The Tenacious Trombonist
Despite being born with a genetic condition that affects his hands, junior Matt Watt has gone on to become one of Augustana's most talented trombonists.
Oh, and he just landed an awesome computer science internship, too. He's someone you should know.
Trombonists play their instruments with both hands — one hand works the iconic “slide” while the other hand holds the instrument and works the “trigger” (a nickname for an attachment of tubing that lowers the trombone’s pitch).
To create sound, the musician blows into the mouthpiece while moving the slide and working the trigger. To create higher or lower sounds, trombonists widen or narrow the edges of their mouths while blowing.
Sounds easy, right?
Mastering the trombone is a complex endeavor. Those who succeed, though, are the names we remember — think Glenn Miller, Wycliffe Gordon, J.J. Johnson and Joseph Alessi.
So when junior trombonist Matt Watt was named a 2017 winner of Augustana’s premier Concerto-Aria competition following his auditioned performance of “Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra” by Gordon Jacob, people took notice.
Obviously, they noticed his musical talent. But they also noticed something he was missing.
Watt was born with a condition called ectrodactyly, a rare limb malformation affecting his hands. Each of his hands has five knuckles, but only one finger.
Yes, you read that right — one of Augustana’s top student trombonists only has two fingers. Two pinky fingers, to be exact.
So how did a kid born with only two fingers go on to become a collegiate instrumentalist?
Watt says he owes much of his success to his parents.
“My parents raised me in a way to not let it be discouraging to me. It’s nothing I claim as a disadvantage — it’s a part of me.”
— Matt Watt
Augustana Class of 2018
“My parents always taught me to not let it affect what I can do and what I can’t do. Now the things I can’t do are just things I’m generally bad at — like tying balloons,” he said, laughing.
From Good to Great
Originally from Yankton, South Dakota, Watt began playing the trombone in fifth grade, following in the footsteps of his older sister who was also born with ectrodactyly and also played the trombone.
“I picked it because it was the one instrument that’s really only feasible for me to play,” he said. “It made sense that I could play it. There were things growing up that were challenging, but they were the things that would be challenging for any kid — like tying your shoes.”
Watt chose to enroll at Augustana after participating in the Augustana Band Festival during his senior year in high school.
On campus, he said he was inspired to grow as a musician after spending time with fellow members of the Augustana Band.
“I did All-State Band in high school so as a freshman coming in, I thought I was hot stuff. But then I came here and saw the quality of musicianship — the absolutely phenomenal players here. Being in the Band, playing in the Trombone Choir and working with Vance (Shoemaker) was amazing; but doing all that also made me realize I could be a lot better. I knew I had room to improve — to develop better tone, better technicality.”
He began practicing more. He also worked two jobs to save up enough money to buy a new Shires Trombone, a top-of-the-line, hand-crafted, custom-made instrument manufactured in Boston.
“The new trombone really motivated me to fill it up and make great music with it,” he said. “It’s really helped to increase my playing.”
Instrument aside, Watt’s drive and determination have also helped him develop as a musician.
He practices six days a week. When he’s not practicing, he’s listening to music — jazz, especially. Sometimes when he’s listening, he becomes so inspired that he just has to play — as in, drop everything and go play.
“I was in the Huddle studying and listening to (jazz musician) J.J. Johnson. It sounded so good I just had to head over to Humanities, get out my jazz trombone and start playing.”
Watt isn’t special because of his condition. His dedication and his passion are what set him apart, according to Vance Shoemaker, longtime adjunct trombone professor.
“Matt had an epiphany during his second semester regarding his trombone and music in general. He was challenged and, to his credit, he stepped up to the challenge and began a very serious practice regimen that allowed him to jump over various hurdles that had been unattainable previously. He saved money from his numerous jobs and purchased a top-of-the-line professional trombone, and literally took off as an excellent and aspiring trombonist. He is very well respected in the Augie music department even though he is not a music major. His passion for music, and his determination to be a fine trombonist has catapulted him in reaching his goals,” Shoemaker said.
Watt said Shoemaker’s instruction and guidance have been critical to his success.
“Even after just one year of private instruction with him, I wasn’t the same player I was before. Comparing my playing during freshman year to now, for me, there’s no comparison,” Watt said.
“Vance is a great musician. When you’re around a great player like that, you want to play well. He also really cares about this students and wants them to do well. He’s like a father figure to us. We want to make him proud.”
Right Brain, Left Brain
Watt’s talents extend far beyond music.
A computer science major, he'll complete an internship in IOS development for Panera Bread at the company’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, this summer.
Watt says he developed an interest in technology even before he became drawn to music.
“I’ve always been fascinated by technology. My parents have a photo of me at four years old sitting in front of the first computer my dad ever bought. It was huge. After I got my first iPod Touch in middle school, I thought all the apps were so cool. From there I started thinking about programming.”
He landed the internship with Panera after attending a conference last fall with fellow computer science majors.
The conference divided attendees into teams and charged each team with developing an app to solve a specific problem.
The nutritional app Watt’s team built caught the attention of a Panera executive.
“He gave me his business card and said if I wanted an internship to call him. So I called him!”
Looking ahead to after graduation, Watt said he’d love to work as a programmer at a company like Apple or Google.
As a computer science major, Watt says music is his creative outlet — an outlet he believes will actually make him more employable after graduation.
“I think a lot of employers look for students who’ve been involved in the arts because many times people who have that background can better tackle problems and come up with more creative solutions.”
“The science behind music is pretty cool. If you hook up brain monitors to people when they’re playing music, the charts just light up. You’re doing so much at once — you’re counting, keeping a tempo, working the instrument. It’s really a good brain workout. I think the connections our brains make while creating music allow us to make those creative connections in other areas,” he said.
“I always tell people that if you go to college, you can do things you love that aren’t your major. If you’re passionate about underwater basket weaving — you can do that, but you don’t have to major in it. You can do what you love without majoring in it.”
Next up, Watt will perform with the Augustana Orchestra in the Concerto-Aria concert on Sunday, April 9. The event is something he's looking forward to.
"Music is something I can do my entire life. I think this will be one of those concerts that will stick in my mind for a long, long time."
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