit it for this discussion. DOES THE MUSIC POSSESS/CONTAIN:

  1. A well conceived formal structure?
  2. Creative melodies and counter-lines?
  3. Harmonic imagination?
  4. Rhythmic vitality?
  5. Contrast in all musical elements?
  6. Scoring which best represents the full potential for beautiful tone and timbre?
  7. An emotional impact?

Well stated, in my opinion. For the record, I keep a copy of this list in my studio to review before I embark on a new project. During my college band director days, I also kept this list at my desk as I reviewed music for performance with my wind ensemble. It continues to serve me well.