Born in Oklahoma, Ballard was a member of the Quapaw nation of Native Americans and his compositions were influenced by both Western (or Euro-American) and Native American musical worlds. When his parents divorced, his time with his grandmother included membership with the War Dance Society of Quapaw and other traditional activities, but she also got a piano for him to learn Western music and singing.
He earned undergraduate degrees in music and music education and an advanced degree in composition. He did post-graduate composition studies before joining the Institute of American Indian Arts. He composed constantly, including two Native American themed ballets. Along with continuing to compose, he became a world-recognized music educator and was honored for his contributions to the Native American community with a Cherokee Medal of Honor.