I learned yesterday that Holcombe Pryor, the long-time band director of McGill-Toolen, and later a deacon in the Archdiocese of Mobile, passed away.
I was a student at McGill from 1976-1980 when the band program at McGill, under the leadership of “Mr. Pryor,” was at its zenith, widely regarded as one of the best high school bands in the southeast. I was NOT in the band, and sad to say, being a teenage boy preoccupied by all those things that worry us at that age, I'm not sure I paid too much attention to it. The band was really good--we all knew that-- and I do remember being impressed with some of the school sponsored concerts in the gym. Many of his students, I recall, made “all-state” band in that era. But the band had been so good for so long, it was easy for everyone to assume that “excellence” was simply the norm.
For the last twenty-seven years, in contrast, I’ve been a Catholic school principal, trying to build a band program as good as Mr. Pryor’s. I can say, with authority, that an excellent high school band is NOT the norm! In fact, good high school bands are quite rare and difficult to create. They require an exceptionally versatile musician who is simultaneously patient, optimistic, encouraging, demanding, hard-working, organized, savvy in the music he selects, and wise in pairing students with the correct instruments to match their "talents" with the needs of the band. He must doggedly and bravely “conduct” fledgling younger students as they screech their way through the instruments they’re learning to play, always with an encouraging smile on his face, while the musician inside him recoils within. He must conduct fund-raisers for band needs, sweat with marching bands on the fields during the summer months, keep track of uniforms (and alterations!), and a thousand other micro-duties, and at the same time, communicate the great love for music that marks his life--always with joy, always with enthusiasm, always with an ear to make things sound even better.
People who can do all these things well are rare talents. In a different life, they could have been wealthy C.E.O’s of multinational corporations. But they are teachers, instead, nobly doing their best to pass on the great gift of music to those they lead and those who may listen.
I didn’t know Holcombe when he was a deacon in his later life, as I was living out of the area. But I do know-- now as principal-- that living one’s life to inspire a love for music is itself, a vocation of great love.
We’ve lost a prodigiously talented, generous and good man. We who live here, or who attended McGill during his years as band director, owe him a great debt. May his soul, and all the souls of the faithfully departed, rest in peace. Amen.