Mike Lawson • Archives • September 1, 2003

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By Jennifer H. McInerney
Photos by Carol Cunningham, Cunningham Photography, Waianae, Hawaii.

On New Year’s Day, the 400 students in the Hawaii All-State Marching Band proceeded down Colorado Boulevard, awash in wave after wave of rainbow colors, their hula skirts swaying as they marched to the steady beat. Their band director, on the other hand, was “walking on eggshells” that day, and for good reason: Jan. 1, 2003, was only the second day this oversized band of students from all the islands of Hawaii had come together as an ensemble, making its performance debut at the Tournament of Roses Parade in California. Director Michael Payton, a music educator for 35 years, had been asked to lead Hawaii’s first all-state marching band to represent the 50th state of the union in one of the country’s most prestigious exhibitions for marching bands.

“When we started, almost half the kids weren’t in an established marching program, and half of that group hadn’t even marched before,” he recalls.


Payton met with the students on each of the islands for small group rehearsals, but the entire group did not assemble in one location until everyone arrived in California. The students spent a day practicing in the parking lot at Knott’s Berry Farm in preparation for the parade.

“They came so far in that amount of time and did such a great job,” he says of the students’ parade performance. “It was, I guess, a miracle.”

After a challenge like preparing an all-state marching band for the Rose Parade, the start of a new school year seems much less daunting. But, Payton acknowledges, even after more than three decades of teaching, every first day of school is a “first.”

“It’s always challenging,” he notes. “You’ve got new kids, new instrumentation and a new program. It’s always different. Even with the marching shows, I try not to do things I’ve done before. I’m always doing new stuff so it’s not boring.”

At Kahuku High School, students in grades seven through 12 are drawn from an area that spans 30 miles, stretching from Waimea Bay to Chinaman’s Hat, Kualoa Ranch. The incoming seventh-graders derive from five different elementary schools and meet for the first time in high school. As one might expect, the seventh-grade band students are rather quiet on the first day of school, so Payton works in some ice-breakers to start the year off.

“I want them to interact with each other, make new friends,” he explains. “I have the kids introduce themselves and talk about where they’re from, what thing they did that was exciting during the summer – just to get them to break the ice.”

School Band and Orchestra: How much of your summer do you dedicate to preparation for the upcoming school year?

Payton: During the summer, we hold band rehearsals one evening a week. We’re doing an experimental program at the school, called a tri-semester, where the kids are taking three semesters in a year. But the problem is they usually can’t be in band all three tri-semesters. If they’re in band the first two tri-semesters but they’re not in the third tri-semester and they’re not here in the summer, it’s like starting over again. That’s why we have a summer band going once a week on Wednesdays. We keep the kids in shape and do sight-reading, a little bit of marching. Just getting them ready. That’s in June and July. Then I give them a break in August because we go to band camp on Aug. 11. Band camp is a week, and it’s from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. We used to go in the nighttime, too, but the football team’s been taking over the football field, so we don’t have a place.

SBO: How do you prepare yourself for the beginning of the school year?

Payton: I think a band director’s biggest thing is choosing music for the group that’s challenging but at their ability level – not where you challenge them and frustrate them because they can’t play it. Choosing music is one of the things I do all summer. I’ve also been charting the marching band show – trying to think of new ideas, something different to keep myself motivated. I do my own charting. I’ve always done it and I teach the show myself. I’ve never used a computer for marching band charting. I can do it quicker by hand than if I do it on the computer. Most of the preparation is just getting ready for the marching band.

SBO: What goals did you set for the upcoming year?

Payton: To have a successful year. To produce an award-winning band where the kids can really learn their music and play. We’re not going on any trips this year – we don’t have any money. My goal is to make it exciting for the kids, especially for the seniors because they always remember their senior year the most.

SBO: How do you integrate the new students into the ensembles? How do you determine what chair they will sit in? Do you have auditions?

Payton: The chair assignment is done by school audition. I’m trying to make it like the real world. You can’t just sit back and do nothing and expect to get ahead. I keep telling the kids, “If you find that job, let us know – we’ll take it.” We’ve all got to work to get somewhere. The band has multi-talented kids. The really advanced kids can play the first part, the next advanced kids can play the second part, and the weaker kids can play the third part. Everybody can be successful and be part of the organization. To me that’s the great thing about band: You can be successful at multiple levels. I do have the kids audition and I have an open challenge. If a kid wants to move up a seat, he can challenge the person above him. It kind of keeps them on their toes.

SBO: What is the most challenging part of starting a new school year?

Payton: Forcing myself to get up early in the morning and get into school, get into that routine – getting physically and mentally back into it. I love to watch movies so I tend to stay up too late at night. It’s not that bad for me because I’m teaching music during the summer. I teach at the Kamehameha Performing Arts Center. I keep busy all year ’round. Once you see the kids, you get excited and that kicks in.

SBO: How do you generate interest in the program to recruit new students?

Payton: We do strong recruiting. We go to the elementary schools and talk to the sixth-grade class. We play a Christmas concert yearly at the elementary schools, and try to sell the program that way. If you don’t get the numbers, you don’t get the classes and you don’t get the music program because it’s an elective. We are fighting with more math being required. Now they’re talking about more foreign languages for college. It’s a continuing battle.

SBO: How often does the band rehearse?

Payton: We’re lucky – we meet every day. I know there are all kinds of programs out there that meet twice a week or have double periods, and that kind of stuff. I know personally that it’s better in music to play a little bit every day instead of a lot every other day. We have five band periods a day – beginning band, intermediate band, advanced band. We have enough kids this year for three beginning bands, which meet separately. To me, its very important in the beginning to get the smaller class sizes because, to be successful, you’ve got to have the right fundamentals. If the kids start moving their jaw when they tongue or puff their cheeks, sitting crooked, no matter how hard they try they’re going to be walking around with a broken leg. You want the beginning band to get really good fundamentals.

SBO: How long have you been directing the Hawaii All-State Marching Band?

Payton: This is the first time we’ve ever done it, for the 2003 Rose Parade. We kind of made history. As you know, the Rose Parade only takes bands with large numbers now. I think they wanted 150-200 musicians. Most of the schools in Hawaii now are all very small. We only have about three or four big high school bands in the state that would qualify. It seems like the same high school bands are always going to the Rose Parade. They wanted to try something new. So they contacted Mr. John Riggle at Kamehameha High School, in Honolulu. He got the invitation and then he invited me to be the band director.

SBO: How do students become involved in this band?

Payton: Basically, Mr. Riggle went around and had meetings with all the different high schools – private and public – on all the islands and passed out brochures. The kids got their band director’s recommendation to join. We were asking for at least 15 from each school. We started out with about 600 students and by the time the trip came around we were just under 400. We had representation from just under 40 high schools. There are about 60 high schools in the whole state. Eighty-seven students are from the outer islands and the rest were from Oahu.

SBO: How many students from your own band were involved?

Payton: We had 102, including the dancers (60 band students, 42 dancers). One of the things that I requested when I was asked to do this is I needed to have a nucleus of students I really knew I could work with. My whole philosophy is I train kids to be leaders, to become section leaders. So Mr. Riggle let me have the Kahuku band as the main nucleus. That’s why I had the most people in there. We had about five bands from other islands and other schools.

SBO: What are some of the unique aspects of teaching music in Hawaii?

Payton: I find that the kids here in Hawaii are so musically inclined. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never found a tone-deaf student. They sing and they play ukulele; music is so much a part of their lives here. The band part is just an outgrowth of their own musical experience.

The kids do a lot of barefoot activity. We’ve marched barefoot before, when it gets really muddy and you slip and slide. In fact, we had a mainland band come from Iowa as part of an exchange and it was so muddy that day that we both marched barefoot. They wrote to us and said that was the greatest experience they ever had.

SBO: What have been some of the highlights of your career thus far?

Payton: In the late 1980s, I was named the outstanding teacher for ABC and got to go to Hollywood for a clinic on how Hollywood portrays teachers in the movies. They picked a teacher from every state and we gave them our input.

The Hawaii All-State Marching Band was my proudest moment yet. Going down Colorado Boulevard and then afterward hearing the reports from the band. At the Rose Parade, they did something they don’t often do: they gave us an open invitation to come back any time we want. That’s a real honor.

Michael Payton was born in Pennsylvania, and his family emigrated to California during his childhood. When he was in high school in 1960, his father landed a job in Hawaii and the family transferred there.

Payton’s musical roots trace back to his grandfather, who was a drummer in a fife and drum band in England. His father played saxophone, and his mother played piano. While his parents enjoyed jazz and country music, Payton found himself drawn to symphonies as well as the music of the day – rock ‘n’ roll. He vividly remembers attending the Rose Parade as a child and watching his father march in the San Bernadino Valley College Band.

“When the band used to go by and I heard that drum beat, I felt my heart and soul pounding. That’s what made me go into music,” Payton recalls.

Not surprisingly, he became a percussionist. In high school, he was a member of rock band called The Mop Tops. (“We were one of the first in Hawaii to have the long hair.”) But when it came time to make a career decision, Payton chose music education. In 1968, he became the band director at Kahuku High School – the only job opening for a band director at that time – and has stayed there ever since. He plans to retire within the next few years.

“I enjoy working with the kids. I enjoy teaching. It’s been a great experience. I don’t regret that I didn’t go into rock ‘n’ roll and become a professional musician.”


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