Last month, the Desert Vista High School Band performed its annual pops concert, with fun up-beat tunes that led to a solemn finale.
The young musicians played their hearts out as they performed an ode to the late band director Eric Holden.
Though he died from cancer in 2003, the passage of time has not dimmed his memory.
His son Max graduated from Desert Vista last month and played a solo of the song “The Reason,” dedicating it to the father who passed away when he was a young boy.
Those who knew the late band director recalled him as a joyful, funny and passionate leader.
“Whenever you were talking to him, he had this power that he could make whoever he was talking to feel like the most important person in the world,” said Mike Krill, a former colleague and close friend of Holden’s.
Holden became the band director from the first year Desert Vista opened in 1996.
“He always wanted to teach high school band especially marching band and the rest is history,” said Lynne Holden, his widow.
Holden slowly built up the program with the help of others in the community in an attempt to create the best possible group for his students.
But then his illness began taking a toll.
“I had started helping out with the marching band and at some point, Eric started showing up later and later to practices and started to not look so great and it was at that point that he announced to us that he had cancer,” said Brian Wilson, a friend who composed “The Reason.”
Current Thunder Band Director Josh Thye, who was a member of Desert Vista’s first graduating class in 1999, had always hoped he could one day continue Holden’s legacy.
“I just remember Eric starting to build a team who made us feel like the program was worth something,” said Thye.
While in college, Thye kept in touch with Holden.
“Eric was fighting his battle and we were keeping in touch and he had had some success after the radiology. It was at that time that Lynne had given birth to their daughter Eryn and then their twin boys Max and Jack,” Thye recalled.
Holden was so cherished by the community that his family had to hold three funeral ceremonies in order to accommodate the amount of people who wanted to attend.
“I had about a month left of student teaching and I remember this vividly because me and some other people he was close to played in a brass ensemble at the funeral,” said Thye.
It was immediately after Holden’s passing that Thye was encouraged to apply for the now vacant position — though he was hesitant.
“That was not what I wanted. It was not the plan I had in my mind. But I did end up taking the interview, at least for the experience. Going through that interview was very humbling and I remember even being a bit emotional and for whatever reason they offered me the job. I was straight out of college; I was 21 years old and knew nothing,” said Thye.
It was certainly a daunting task for Thye to walk into Holden’s office, replete with all his belongings, sit in his chair and fill the enormous shoes that Holden had left behind.
“By that time the band program had been running for eight years and Eric had done a great job with it and had done a lot of building and they had really experienced some success. It was one of the top programs in the state already,” said Thye.
“I remember meetings that consisted of me trying to convince people to believe in me and the program and secretly trying to convince myself to believe in me,” said Thye.
“I eventually convinced myself to try and remember his words and his encouragements and I got to place where I just decided to do this the best I can for him and to try and honor him in all I do and we kind of went for it,” said Thye.
This effort was noted by others involved in the program as well.
“I know Mr. Thye’s directive from the beginning was to do Mr. Holden proud and build the program and I think Eric would be really proud,” said Krill.
Seventeen years later, Thye is still running the band program at Desert Vista and shows no signs of giving it up anytime soon.
“Eric and I could not be happier with Mr. Thye! When Eric passed away, I left Mr. Thye with a lot of Eric‘s items. He always uses Eric’s baton to conduct the band,” said Lynne.
Running a complex and successful band program such as the one at Desert Vista is no easy task, but Thye welcomes the work with patience and grace, taking time to look at the big picture.
“You put in a lot of work and you put in the time and you deal with all the good days and bad days and the highs and lows and all those things of teaching, but when I zoom out I’m often reminded of how lucky I am for the opportunity to carry on what Eric started and all these beautiful things which includes seeing his kids go through the program. It’s more special than I can put into words,” said Thye.
In addition to naming the band room after him, Thye upholds other traditions in Holden’s memory.
“He was really big on this ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ concept. It’s actually from a musical called ‘Carousel’ by Rogers and Hammerstein. That was something he wanted sung after various events so we kind of infused that into the program as well. It really does resonate with the students even more than I realize sometimes,” said Thye.
He also follows the values that Holden held dear.
“He was a people-first kind of person and I try and adapt that into what I do now. It has to be relationship before rules. I have had many student teachers come in throughout the years and I always try to pass that on,” said Thye.
“He was really good about getting other people involved, it didn’t always have to be him in control all the time and I think that’s where a good leader can find success is in learning how to find good people and mobilize them and give them a chance, even if it’s not going so well, you still give them a chance to rise to the occasion,” said Thye.
The school also awards a scholarship in Holden’s name.
One of Max Holden’s best friends received the scholarship this year.
While Thye treasures all of the students who come through his program, he was especially honored to have worked with all three of Holden’s children.
“I still look back on that as one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to teach his kids,” Thye said.
“And I remember having that conversation with Eryn and Max saying, ‘I hope that you’ll learn even more about your dad through me because you’ll realize that he’s still here because a lot of him lives on in me.’”
Oldest daughter Eryn Holden was the first to choose to go to Desert Vista — which was hard at first because she had to commute from Tempe.
The Desert Vista Band has shaped Holden’s children as well.
“The band has made Max a respectful, kind adult. He has made friends for life and he just loved it,” said Lynne.
Max plans to attend Mesa Community College before transferring to Arizona State University to pursue a Business degree. He is even considering joining his sister in the ASU Marching Band.
When he played “The Reason” in memory of his father at last month’s pops concert, Max touched every audience member — but especially Thye.
“It was really more healing for me and for a lot of the people who remembered Eric. It will be something that will be very special for me for a very long time,” said Thye.
The piece conveys Holden’s life, death — and the anger and eventual peace that came to all his friends, It started with a tuba solo played by Max.
“When the story starts out it’s just windchimes and a tuba because that was Eric Holden’s voice. His main instrument was a tuba,” said Wilson, who wrote the piece a few years after he lost his close friend.
“I have to commend the strength of Max Holden. I had heard that that week he was really having trouble getting through the solo because he teared up and broke down. I mean you’re talking about a kid who never heard his father’s voice except through recordings but that at some point became his father’s voice through the tuba,” said Wilson.
While the song starts out exultant and full of life, it soon takes a turn.
“All of a sudden out of nowhere, that’s when the tam-tam strikes, the gong hits, and that signifies the shock to all of us that he had cancer.
“And the low brass start coming in with a very aggressive theme which is the anger, the rage, that hurt, not understanding what was going on, on his part and on our part. People were mad, but what were we mad at? People were angry, but what are we angry at? And slowly, the low brass plays this part that I’ve put words to in my head, saying ‘Why can’t we live forever?’” said Wilson.
At this point in the song, the melody seems to flatline, with only a tuba playing, the symbolic voice of Eric Holden.
“Then the music goes into a chorale, a tune that he brought to Desert Vista, called ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’” Wilson said “A lot of bands play this to bring people together, but this time we played it in a minor key, in a sad key, the grieving portion of that,” said Wilson.
“And the piece goes on to a piccolo solo instead of tuba as he raises up and then a snare drum comes in and that’s where the one voice, like at the funeral there, one voice carries on his legacy and then another voice comes in and another and another and then ultimately the happy times of the remembering from the main jig comes in on top of that and then the Eric Holden melody.”
The concert left an indelible impression on all who loved Holden.
“I never dreamed that it would become something that means as much to the program as I think it does,” Wilson explained, recalled that the last time he saw Holden’s children was at his funeral.
“I thought of Eryn Holden, wondering where daddy was and Lynne Holden holding the two twins who were infants at that point. And I hadn’t seen them until that performance,” he said.
Lynne was so delighted to finally hear “The Reason.”
“Finally playing ‘The Reason’ was such an honor, especially with Max playing the solo,” said Lynne.
“I couldn’t have asked for it to be any better. He played so well, and it was such a tender and special moment.”
It meant a lot as well to Wilson, who took up teaching at Holden’s encouragement.
“It’s called ‘The Reason’ because he was my reason, one of the great influences on my life,” Wilson said. “And he is a lot of other people’s reasons for what they do or that they teach music and that they’re inspired to continue to play.”