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Mourning and Honoring a Student Leader
Hermes Camacho, Program Manager, Austin Soundwaves, Austin, TX
The hours, days, and weeks following the death of Draylen Mason at the hands of a serial bomber in March of 2018 are difficult to look back upon. To lose any student is indescribably tragic, but losing Dray was a deep and personal anguish to all of us at Austin Soundwaves (ASW); he was, and continues to be, the heart and soul of our El Sistema-inspired program. In mourning, we learned how much we at ASW depend on our students, sometimes leaning on them just as much as (or more than) they lean on us. Their strength was remarkable during that time, and the energy that typically fuels teenage intransigence was instead diverted two-fold into leading music-making and creating remembrances for Dray. We grieved and didn’t simply move on. And though it would have been easy to focus on the perniciousness of the circumstances, we felt a grave and humbling responsibility to persist in recognizing and commemorating Draylen’s growing legacy.
Dray was part of many organizations in Austin, and the city’s arts community rallied in the most beautiful way possible. The first idea revolved around some sort of scholarship in Draylen’s name, but there was a shared feeling that a scholarship was not nearly enough. Draylen was an accomplished and talented musician, and also a true social justice warrior. As an 8th grader, he won an essay contest on racial profiling. His friends and teachers are unanimous in saying Dray lived honorably each day. He spoke up when it was right, and especially when speaking up was difficult. It seemed only fitting that a memorial to Draylen embody both of his passions. Thus was born the Draylen Mason Fellows Program (DMFP).
The DMFP is a year-long, audition- and interview-based initiative for high school-aged musicians from around the greater Austin area to collaborate on an original capstone concert, showcasing their artistic skills by addressing social issues meaningful to their community. As many as twenty sessions, each lasting between two and three hours, take place outside of school hours, and the expectation is that fellows communicate and coordinate with each other regularly. All the sessions are challenging; often, they are very emotional. Our students find out a lot about themselves and their cohort members in a short amount of time. Staff and guest artists initially take the lead in facilitating, but like most of our programming at ASW, we shift to providing guidance and support as the fellows take over leadership incrementally throughout the year.
Much of what we do with DMFP centers around intentional social action. Our regular Austin Soundwaves programming—orchestra, band, chamber music, mariachi, private lessons and so on—is intentional social action. But we, the teaching artists and program staff, act as the social change agents, working and collaborating within artistically underserved communities. DMFP differs in that it puts the fellows (students) in the position of driving social change, requiring them to consider the social implications of their music-making through both an awareness and intentionality in their artistic choices. The challenge is making these connections seamless, so we spend a significant amount of time helping the fellows discover who they are as artists and what is deeply meaningful to them. It is common (and heartening) for musicians to say they want to make a difference with their music-making, but perhaps less common for them to be specific about whom they might benefit. As Draylen did with himself, we push the fellows to dig deeper, to find something uniquely meaningful and perhaps to find one or more issues they either didn’t realize were important to them or didn’t know existed.
In our first year of the fellowship, we tackled topics ranging from immigration to the criminal justice system as it pertains to people of color. However, we found that our fellows felt most strongly about the stereotypes surrounding them as artists, based on their backgrounds, and wondered whether anyone would take the time to truly listen to their artistry. For example, our fellows recreated Joshua Bell’s subway violinist experiment. Moving throughout the performance space, each playing a short solo, they asked the audience, “Would you wade into the music or hurry off because you have somewhere else to go?”
Now, halfway through our second year, our nine fellows have been working with guest artists to develop their personal artists’ statements; working collaboratively on original songs; and preparing to dive into discussions about topics of their choosing, which this year include climate change and ageism.
We hope for and dream of a world filled with Draylen Fellows: making music and making change in the world, and just maybe helping to make the difference Dray would have made on his own.