A blind Blake High student is recognized as Florida's Most Promising Visually Impaired High School Senior.
By JOHN BALZ
Published May 16, 2003
DOWNTOWN - Matthew Weihmuller is a musician and the saxophone his instrument.
But track him down on an average weekday evening, and chances are he will be studying school books not sheet music.
Weihmuller is an 18-year-old blind jazz player. Despite his talents, he doesn't dream of touring famous clubs, such as Greenwich Village's Blue Note. The life of a professional musician is hard, he says.
Instead, he wants to be a lawyer.
"I'd like to eat," he quips.
He'll play music forever, though, and can't wait to pick up his saxophone after drawing up a recording contract for a musician he represents.
So far, the saxophone has been pretty good to the Blake High School senior, who has a 4.6 GPA. A statewide organization for blind students recently recognized Weihmuller as Florida's Most Promising Visually Impaired High School Senior. The annual honor is awarded to a graduating student who has overcome obstacles and shown independence and achievement, in and out of school.
As a sax player, Weihmuller gives himself credit - but not too much.
"I'm a good musician, but I'm not a prodigy," he said during a recent interview at Blake, wearing a T-shirt that read, "No Job, No Car, No Money . . . But I'm in a Band."
Four, in fact: All-County Jazz Honor Band. All-County Symphonic Band. University of Tampa Honor Band. University of North Florida Summer Jazz Band.
He was student body vice president as a junior. This fall, he'll likely head to Florida State University.
Weihmuller leans heavily on his mother, ShereeTaylor, to play the saxophone.
Taylor spends a lot of her free time converting his sheet music into Braille.
She's one of the few people in the area who know how to do it. The phone book has no listings for transcribers.
The closest one lives in Sarasota.
So Taylor had to learn how to use a Perkins Brailler, which looks a bit like a 19th-century typewriter.
"It's like carving into stone," she said from the family's home in Carrollwood. "It's at that same technological level."
First, she had to learn how to read music.
To produce the notes in Braille, she presses the machine's six keys. She may need a couple of days or a couple of weeks to finish a piece. If she sent the music to a transcription service, it would take months.
Weihmuller picked up the saxophone in sixth grade. His grandfather played trumpet.
Blind since birth, he has to memorize an entire song to play it. Braille symbols don't always translate to written chords, forcing his mother to improvise some of the notations.
To the unschooled touch, print Braille and music Braille look and feel the same on paper. But they are two separate languages, Weihmuller says. For example, the letter W in print Braille is the same as the quarter note B in music Braille.
He plays jazz because it suits the saxophone and allows him more freedom with the notes. He doesn't have to be as precise.
When he started, he played on a rented sax. His parents weren't sure how long he'd stay with it. But Weihmuller proved his dedication, and two years ago he got his own - a beautiful, top-of-the-line horn.
"That was my car," he said.
He relies on his ears to play, something he has done his whole life.
"I don't know anything different," he said. "It seems almost natural to me."
Weihmuller's accomplishments have been a source of inspiration for those around him.
Blake principal Lewis Brinson called him an "icon" - self-sufficient and punctual. He is well-known and respected at school.
"He's just like any other student," Brinson said. "He moves around gracefully and seems to find his way better than some of the students who can see."
Weihmuller spends most of his time at home, either studying or playing.
Serious jazz musicians have a repertoire of a few thousand songs that they can play on a gig. Veterans know 700 to 800.
Weihmuller, still learning, has about 60. His current quest: mastering Charlie Parker's Donna Lee and John Coltrane's Giant Steps.
At school he carries a computer he's had since third grade and types his homework assignments into Braille. He refuses to make a big deal of it, but acknowledges that being blind requires extra effort.
Music, in one sense, helps loosen the stress.
"When I play music I get a release from life," he said. "It's kind of like being free."