How to learn piano blind
…so a good friend of mine is frequently asked.
The world of blindness is a fascinating subject. To be honest I hadn’t given it a lot of thought until I became good friends with a blind lady who also happens to be a great musician.
As we spoke & delved deeper into the subject I heard so many amusing tales that I could almost write a book (but I’ll leave that for her to do). It would make a very funny & often touching read. However, one of the real gems is the misconception that guide dogs are somehow superheroes, possessing extraordinary powers.
In reality they are very highly trained dogs who make accessibility an option for someone lacking good (or any vision) but super dogs they are not!! I remember her telling me about people who said, “Of course, all you need to do is tell your dog where you want to go & it will take you there.”
The dog is trained to see for the handler, but the handler has to learn the routes with their dog. It is the partnership that works: the sum of the two individuals: owner + dog.
Similarly, when it comes to music it seems that sight is seen as a magical & necessary ingredient. Without it, somehow one loses the ability to hear or to develop a level of awareness. We assume that people cannot somehow learn & live a fulfilling life without it!
My friend is often asked how she plays the piano ‘when she can’t see‘; Does she need the keys to be Brailled or marked in some way?
The people who ask these questions do so in good faith but perhaps have switched-off the thinking or common-sense area of their brain?
How many things do we do, as sightings or teds (blind terms for members of the sighted community) that we don’t need to see (even though it would help)?
Through practice, repetition or hard work we develop habits; things we do automatically, often without conscious thought.
Riding a bike for example. Sight may help us to see where we’re going but it isn’t necessary for finding the pedals, making the bike move forward or operating the breaks. The interesting thing is that at least one totally blind person has developed their hearing skills to such an extent that they can ride a bike along a path, through trees, by making sounds & listening to reflected sound, proving that there ARE other senses that can be used to great effect.
And think of the brilliant Terezinha Wilhelmina, a blind Brazilian sprinter & one of my heroes of the London 2012 Olympic games who took so many gold medals & broke World Records, but was told as a girl that she’d struggle to get anywhere in life without sight. Similarly, think of the inspirational ‘Hurricane’ Hannah Cockcroft whose parents were told that she may not live very long & would ‘struggles through life without working legs.‘ She is another example of a girl who stood little or no chance of being near an athletics track, let alone cover 100m & 200m in World-Record times at an Olympic games. These & so many more should ‘never have been able to do it without …‘ but they did!
They are no different to you & me; human beings, but they made a determined choice to overcome their difficulties & succeed. They didn’t allow their ‘lack of …’ (you complete the words) to stop them learning to do what they loved; they just did it (with a huge amount of will, effort & dedication, plus the support & encouragement of others).
If you ask my friend about how she plays the piano when she’s blind she’ll probably say, “I don’t know really; I just do!”
She has spent a long time learning her craft so that when she sits at a piano & finds a note around middle C she is ready to go. But she is not limited to a piano; she also plays other keyboards; some with less than the full 88 notes; some which require programming & modification of sounds etc; some with smaller keys. She has learnt how the notes fit together on the keyboard, how they feel under her touch etc. In short, she doesn’t need/hasn’t needed her sight in order to learn how to play. She has worked despite her lack of sight.
So what about learning a new piece or song; how can she manage that without music?
I think two things are important here:
- The erroneous assumption that you need to see/read music to play an instrument
- She has perfect pitch which enables her to hear a note & know what it is; very helpful when deciding what key to play in.
However, neither of these actually make playing any easier. She has had to put in the hours of practice, learning her scales, understanding how notes fit together, learning at least the basic theory of music, learn her instrument, make mistakes, practice more: exactly the same cycle of events that any musician has to go through.
And her lack of sight?
Remember that she is starting from the position of never having seen so she has learnt how to do things “without the hindrance of vision” as she often says. She is managing to achieve unsighted what we sighted people do, but she is starting from a different place & using a different set of tools & strategies.
So, “How can you play the piano when you’re blind?”
I think you have have to learn how to & ‘just do it!’ Often you have to take what you DO have, not worry about what you lack & use it to the best of your ability, often adapting & modifying to suit your particular situation or task.
And the next time you watch a pianist (or other musician) play take note how little the good ones actually look at what they’re doing.
Ray Charles, George Shearing & Stevie Wonder haven’t done too badly, have they?
… and my friend may even read this blog as she is computer-literate & able to surf the internet. But that is another story for another time 🙂