As a band director, Bill Webb has spent much of his career running the show, carefully controlling the meter, tempo and mood of each song his students play.
In the latest chapter of his life, however, no one — including Webb himself — is certain what will come next.
Webb, who directed band at Edina High School for 24 years, contracted a sinus infection last February and was prescribed two medicines — a steroid and an antibiotic.
Together, the drugs produced a dangerous reaction that caused neurological tremors and pain so severe that Webb now must use a wheelchair. Despite seeing numerous doctors, he doesn’t yet know whether he will walk, teach or play the trumpet ever again.
Webb had to leave his most recent job, teaching elementary school band, but colleagues and former students continue to celebrate the contribution he has made to music education in Edina and Minnesota. Webb is still teaching, they say, but now the lessons are on how to remain optimistic in a tough situation.
“I think when you’re a conductor and leader for so long, you’re used to leading,” said Paul Kile, concert band director at Edina High School. “But now his focus has changed to leading by example.”
‘Everywhere, all the time’
For an extrovert like Webb, teaching band to young people was the ultimate job, combining the things he loves most.
“I get my batteries charged being with people, but then, I also love music,” he said.
At 60, he wanted to keep teaching for a few more years. But when he became ill, leaving was “absolutely necessary,” he said.
Webb was honored earlier this month with a musical tribute at Edina High School. It focused on Webb’s long and esteemed career as a teacher, conductor and a musician.
The show featured premieres of two songs, both written in Webb’s honor. Webb conducted three pieces that day, something he can still do sitting on a stool. “It was a very special, special day,” Webb said.
Webb’s career was unusual because he worked with musicians of all ages, from elementary school students to fellow adults in a group called the Minnesota Symphonic Winds, Kile said.
“He’s accomplished so much in his career and has done so much for music education in the state,” Kile said. “He was just everywhere, all the time.”
Hoping to walk
Webb’s prognosis is uncertain, in part because of his atypical reaction. Complications from taking the generic form of Levaquin — the drug he was prescribed — aren’t uncommon, but his symptoms were unheard of.
Every day, he works out in a pool for an hour, hoping to regenerate cells damaged by the drugs. Progress is extremely slow, he said.
He might get better in two months, two years, or never, he said, adding, “I would be thrilled to be in a walker.”
He doesn’t hold his doctor responsible, he said, but said “part of my education now is just to keep passing the word to people [to] be careful.”
He encourages patients to ask about alternatives to medicines they are prescribed, especially with drugs in the Levaquin family.
He tries to focus on the positive. He’s grateful for a career that surrounded him with music, and that his mind is still clear, he said.
Timothy Mahr, professor of music and band conductor at St. Olaf College, composed “Bright Side,” a piece written for Webb and played at the recent tribute. The song is about Webb’s generally cheerful perspective, Mahr said.
“He hasn’t stopped teaching at all,” Mahr said. “He’s modeling for us an optimistic outlook in the face of an adversity. He’s still incredibly positive.”
Erin Adler • 952-746-3283