In the parking lot behind the Longhorn football field, the sun sinks below the horizon, setting billowing clouds on fire with spectacular oranges, pinks, yellows and reds while Daria Mason puts the Payson High School marching band through its paces on a Tuesday night.
“Mark time and mark time … 1, 2 - 3, 4 - 5, 6 - 7, 8 and 1, 2 - 3, 4 - 5, 6 - 7, 8 …” Mason counts off the beats each band member steps to for the elaborately choreographed routines that have made the donation-supported marching band among the best in the state.
Confidently, members of the band respond by marching in place, each starting on the same foot to move as a unit. They would bring into motion a detailed map of their movements, devised by computer wielding music and embellished with distinctive moves inserted by a teacher who has transformed the band.
Off to the side of the band, sophomore Brett Royer works one-on-one with freshman Erika Kirkhan to help her feel the beat and march in time. Royer, along with John Buskirk and Sierra McMartin are one of three drum majors for the band this year. He enjoys his responsibility.
“The hardest thing is having confidence in everything. Even if you make a mistake, do it with confidence, recover with confidence,” said Royer.
Teaching confidence to students is just one benefit of the school’s music program. Mason also hopes students benefit by learning skills they may use until the “day they stop breathing,” she said.
Numerous studies prove that learning music brings children success in society, in school, in developing intelligence, and in life.
To illustrate, Mason told a story from early on in her teaching career. At that time, in another school district, parents came to Mason extremely concerned over their child’s depressed state. They believed music would help. Mason put their child into the percussion section of the band. As time went on, that student first became the leader of the section then class president.
Yet music finds itself under siege in many school districts. In an era of “No Child Left Behind” and standardized testing, money for music lags.
“The marching band gets no operating expenses from the school district, except my salary,” said Mason.
Putting on their yearly show costs the music department more than $4,000 for the music and choreography.
Transportation, uniforms and entrance fees into parades all cost money.
To fill the gap, band members participate in numerous fund-raising activities such as manning snack bars at sporting events. Additional funds come from the state’s Credit for Kids tax incentive program and individual donations.
“Last year we had some donations above and beyond Credit for Kids. Community support is very important,” said Mason.
Besides searching for dollars, marching bands have evolved artistically over the years. It’s now about the story you tell the audience. Judges are looking for exciting music and artistic interpretations of that music, said Mason.
“Ms. Mason has turned this band around since she took over my sophomore year,” said Tim Wallace a senior who plays the trumpet.
Mason describes herself as the music director and producer. She starts looking for the music the marching band will use a year before the season starts in August. Criteria includes music that is at the level of the musicians, tells a story and can adapt to the special needs of a marching band show, she said.
Once Mason picks the music, she turns it over to a charter — a gentleman from Texas who specializes in taking the instrumentation of the band and the number of kids and plugging it into a software program that creates multiple charts.
Each chart paints a picture of the band on the field every 4, 8 or 16 beats. These charts tell Mason where her band members will stand between measures of music. It’s up to Mason to add the flourishes of dance and artistic moves between the positions the charter lays out.
Mason could choose to have band members hold instruments at certain angles or throw in a couple of dance steps to liven up the routine, she said.
“Ms. Mason is pretty different from Mr. (Mike) Buskirk (the RCMS music director). She’s awesome,” said Ryland Wala a freshman who plays percussion.
Her husband, Mike Buskirk, is the junior high school music director. He spends more time teaching the basics to the kids so they understand the concept of a marching band. Mason has to kick it up a notch to compete against other high schools.
Adding depth to the musicians on the field, Mason has about a half dozen girls in the color guard. They twirl flags in time to the music. Mason hires a color guard consultant who designs a program for the girls, which aids in telling the story of the music, said Mason.
“I’m doing this because I want to meet people. It’s amazingly fun. Ms. Mason is never mean, unless you get it wrong a million times,” said Anna Parker, whose older sister was a color guard member in past years.
The program evolves throughout the football season.
The band only takes up 15 minutes of the home game’s halftime show. They only play for seven minutes. The rest of the time, they get on, set-up for the program and then get off the field, said Mason.
“This year, the theme is African odyssey. We’ll take the audience on a hunt through the savannah, through waterfalls and end up in the hills of Kilimanjaro,” said Mason.
Once the band has practiced and played the whole routine, it enters competitions on the field and in parades. Until last year, no one had heard of the Payson marching band. With their multiple award-winning program Dragon slayer last year, in several contests, the band took home outstanding and superior awards in all areas.
“To have the kids win award after award — the way it makes us feel as a group is indescribable,” said Mason.
By 8 p.m., the stars begin to dot the night sky through the gray wisps of the clouds. Mason wraps up the practice by calling all band members to a huddle. They respond with the percussion tapping out a beat and band members chanting, “Bump, bump, bump it up” as they march toward Mason.
Mason launches into a pep talk telling the band they’ve raised the bar on the field.
Payson was not even on the map until last year, now they win awards.
She asks each band member to turn toward his or her neighbor and thank them for being there. The kids happily comply.
“I hope you had fun tonight. My job is to make you the best you can be,” said Mason.