Andrew Young grew up singing in the shower, playing Guitar Hero, and listening to his dad bang loudly on a drum set in the family’s basement. His father, a retired U.S. Army colonel, played in military bands and other community musician groups, and Young enjoyed dancing along to the drumbeat.
It wasn’t long before Young decided to pick up an instrument himself, a bass guitar.
But there was one challenge. He was born without his left hand and arm up to his elbow, the result of a congenital amputation.
He recalls announcing his guitar-playing intentions to his mom, while holding the musical instrument, one of her hair ties, and a plastic spoon.
“I’m going to give it a shot,” Young told her, using the hair tie to attach the spoon to the nub of his elbow, and strumming the guitar with the spoon.
Amy Young never doubted that her son would find a way.
“His whole life is a demonstration of creativity,” she said of the eldest of her three children. “We learned from a very early age that pretty much Andrew was going to figure out how to do what Andrew wanted to do. He sees things that don’t come easily for him as a puzzle.”
Fast forward to today, where Young, a junior majoring in national security and foreign affairs at Virginia Tech, plays several gigs a week as a guitarist and singer at local restaurants and university events.
His abilities as a musician — and as the lead singer in a band — are widely known across Virginia Tech and in the region. Young’s band, Nine Hand Riot, is one of at least 11 groups scheduled to perform this Saturday at Soundfest, an annual free music festival on the Drillfield complete with two stages, carnival rides, and food. The band also won this year’s Band Slam, a February battle of the bands competition at Virginia Tech.
In the past year, Young resurrected the five-member band, which includes several members of a group that he originally formed while in high school in Haymarket, Virginia.
Before his music, Young was determined to maneuver life with one hand his own way. From the time that he was 11 months old, occupational and physical therapists and his family worked with him on performing certain tasks one-handed. But those instructions didn’t always stick.
“Most of the time it was him guiding us,” said Amy Young.
Young played baseball and football and ran cross country in high school. He also rode a bicycle, with help from a bike shop that transferred all brake controls to the bike’s right handlebar and attached an additional bar on which Young could rest his short arm.
Shriners Hospitals for Children even equipped him with a prosthetic hand that had interchangeable ends for playing guitar or drums. But Young, who taught himself to play acoustic electric guitar by watching YouTube, said he prefers a plastic spoon and now a thick rubber band, instead of a hair tie, for strumming.
“We’ve always said ‘find what your passion is,’” said Drew Young, Andrew Young’s father. “There’s a reason you were made a little bit different. Try to make a positive impact.”
When Young left home for Virginia Tech, he said he didn’t know if he would find a strong music scene in Blacksburg. He discovered his place when he started performing at open mic nights with Virginia Tech Expressions, a student organization that encourages creative expression, and entering competitions sponsored by the Virginia Tech Union, a campus group promoting social and educational entertainment.
In the past three years, Young has performed twice for The Big Event’s opening ceremony, and he’s a regular musician at some regional spots, including the Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston and Preston’s at the Pete Dye River Course in Radford.
Young performs a variety of music genres. His band’s style is theatrical, influenced by 1990s groups, such as Guns ‘N Roses and Stone Temple Pilots.
Young’s individual performance music varies, with a playlist that may include both country and rock music.
“It’s really just where my mind wanders,” he said. “I don’t like to confine myself to a specific genre.”
When Young writes songs often “it’s about things that I want to get off my chest,” he said.
After all, music is about more than playing notes for Young. It’s about connecting with people and inspiring them.
“One thing I try to embody is the idea that limitations can be broken through,” Young said. “I think it’s a conscious decision, and I think everybody’s got it in them.”
While on the Drillfield stage before The Big Event on April 6, Young chatted with the audience, encouraging them to wave their arms and sing with him.
“I feel like I’m most alive when I’m up there,” he said. “You can use music to make people feel some sort of way. That’s a crazy not only power but just a responsibility.”
Young’s passion is obvious to other Virginia Tech students.
“He’s very captivating when he’s on stage,” said Meleah Overholt, one of several students who planned programming for The Big Event. “I think his story allows people to relate with him on different fronts. Andrew allows us as a student body to see that if you work hard and are really passionate about something, you can overcome difficulties.”
To be sure, some challenges remain with the guitar. Young said he can play only so fast with one hand. Also, alternative strumming for chords can be tough.
Despite his passion for music, Young said he is not planning it as a career because a musician’s work is unpredictable. Instead, he hopes to work for the federal government after college, and this summer, he is interning at the U.S. Department of State.
Young is a well-rounded Hokie. He’s an active member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, a fraternity at Virginia Tech, and he’s an avid runner, having completed his first marathon last year. Each year in October, he runs the Army Ten-Miler in Arlington and Washington, D.C., with his father.
Whatever his future holds, he expects to continue playing music, calling it his “passion project,” and empowering people.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do is see music as the unifier and tell people they can do anything they set their mind to,” Young said.
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone