Learn from two GPG Music composers on how to get started

Education  |  Interviews
Posted Jan 17, 2022

We recently sat down with two of the dozens of composers on the GPG Music roster — Shaun Salem and CEO Steve Martin, DMA (ASCAP), both former and present music educators, conductors and composers — to discuss the process of becoming a composer. 

Both started in their teens. Shaun began in earnest at 14 under the tutelage of composer W. Mark Harrell, a french horn player with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, whose compositions are regularly commissioned by the KSO. Steve dabbled at writing a piece at the behest of his high school instructor and lifelong mentor Dr. Gary P. Gilroy, currently Professor of Music and Director of Bands at California State University, Fresno.


First tip: You don’t have to start in high school, but you can. 

Each had an opportunity as a student to try their hand at composing. Shaun literally wrote his scores and parts by hand. High school band directors John Gallagher and Michael Carter supported Shaun’s efforts in understanding concert band. Carter gave Shaun the opportunity to direct the high school band through a reading of the manuscript parts and score he completed by hand over the course of about six months. He called it a trainwreck, saying it was because he was quite clueless about key signatures and transposition. Steve wanted to do an arrangement of a favorite track from a film score.  He asked Gilroy if he could play through it with the high school band and Gilroy agreed. Gilroy provided feedback and guidance. Steve looks back on the experience both in awe at remembering the feeling of hearing bandmates play the work and cringing, knowing now about good composition techniques. 

Second tip: Realize the first work isn’t going to be the greatest, but it will be a great motivator.

Both young composers had a strong sense of self and a desire to play WITH the music. Shaun describes counting multiple measures of rests and considering different ways for percussionists to enjoy the experience more.  Steve wanted to do cool things with the trumpet, and frankly, live up to his mentor’s expectations. Shaun recounted, 

“At my final high school concert, I conducted my first premiere work titled ‘Overture’. It was the final piece on the program, and the audience gave us a standing ovation at the end. This was a year or two after Mr. Holland’s Opus premiered in theaters, and it was one of those life moments you never forget as a person. I’ll always remember Mr. Carter’s support during that time in my life. Thank you, Mike!”

Third tip: As you progress, mentor aspiring young composers.

Both composers thought their first forays in composing would be mocked by their peers. On the contrary whether in high school or college, each found a support network willing to share the musical experience and try something new. Collegiate composing expanded their skills, they were exposed to new music, styles and experience. Both men have reasons to appreciate Gilroy for his mentorship. Shaun’s next move was to boldly ask friend, colleague, and mentor George Hayden, band director at Maryville schools in Tennessee to listen to a composition called Windrider, hoping for Hayden to select it for recording or performance. Hayden did one better and recommended the piece to Gary P. Gilroy, and shortly thereafter GPG Music accepted the piece, and Gilroy performed it with his Wind Symphony and later for a clinic.

Fourth tip: Be bold. Ask.

Shaun’s career changed from being a local composer searching for an ensemble to a published composer whose music was being marketed to approximately 14,000 schools across America in 2011. Gilroy knew Steve well from high school and throughout college, which led to a business offer to work together. They did for fifteen years, until Steve bought GPG Music in 2019, continuing to work with Gilroy as a contributing composer – and lifelong mentor!

Fifth tip: Keep writing great music. It matters! 

Or…as Shaun says, keep writing multi-measure rests for percussion. Either way, you’ll probably inspire the next generation. 

For the list of both composers’ music: check out Shaun’s compositions for GPG Music or review Steve’s collection of pieces.