Shippensburg teenager makes musical tunes of history, today and the future
By AMBER SOUTH
What did you accomplish by age 14?
A huge dream you didn’t know you had? The perfect path toward what you want in the future? An insane level of maturity?
Shippensburg Area Senior High School freshman Alan Tolbert has checked off each of these things. As far as he is concerned it is just the beginning of a long, long list ahead of him.
That assurance is not holding hands with conceitedness. Rather, Tolbert said it is his belief in God that has made him an achiever.
“I’m giving all the credit to God and certainly that’s where all my influence comes from,” he said. “I have a really good path for me in my life.”
Tolbert took the first crucial steps on that path as a fourth grader while working on a history project about the Civil War in Pennsylvania. With Gettysburg and other historical places all around him, an interest was awakened.
The summer following that school year, Tolbert participated in his first Civil War reenactment. But there was no starting small and working up; Tolbert played a role in one of the most popular reenactments in the area each year – March to Destiny, an event that takes Shippensburg back to the 1860s.
“That first experience really made me anxious to do more. From there I just did more and more events and started to love it more,” Tolbert said. “The people have become a second family to me. They’re just the greatest people and I’m just grateful.”
That was in 2008. He has participated every year since then as part of the Federal Volunteer Brigade, plus in between 10 and 15 other events each reenactment season that runs from about May to August, he said.
Reenactments are a weekend long, Tolbert said. Amid living Civil War camp life, his primary job is to play the bugle, an instrument somewhat like a trumpet but that is controlled by air flow and lip movement rather than valves that let air in and out to control sound.
He has 49 bugle calls to remember at a moment’s notice.
“Even though there are 49 calls on the bugle, I have to know right then and there. It’s like speaking English; you just have it down,” he said.
A commander may give Tolbert orders to play certain tunes to signal a particular group in the battalion to complete a particular maneuver. Before that, there is a prelude.
“Each group, there’s a certain call you play before the call so they know it’s for them,” Tolbert explained about the meaning of a prelude.
He also makes bugle calls for breakfast preparation; obtaining wood, water and other basic needs; dinner and other events.
“You play them at a certain time of day, in order,” he said.
Tolbert has another big commitment in his life: band. He plays the trumpet because of its similarity to the bugle.
Even if he had not already been musically inclined, Tolbert soon would have learned all about it. That’s because there is a rule in Tolbert’s family: Each child must play a music instrument. According to Tolbert, his parents’ reason that music promotes learning in other subjects too.
But the rule also stems from a desire to keep Tolbert and his two older sisters on the right path in life.
“As far as a stable and more wholesome social group, the students who are involved in music tend to be those students who are more academically oriented,” said Christine Tolbert, his mother.
Tolbert excels in the band room just as much as the modern-day battlefield. As a freshman, he will be one of the youngest students trying out Dec. 1 for district band.
Mark Wilson was Tolbert’s fifth-grade band director and gives him private lessons now. He is currently helping him learn a new solo piece to perform at district band auditions.
“The level of musicianship with the students in district band is extremely high. They take their instrument much more seriously than the average band student in high school,” Wilson said.
That high level of expertise is just what Wilson thinks will drive Tolbert to succeed.
“It tends to be inspiring to the students. It opens the eyes of the students to see the level that the band can attain to, to practice as hard as they have to practice,” Wilson said.
He may not be in district band yet, but Tolbert certainly knows about practicing hard. That effort, with a little luck mixed in, is why he was able to achieve his proudest moment so far.
This spring, Tolbert was one of 200 buglers from around the country to participate in the 149th anniversary of TAPS at Arlington National Cemetery.
The experience got started in the summer of 2010 at the National Civil War Music School in Virginia. Tolbert was one of about 50 kids across the county to attend, stay in cabins and learn about the Civil War instrument of their choice.
The school ended with a competition in which each person performed on the bugle, fife, drums or other Civil War era instrument. Tolbert came out on top, beating not only his fellow bugle players but every person competing.
“It was really cool. That was one of the reasons I got to know Jari and get into Arlington,” he said.
Watching all this happen was a man named Jari Villanueva, a historian of TAPS and the bugle. Helping to organize the 149th anniversary of TAPS, Villanueva invited Tolbert to be one of 200 buglers from around the country to perform TAPS at a special anniversary event at Arlington National Cemetery.
Tolbert and the other musicians were each assigned a grave to play upon. The grave of John Lincoln Clem was Tolbert’s stage. The pairing was not random.
“(Villanueva) knew me as a reenactor and John Lincoln Clem was the youngest person ever in the United States military history to reach the rank of noncommissioned officer,” Tolbert said, about why he was paired with Clem.
According to Tolbert, Clem first attempted to enlist in the Union army at age 9 as a drummer boy. Although he was turned away at first, he eventually enlisted and fought off a Confederate soldier at the Battle of Chickamauga. Because of his actions, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and became the youngest noncommissioned officer.
“It’s really cool to play by him because he was one of the top five most famous Civil War drummers,” Tolbert said.
As a relatively new teenager, Tolbert has seen others in his musical hobbies drop out into new things. However, he and the adults he is close with see him staying on track to a successful place.
“He takes (Civil War reenactment) very seriously and he really seems to understand what it means to people who have served in the military,” his mother said.
But, Christine Tolbert added, the story would most likely be different if her son was growing up 150 years ago.
“One of the things I’ve always said when people ask about Alan is that, with the reenactment hobby, if this had been 150 years ago when the Civil War was going on he may have walked away and we would have never seen him again.
“He would have joined the local volunteer army and that would have been that. Maybe he would have been one of the famous drummer boys or buglers that you hear about in history.”
But since it is 2012, Tolbert sees himself making his own history. He wants to have a musical major in college in which he can continue on the trumpet and bugle.
“I want to go to Penn State and be part of the Blue Band. That’s one of my dreams,” he said.
Another dream? To become a famous, “renowned” trumpet player and join the greats who have gone down in history.
“I often think about the great memories I’ll be able to make in the future,” he said.
Amber South can be reached at email@example.com or 262-4771.