A different type of language

When Ty Waters ‘20 transferred to West High at the beginning of this school year, this decision opened up opportunities in a world of music that he never could have previously imagined.

Lucy Polyak, Columns Editor

English, Spanish, French and Mandarin are just some of the languages one hears while walking through the hallways of West High. However, Ty Waters ’20 speaks in an entirely different sort of vernacular: jazz.

When he was a fifth grader at Mid-Prairie East Elementary School, Waters decided to pick up his first band instrument. With a little guidance from his sister, he chose to play the trombone. His love of band really took off, however, when he started playing in his middle school’s jazz band. However, since Waters belonged to a more rural community, it was difficult for him to find ways to accelerate his musical progress.

“I love the middle school band director that was there at the time, but he wasn’t a jazz player. [At the] high school it was kind of the same thing. They just had one jazz band for the whole school,” Waters said. “Since it was such a small program, I got to play with the high school in  seventh and eighth grade, and I ended up being lead trombone in the high school jazz ensemble.”

During the same period, he also began singing in his school’s choir. However, choir was always a secondary interest to Waters, because he spent so much time with his trombone.

“I got really roped into choir in my eighth grade or freshman year. My choir director at Mid-Prairie didn’t have the same sense of humor as me, so I remember thinking that she was a really great teacher, but that we’d never be friends,” Waters said. “Then my sophomore year on the last day of September I decided to audition for [the] All-State Choir because I hadn’t been preparing on trombone.”

That year, Waters was selected to perform in the 2017 All-State Chorus. He then participated in a number of other honor bands and choirs, including a place within the highly selective marching band organization, Drum Corps International. Performing with these groups helped to solidify the fact that Waters was progressing beyond the few music opportunities he could find at his school.

At the end of his sophomore year, he chose to transfer to a school that would better fit his needs. Thus, Waters found himself at West High at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

“[During marching band season], I met two people that I already had known and I kinda stuck to them and talked to them,” Waters said. “I didn’t really meet anyone new until choir All-State prep and I finally got talking to the choir kids. Then when Jazz Ensemble rehearsals started, I started really getting connected with people and got to start my own little jazz group and have started to get more opportunities to perform and play more music.”

One of the friends that Waters made through Jazz Ensemble is Nick Stilwell ’19. The two bonded over their love of the genre and now play music together as much as possible.

“A lot of the times we’ll play in [show choir] show band and then we’ll go out to eat afterward at Pancheros and will sit in the parking lot and just talk about jazz,” Waters said. “It just makes me think like one of these days, I’m going to go off to college and I’ll just be thinking back to sitting in the parking lot with all of these people talking about jazz.”

I’m going to go off to college and I’ll just be thinking back to sitting in the parking lot with all of these people talking about jazz.”

— Ty Waters '20

Though they come from very different musical backgrounds, Stilwell believes that this has allowed them to learn more from each other.

“When we began to play together and talk about jazz on an individual level, we instantly had a strong connection,” Stilwell said. “I continue to admire his effort and creativity while being a great person to be around. He has quickly become a big part of West High life since moving here, and he’s one of my great friends.”

In addition to finding meaningful friends at West, Waters was also on the lookout to find strong educators. When attending Mid-Prairie, Waters wasn’t able to find a quality trombone teacher. Instead, he began to teach himself the basics of jazz.

“Coming into this I feel like I approach jazz differently than other people,” Waters said. “There was a lot of stuff I was doing wrong that I realized when I got to Iowa City and started taking lessons, so I’ve been steamrolling that out of me, but developing language as a jazz musician was something I’d been lacking.”

Since learning to speak this language, Waters began to put strong value in the ability to communicate with other musicians through harmonies and improvisations.

“Coming to West High and hearing all these new ideas was kind of like learning how to talk. Like you can have a great conversation with a three-year-old but they’re not going to be using a lot of words. Once you’re older, you can really learn how to use verbs and nouns better,” Waters said. “That’s the same thing with learning how to improvise in jazz; it’s like learning a new language.”

That’s the same thing with learning how to improvise in jazz; it’s like learning a new language.”

— Ty Waters '20

This fall, Waters decided to audition for the All-State Chorus a second year. Through this process, he worked with Julia Fink ’20 who has since become one of his close friends in the choir department.

“I admire that he is so passionate about singing and playing instruments,” Fink said. “At the day of All-State auditions, he brought his trombone with him even though he was auditioning for the choir. Ty always makes me laugh. He’s serious at times but he’s really fun to be around.”

Choir director Luigi Enriquez was thrilled to find out that Waters would attend West High, as Enriquez had previously been his counselor at the Dorian Music Camp program at Luther College.
“As a musician, he excels at what he does,” Enriquez said. “I know he puts in the time, because I’ll walk by the practice rooms and he’s playing trombone or obviously making it into All-State and putting the time in there, so in that way, he really supports his sections in choir a lot. He provides a lot of bass sound and support for the whole group.”

Despite finding strong mentors in Iowa City, Waters’ biggest supporter in his music career has always been his older sister, Gina. She was quite involved in jazz herself while in high school and being only two years older, she understood first-hand various roadblocks he would meet.

“She’s always the person who’s there for me and pushing me to pursue a performance degree or an education degree or whatever I want,” Waters said. “Whenever things get harder or I want to quit trombone, she’s always there to push me harder and to remind me [why I play].”

Waters hopes to pursue music post-high school. As for whether he would study performance or education is still undecided, but he knows that as long as his future involves music, he’ll be happy. When asked about what advice he would give to himself at this point in time last year he said, “‘You got it, dude.’ That’s it.”