40 Years of Education and a Lifetime of Music


@billytolles instagram

Mr. Tolles gently conducts the band from a far, leading each and every member.

Amos Figueroa, Staff Writer

While most know him for his grand voice, calm demeanor, and Woodside pride, few know the history of William Tolles and his 40 years of musical education.

William Tolles – most commonly known as Mr. Tolles, or even Bill Tolles for those close to him – teaches at Woodside High School and has served the Woodside community for the past 13 years. Tolles currently teaches Band, Jazz Band, Guitar One and Two, Vocal Ensemble, String Orchestra, and helps conduct the Woodside musical each year. 

Tolles’ musical journey began in fifth grade when he learned his first instrument.

“I worked on violin for maybe a year until I switched to clarinet,” Tolles said. “My mom bought me my first instrument, so they had a lot to do with it. I was lucky to have private lessons and get an early start on clarinet.”  

While Tolles himself didn’t state why he transitioned from violin to clarinet, one of his students told us the story.

“He broke his bow once in second grade,” Woodside junior and cello player Sophia Wells said. “So he always tells us to stop tapping our bows on our stands because he used to play violin, and then he broke his bow. And so, that’s why he had to switch to band.” 

Tolles’ 5th-grade bow now hangs in the band room. (Amos Figueroa)

While Tolles accredits his mother for paying for his lessons and consequently his broken bow – on a more serious note – he also thanks his father for his service in the military. 

“[My father] was in the United States Navy and was in the Pacific during World War II,” Tolles said. “[My parents] were more encouraging than demanding. They let me find my own motivation, and that’s a good way for anybody to get an early start on instrument instructors,” 

The effects of the war were still fresh in the minds of Tolles’ generation, so he decided to choose a different path in life.

“I went into college, from high school…,” Tolles stated. “The Vietnam War had just ended right about the time when I graduated, and the thoughts of signing up for the military weren’t really strong for most people of my generation. So, most of us went to college.” 

During his college days, Tolles found what he describes as the love of his life.

“She was in the marching band for a couple of years, and we met during the year where we went to Scotland for what’s known there, as the Edinburgh military tattoo in Scotland,” Tolles said. “I was part of a big six-week event in the summer of 1980. We were together pretty much the whole trip and have been in love ever since.” 

Fresh out of college, and of course a newlywed, Tolles moved straight into the workforce.

“I taught in East Los Angeles for thirty-two years, then I taught in Monterrey for five years, and I’ve been here at Woodside for thirteen years,” Tolles stated.

For many, Tolles was their first image of Woodside and high school life.

“I first met Mr. Tolles at band night, and that was when I was in eighth grade,” Woodside senior and trumpet section leader Edward Pacheco said. “Woodside invites a bunch of eighth-graders from middle school to go play with the band at one of the football games. I believe when I walked in, Mr. Tolles introduced himself to all eighth-graders and welcomed us to Woodside.”

On a professional level, Tolles’ colleagues only have positive things to say.

“Hard work and a lot of patience. He’s uncompromising,” Woodside drama teacher Barry Woodruff said. “When he teaches, he teaches at his pace. I watch how he takes kids who really don’t have much training at all, and he gets stuck with that… A lot of the schools we draw from don’t have big music programs. He’s got to be the one that teaches them, and so he’s going at a steady pace, and he doesn’t compromise. He builds [students up] over two, three years, and you see how great the sound is.”

While some remember Tolles for his warm welcomings, hard work, and overall dedication, others remember Tolles in a comical way.

Tolles ominously sits on Halloween of 2019. (Amos Figueroa)

“It was Halloween when I was a freshman, and we were doing a Halloween parade,” Woodside senior and trumpet section leader Edward Pacheco said. “And so [Tolles] dressed up wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask. When everybody was walking into the band room, he sat in his office, with the lights off, and just stared at the window. He didn’t move for like 10 minutes… I thought there could have been a medical emergency or something. Then, as soon as nobody was looking, he ran up and put his arms and hands on the window, and put his face up close… It was really frightening, but It was hilarious.” 

Jokes aside, Tolles’ lasting legacy will continue to grow and affect the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Woodside High School students, including his own children.

“[My son] was in the United States Air Force band for the last two and a half years at Travis Air Force Base,” Tolles said. And he recently auditioned for the United States Navy Band in Annapolis, Maryland. “He made the top flight (highest position) in Annapolis, which is on the grounds of the Naval Academy, so he’ll be playing percussion in that organization for the rest of his career, most likely because it’s a prestigious position.”

Moreover, Tolles’ daughter also takes after her father’s musical abilities and more.

“She was an Orchestra member here, [and a] three-time outstanding member…,” Tolles stated. “She went to the University of Nevada, and she played in the orchestra her whole four years there in the symphony orchestra. She majored in neuroscience and now is living and working in Reno,”

While Mr. Tolles hasn’t made any word of retirement, he hopes to be remembered positively at Woodside.

“I hope I’ll be remembered for trying to make this program as versatile as possible and for allowing all types of performing ensembles,” Tolles said. “A lot of schools don’t have the opportunity to have a program like ours. A lot of schools have two or three types of musical people, which is nice, but I’m able to keep control of the whole thing… I enjoy putting together all the pieces of a program into a concert where we show off what we do. I like audiences to see our versatility.”