Draylen Mason Is Still Being Remembered, and How Matters

A year after his death, we should do as Draylen did

The mosaic portrait of Draylen at the Walk of Heroes (l), and Mike Johnston's portrait of Draylen

A year is plenty of time for something to get lost, for a keepsake to go missing, for thoughts or feelings about a loved one to slip away. What once was present every moment, carried around like skin, is no longer there and you're unsure where it's gone.

So in the year since young Draylen Mason was killed by a bomb planted at his home by Mark Anthony Conditt, it's reasonable to expect some memory of him to have been lost, for our awareness of him as a community to have slipped away, replaced in the intervening months by fresher tragedies, other concerns. And yet, on Feb. 27, when Roscoe Beck accepted his Austin Music Award for Best Bass, he spoke of Draylen. Four days later, Mayor Steve Adler proclaimed March 3 Draylen Mason Tribute Day, an honor coinciding with a concert by the Austin Youth Orchestra, for which Draylen played double bass, that was dedicated to him. On March 12, students with Austin Soundwaves, a music program that Draylen had studied with, posted a photo on Facebook with a message about how they love and miss him and how his "presence is felt every day." Some of this activity was no doubt inspired by the first anniversary of Draylen's death on March 12. But for many, including many who didn't know the young musician personally, Draylen Mason's presence has been felt throughout the year.

The remembrances have taken various forms: Concerts, naturally, have memorialized the 17-year-old musician, and like this month's AYO event, Golden Hornet's Young Composers Concert the previous March was dedicated to Draylen, and at it the ensemble Tetractys played "Hellfire," a composition of his first performed at the 2017 concert. In April of last year, the Austin Community College Jazz Ensemble appeared at the Texas Community Music Festival, where it played a piece composed for Draylen. Chris Threlkeld-Wiegand found another way to honor Draylen in the making of music: The master instrument-maker built a double bass in Draylen's honor, placing on its inside a small portrait of him along with a quote from his application to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music: "I am a musical servant whose gift is to touch people through my own playing." Then there was the portrait made by Austin artist Mike Johnston, who affixed it to an electric box at the intersection of Pleasant Valley and Webberville roads last April. And the 1,000 origami cranes that students from Cedar Ridge High School folded in memory of Draylen – some made with sheet music – and presented to his fellow students at East Austin College Prep. And the placement of Draylen by Southwest Key, which operates East Austin College Prep, in its Walk of Heroes, which honors individuals who have made an impact on the Austin community. A petition calling on Oberlin, which had accepted Draylen before he was killed, to award him a posthumous bachelor of music degree and create a scholarship fund in his memory has drawn more than 25,000 signatures to date. From that effort came the creation of the Draylen Mason Minority Student Travel Fund, which raised $2,585 in the three months after Draylen's passing. The Sacramento Youth Symphony, which runs a summer chamber music workshop that Draylen attended, also established a scholarship in his name to help more students with Austin Soundwaves attend its workshop. Those efforts are in addition to a scholarship fund with the Austin Youth Orchestra that will provide $2,500 to student musicians from low-income households for AYO tuition, music lessons, and other costs. Similarly, the Hispanic Alliance, which sponsors Austin Soundwaves, created the Draylen Mason Fellows Program, a one-year program in which selected students are awarded $1,000 each to pursue their music education (particularly at workshops, conferences, and retreats outside Austin), provided with individual coaching and mentorship, and able to meet together twice monthly over the year to play together and collaborate on a performance that "will use art as a means to bridge divides in their community and address a pressing social or political issue that is meaningful to the group" (qualities that speak to aspects of Draylen's character). In January, the first fellows were announced: violinists Sarah Chu, 14 (McNeil High School), Angie Ferguson, 15 (Austin High School), Cristal Martinez, 15 (Liberal Arts and Science Academy), and French horn player Barbara Reyes, 18 (East Austin College Prep).

The loss of a young person can be especially traumatic, as we mourn not only the life that's been lost but also the potential of that life which will never be realized. And the way in which that young person's life is taken can sometimes magnify the sense of tragedy we feel. A violent end is particularly cruel where a young person is concerned. (The death of Haruka Weiser, the UT-Austin dance major who was murdered on campus during her freshman year, offers another example; Dance Repertory Theatre's recent program Fortitude – in which Charles O. Anderson's dance Idòbálè, created through the Haruka Weiser Memorial Commission, celebrated Haruka's life and art – showed how raw the loss of her still feels after three years. See our review of Fortitude.) Draylen's age and how he died are surely bound up in the widespread grief that's been felt about him over the past year, and yet they don't seem to fully account for the exceptional outpouring of tributes to him. The fact that people have been choosing to remember him through art and opportunities is significant, because those were areas in which Draylen applied himself and made a difference, taking the chances before him to learn more about music and to play as much of it as he could and to make the best music he could, and through those areas, he touched lives. Saying that may be presumptuous of me since I never met Draylen, but in the comments I've read about him from his peers and his teachers, that thread has run through them.

“Draylen was reckless because he did the hard things. Reckless because he felt that that was the effort he owed you, us, and the world.”

At Draylen's induction into the Southwest Key Walk of Heroes, Austin Soundwaves Program Manager Hermes Camacho said this of his student: "Draylen approached everything he did with a reckless passion. The kind that requires jumping in feet first, but at the last second, deciding to jump head first, just because. He was reckless because he unabashedly followed anything he could dream. He was reckless because he didn't care if he was the only one saying something in the room. He was reckless because he would do things that needed to be done. Draylen was reckless because he did the hard things. Reckless because he felt that that was the effort he owed you, us, and the world." In this, Draylen was providing us with a model for living: not waiting for later but seizing the day; not just speaking but acting; not stepping tentatively but moving forward with intention and your full self. Camacho went on to urge his audience – the people who loved, admired, and respected Draylen – to follow his lead: "Do when no one else will, leap with the faith not to hold your breath, not to regret your choice, and be confident in whatever consequences come with your choice. Speak up for the meekest voice in the room, stand-up to the loudest, play every note like it's the only one you'll ever utter, and savor every moment with the energy that today deserves." In short, "Do what Draylen would have."

That's what people saw in Draylen Mason and why so many still remember him and have gone to such lengths to honor him and create opportunities for the next Draylens to make music, move ahead, connect and work with others, be friends and leaders and mentors. In the Facebook post where Draylen's friends at Austin Soundwaves wrote about missing him, the students are posed in front of a wall on which they've written, "Dray showed us the way." That's a powerful testament to how this young man lived and what we lost.

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Austin bombing, Draylen Mason, Austin Soundwaves, Southwest Key, East Austin College Prep, Austin Youth Orchestra, Hispanic Alliance, Roscoe Beck, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Golden Hornet, Young Composers Concert, Austin Community College Jazz Ensemble, Chris Threlkeld-Wiegand, Haruka Weiser, Dance Repertory, Charles O. Anderson, Hermes Camacho

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