Matt Weihmuller thought he was going to be a lawyer. After all, his father is a lawyer, and his mother was studying to be one before she put her plans on hold to take care of him.
And he probably would be a lawyer, if not for his grandmother's organ, which he began "messing around" with when he was 9.
Nineteen years later, Weihmuller is an accomplished saxophonist who is also teaching the next generation of jazz musicians at the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Weihmuller was born with Leber's congenital amaurosis, a degenerative disease characterized by severe vision impairment at birth. Though being blind poses many challenges for a musician and teacher, he says there are a few advantages.
"Jazz music is not about what's on the page," Weihmuller says.
Weihmuller, 28, earned his bachelor's degree in jazz studies from Florida State University in 2007, and his master's degree in music performance from FSU in 2010. He played with various jazz groups while at FSU, and was also a regular performer at various jazz venues in the Tallahassee area.
He relocated back home to Tampa last year, and since May has worked as a saxophone instructor at the Patel Conservatory.
He's preparing a quartet of teenage jazz musicians that will perform Dec. 1 at the Straz Center's 25th Anniversary Gala. He recently sat down with City Times/North of Tampa editor Richard Martin to talk about his early experiences, his influences and his goals.
What was your first musical experience?
It was probably when I was 9. My grandmother had an organ. I didn't know anything about playing it, but I started to mess around with it. And I ended up taking piano lessons.
When I was at Adams Middle School (in Tampa), they had something called a wheel, which offered different extracurricular activities, and band was one of them. I knew my grandfather played the trumpet, so I thought I'd try trumpet. I couldn't make a sound with it. But I could make a sound with the clarinet.
My band director suggested I play the saxophone. As luck would have it, the husband of the woman who was teaching me piano taught guitar, but he also knew how to play the sax. He started teaching me saxophone.
In eighth grade, I started lessons with Valerie Gillespie, a saxophone instructor at the University of South Florida. I made all-county concert band in my eighth-grade year, then all-county high school jazz band at Blake High.
How did your passion for music evolve into teaching?
There's a pretty good blind jazz pianist who teaches - Marcus Roberts (an assistant professor of jazz studies at Florida State University). I learned about him while I was at Blake High School. When I found out he was going to be teaching at FSU, I wanted to go to Florida State.
It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I decided I was going to keep doing music. All of the best jazz musicians teach. A lot are professors at colleges across the U.S.
Toward the end of my college career, it was apparent that no matter what I was going to do I was going to teach. I had all these interactions with Marcus - a blind, successful jazz musician. He spends every free minute trying to teach people.
What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
In elementary school, my teachers made no effort to teach Braille music. But in sixth grade, I had a vision teacher who happened to start her college career in music. She was eager to try to help me learn how to read music. She and my mom set out to figure out how I would learn Braille music.
Another challenge is I have to memorize all of my music. You have to read Braille with your fingers, and you need your fingers to play sax. You can't do both at the same time.
It also takes several days to convert sheet music to Braille music, which is not readily available. My mom still does most of it. But they have programs now, where you can scan a sheet of music, convert it to Braille and print it on a Braille printer. But it's not perfect.
Are there advantages to being a blind jazz instructor?
I believe so. Jazz music is focused on improvisation and being able to spontaneously create melodies. And for that reason, I have excelled at jazz because I've always had to think outside of the box to get past these obstacles in life.
I also excel at being very auditory. Playing jazz is all about listening and interacting with other musicians around you. So I have a little advantage with that.
What music do you listen to?
All types. My main music is traditional jazz from the '50s and '60s, such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. But I've also started listening to a lot of alternative and rock. When I was younger, I listened to a lot of hip-hop and R&B. R&B has a lot of jazz influence.
What are your goals?
I just want to make more young musicians aware of what's involved with jazz style, and the genre. But I also want to continue to play. I want to play as much as I can and teach as much as I can. My main goal is to share my music.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.