During its 104 years of existence, Tooele High School has had five band directors. This is the last year for the fifth.
Marilyn Syra is retiring as band director at Tooele High School at the end of this school year.
Syra moved to Tooele in 1996 and substitute taught for a year, before she started teaching band full-time in the fall of 1997.
“This is the last chapter of this book for me,” Syra said. “It’s time to move on to a new book.”
Syra’s tough, but fun, approach of extracting excellence from her students will be missed, according to Stacy Smart, Band Booster president and a nine-year band mom.
“When many think of Syra they might think of a very strict and determined band director,” Smart said. “But those of us who have gotten to know her also see the crazy, fun and lovable side. She definitely knows how to have fun. One minute she may be asking for perfection in a piece and then [the] next minute she is making a joke.”
Syra admits she has high expectations, but band should also be about having fun and creating memories, she said.
“We may be band nerds, but we’re dang fun band nerds,” she said.
While Syra had 11 years of music teaching experience when she moved to Tooele, she said she was scared to death the first time she walked into the old Tooele High School.
“It was the biggest school I had ever been in, except for college,” she said.
Syra graduated from Big Piney High School in Wyoming in 1973. The town had a population of 570 in 1980. The enrollment at Syra’s old high school is around 206 today.
“I had the opportunity to work with Mr. Ferrin, the band director, for a year while I was substitute teaching before he left and I was hired at Tooele,” said Syra. “That made for a smooth transition.”
Tooele High school’s band had some long-standing traditions when Syra took over. One of those was early morning marching practice.
For twenty years Syra got up at 4:40 a.m. to meet her marching band students for practice at 6 a.m.
“We practice year round,” Syra said. “We may take about six weeks out of the year off from practice.”
Under Syra’s direction the band has traveled around and out of the state for contests and performances.
In 2010, the Tooele High School band played in the Holiday Bowl.
Practice for the Holiday Bowl included marching in the snow on the high school track, Syra said.
In 2013, the Tooele High School band was selected to represent Utah in the Annual Pearl Harbor Parade.
But one of the most memorable performances for the band was closer to home, according to Syra.
“I can’t remember the year,” Syra said. “But it was at the Bridgerland Band Invitational in Logan. We won first place in our classification, but it wasn’t about the win, it was the performance. The kids had really exerted themselves with hours of practice. They played well and the crowd erupted with yells and cheers.”
Band for Syra, is more than a class, it’s a family, she said.
While in Hawaii for the Pearl Harbor Parade, a band member was hospitalized with an asthma attack and flu.
The band member missed out on the parade and stayed in Hawaii after the band came home. When the band member came home, the band went over and played on his lawn. The band also presented the family with money they raised to help pay for the extra expenses caused by the hospitalization.
“Students who are involved in the band program find out real quickly that this organization is not just another club, it is a family and that band family includes everyone, both parents and students,” Smart said. “Often the band room is referred to as home, because Mrs. Syra has created an environment where the students feel safe and they know they are welcome to practice music, chat with friends, get the latest from Syra, or just hang out.”
Syra said her philosophy for the last few years has been to give the students ownership of the band.
“It’s their band,” she said. “I’m just the bus driver.”
Students respond to a band director when they see the love the director has for them and for the music, she said.
Syra’s lessons extend beyond the band room, according to Smart.
“Mrs. Syra has taught the students music skills that they will always be able to use, but her teaching was not always about music,” Smart said. “She has taught these band students how to be good leaders and outstanding citizens in our community and throughout the world. … They have been taught to lead, direct, motivate, respect and care for each other.”
Although teaching music has been her life’s work, Syra almost didn’t pursue music teaching after graduating from college.
“I did my student teaching and I didn’t like it,” she said. “I thought I didn’t want to be a teacher.”
Instead of teaching, after she earned her college degree Syra moved to Rifle, Colorado and worked in a hospital as a receptionist and processed insurance claims.
After getting married on Halloween in 1980, Syra worked as in road construction as a flagger.
Syra moved with her husband to Arizona where she was a housewife. The couple later moved to Cortez, Colorado where Syra worked in Gamble’s Ace Hardware Store.
She finally decided to try teaching in Dolores, Colorado. It was at a school that was smaller than where she did her student teaching.
“It was a smaller program,” Syra said. “I taught band, drama, and yearbook and I loved it.”
After three years in Dolores, Syra moved to Minco, Oklahoma where she taught music for eight years.
In the meantime Syra’s sister-in-law and two brothers moved to Tooele.
Syra’s band teacher from Big Piney, Ernie Northway, who was now a professional musician and working at Summerhays Music in Salt Lake City, told Syra about the band director position that was opening up at Tooele High School.
Syra and her husband, who worked construction, moved to Tooele in 1996, to be closer to family, while Syra checked out the band director job at Tooele High School.
The position didn’t open up until a year later, she said.
With wonderful memories of band at Tooele High School behind her now, Syra said she is ready to move on, but she may not leave music.
“I’ve got family history work to do, church callings to do, and I may pick up my flute and play in the local flute choir,” she said.
There will be a retirement open house for Mrs. Syra on May 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. It will be at Tooele High School, 301 W. Vine Street in Tooele City, in the commons area.
Syra’s last concert performance with the Tooele High School bands will be on May 18 at 7 p.m. at Tooele High School’s auditorium.