KHS grad breaks new ground
Ryan Johnstone directs middle school in
challenging new composition to honor mother’s battle with cancer
By Pearl Cantrell
Monitor Staff Writer
CEDAR CREEK LAKE–Kemp High School 1997 graduate Ryan Johnstone,
who began his career as a music educator five years ago, is in
his second year as band director for Aledo Middle School, and
has already distinguished himself and his students.
Aledo ISD is a 4A Division II school district about 20 miles
west of Fort Worth. He and his students performed a challenging
new piece of music Johnstone commissioned to be written as a
memorial to his mother, Kemp resident Edith Marie Stovall
Johnstone, who succumbed to cancer on Mother’s Day, 2009.
The 55-member band (side note: there are 180 students in the
program, consisting of three different ability-based concert
bands) rose to the challenge and pulled it off, beautifully.
In the process, these students, some only a little more than a
year into playing the first notes on their instruments,
connected musical performance to struggles of life and death.
“It wasn’t just another superficial student performance,” Ryan
told The Monitor.
Ryan presented “Wrangling Wildfire” to his seventh and eighth
grade students about two months before the December performance
and asked them to think about the sound of a wildfire as it
spreads, to think about how it would be put down in one place
only to spring up again in another.
He asked them to think about dryness, summer heat and lack of
rain, and how that creates the conditions for a wildfire to
spread, to help his students tap into an emotional expression of
the music, not just a technical execution of it.
“In one particular rehearsal when things weren’t clicking,” Ryan
recalls, “I dropped the true meaning of the work on them. I told
them, ‘this isn’t about battling a wildfire, it’s about fighting
Digesting that information made all the difference in the
rehearsals that followed.
“This disease has touched nearly all of us. Knowing about the
metaphor changed the way the students approached the piece,”
Ryan explained. “I think they definitely understood what a big
deal this was. They really worked hard and were able to pull it
During the last week of rehearsals, the composer was able to
come in and hash out the final technicalities.
“You could throw down anything in front of these kids in
January, and they’re going to think they can do it,” composer
John B. Hedgés, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-12
composer-in-residence, told his fellow classmate Ryan, after the
students’ successful and inspired performance of his piece.
The two met while studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in
Philadelphia, where several other Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
members have also attended.
“We had talked about this (composition) last year” soon after
Ryan’s mother died of cancer, Ryan said. Although Ryan was
unable to get the grant he hoped would pay for a commissioned
piece, Hedges agreed to work on it in his down time.
Ryan recalls talking to his mother about a possible switch in
job titles, from an assistant director at Aledo High School to
being the band director for the Middle School, while she was
battling and also quite ill with cancer.
“She jokingly cautioned me to reconsider by reminding me what I
sounded like when I was in junior high,” Ryan said.
He took the middle school post for the 2009-10 school year. In
early September of his first year as director, he and Hedges
discussed the strengths and weaknesses of his band members, so
he could “up the ante, based on what we were able to accomplish
together in my first year as their director,” Ryan said.
“When we didn’t get the grant, we put everything on hold. I
didn’t even know until August, 2010, that he’d really been
working on the piece and wanted me to hear where he was so far,”
It was originally planned to be a three- to four-minute piece,
but ended up as a seven-minute piece.
He described the music, which can be heard on YouTube.com/watch?=fAhHqMA8DQE,
as “somewhat contemporary in sound.”
“It’s tonal, but does stray harmonically. It would fit in the
academic circles that college bands will want to play. They’re
always looking for the next big composer,” he said.
“At first, I wasn’t thrilled with the title John gave, until I
understood it was a metaphor for battling cancer,” Ryan added.
“That opened up a unique teaching opportunity and a rare
challenge for a middle school to perform something that was not
merely superficial, but a piece with depth.”
Ryan introduced it to the kids in October.
“It challenged them in a lot of ways, and there were times I
wasn’t sure whether we would be able to pull it off,” he said.
“But once they learned its true meaning, this significance
motivated them to work harder. It pulled more music out of them
and more purity from each note,” Ryan explained.
“It redefines what middle school band students can do, if given
the chance,” he added.
Since Hedges was involved, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
lent its support to promote the unveiling of the composition.
Hedges plans to make education a major component of his
residency with the orchestra.
The program also featured Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra hornist
David Cooper, who an adaptation of the Franz Schubert Horn
Concerto, Op. 8. The band opened the concert with “Seventeen
Come Sunday,” from English Folk Song Suite, composed by Ralph
Fort Worth Symphony associate conductor Andres Franco wrote Ryan
“I know the piece you performed was very hard both technically
and musically and your group was able to pull off a performance
of outstanding musicianship and, even more impressively, one
that showed emotional maturity. This is obviously the result of
your dedication, passion and talent,” Franco wrote.
Besides earning is bachelor’s degree from the Curtis Institute,
Ryan graduated from Yale University with a master’s in music
While Ryan has been an associate director under Joey Paul, the
4A-Div. II Aledo High School Bearcat bands have earned
sweepstakes at UIL and invitational festivals all three years.
As a performing orchestral trombone player, Ryan has played with
the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, among several
He also started as a student at Southern Methodist University
for two years. His primary teachers have been Jimmy Clark of the
Dallas Opera and Dallas Wind Symphony; John Kitzman, a Dallas
Symphony trombonist, Nitzan Haroz, principal trombone of the
Philadelphia Orchestra and Scott Hartman, renowned soloist and
“Having been blessed with the opportunity to study and perform
with some of the world’s finest musicians and teachers, it would
be a travesty if I did not expose my students to some of these
same resources,” Ryan said.
“My classmates all have symphony jobs. But, I don’t know of any
of them who has had the privilege of leading a performance quite
like the one I had with these middle school students in
December,” he pointed out. “What irony! It’s unforgettable for
me, my students and even the composer. It was a great
Ryan said he also keeps up with his high school alma mater.
“I’ve told Jimmy (Polk) I think the world of what he and Mr.
Christy have done with the Kemp Band,” he said. “I had Don
Harrell as my band director, and he was a big part of my
Ryan said while he was in junior high, he was taught by Polk,
who was interim director for a short time.
“The struggle in any developing program is that it is hard to
bring the numbers and participation up, while simultaneously
improving the quality of the program, but they’re doing it, and
the community can be really proud of them,” he said.
Ryan is the first professional musician in his family, and he
cites his parents, Edie and Bill Johnstone, for their love and
support of him doing what he enjoyed doing most, which was
“I think had my mother heard ‘Wrangling Wildfire,’ she would
have risen to her feet, along with everyone else, to applaud the
performance and been touched by what it would have meant to
her,” he said.