A local band director is stepping down from his stand after spending more than 50 years leading and caring for countless musicians of all ages.
Bill Wahl, born in Barrhead in 1947, is a fourth generation band conductor. He grew up playing the double bell euphonium, a family instrument made in the late 1800s or early 1900s, which was exchanged in the 1930s for a fur coat.
Years later, the euphonium made its way back. The woman who bought it said her husband got sick and could no longer play and it made him cry to see it.
“I remember carrying this instrument away as a young person, I’m going to start to cry now just thinking of it. But now it’s in the Wahl family again,” Wahl remembered.
“Growing up, all these things happen and they become fitted here,” Wahl pointed to his head. “And you go, ‘if it’s that important for one person, think of all those people in bands and how much they love to play.'”
Wahl knew from a young age he wanted to go to university for music education.
The University of Alberta was where he met his future wife Beth, who was earning her Bachelors of Education. The couple was married in 1970 and went on to have three daughters — Danielle, Nicole and Monique.
The couple returned to Medicine Hat and Wahl spent the year teaching music at several different schools around the city. In 1971 he landed a position at Crescent Heights High School as the band teacher. From 1971 to 2003 Wahl taught countless CHHS students. He took them on trips to Europe to compete in festivals and was instrumental in having a new band room built.
“If I bump into a former student, they say that band was the best thing they ever did at school,” he said, smiling.
In the early ’80s Wahl wanted to start up a band for adults. He began a brass band, but woodland players wanted to join. In 1985, The Medicine Hat Concert Band Society was formed.
Over the years, one band grew to three as Wahl spent extra time teaching private lessons to those in beginner band. He dedicated time to finding music to highlight band members as soloists and loved doing unconventional things, like having a tuba player dressed as a bee play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, a song usually played by a stringed instrument.
“Within the program, there would likely be a piece of music that would challenge the audience. It would be something new, a little different and a higher level of concert band music,” said Beth. “Everybody likes to be entertained, but I also think it’s good for people to hear some of the tougher stuff. It’s nice to have something new that challenges you.”
Wahl also put Medicine Hat on the map by commissioning original music that reflected the city and its history; ‘Drums of the Saamis’ debuted in 2013.
“Dad couldn’t have done any of this without Mom, really and truly,” said Danielle. “She has been in the audience for probably every single concert.”
Wahl and his family started to notice some changes about four years ago. A process began and he was diagnosed with dementia. Beth spoke about how supportive members of the band have been to Wahl, they always help make things easier for him.
“Dad has been open and honest so that they can go through this with him; they really are like family. Dad calls them his band peeps,” Danielle laughed. “By being vulnerable and letting them know what he was dealing with, they have been able to work together.”
Danielle said her dad seems fine with music he knows and studies.
“New music, he can listen to it and appreciate,” said Danielle. “But to actually conduct and rehearse the band is just too difficult.”
Wahl recently mentioned his plan to step down.
“I was quite surprised,” said Beth. “Bill had thought that if he had it in him, he would like to stay until he was 75. He’ll be 74 this November, so I think he’s done pretty well. Between COVID and dementia, he managed to last that long.”
A celebration concert is being planned for next spring to commemorate all Wahl’s contributions to the musical community in Medicine Hat.
“I think for me, it’s important now to spend more time with my family,” he said.
LAUREN THOMSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News