Friday, June 12, 2009

Blazing a New Path in Classical Music

Nobuyuki Tsujii, shown above in the semifinal round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, went on to tie for first place.

Classical pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii listens to the conductor’s breathing for cues, since he can’t see the baton. On stage, he feels for the edges of the keyboard before he begins playing, to orient his hands. He learns new pieces through listening and memorization, rather than reading the notes. The 20-year-old Japanese musician last weekend became the first blind pianist to win the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

“I’m handicapped, but I have overcome it,” he said at a crowded press conference in Tokyo Wednesday.

I'm currently listening to Art Tatum music, and am constantly amazed how good he was; he, too, was blind.

Pianist Norman Krieger, a professor at the USC Thornton School of Music who watched Mr. Tsujii’s performances online, was impressed by the difficulty of the pieces Mr. Tsujii chose, including Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, a piece notorious for its demanding physicality.

Not everyone liked his performance, but, that is to be expected.

Mr. Tsujii began learning music by listening. His mother, Itsuko Tsujii, said in a telephone interview that at age 2 he played “Jingle Bells” on a toy piano after hearing her sing it. He switched to reading music in Braille at age 7, when he started using Braille to read and write. Learning music in Braille is laborious. Pianists learn the music for each hand separately—using one hand to read the score in Braille and the other to play—and then combine what they have memorized. Mr. Tsujii eventually adopted a different method: Now he practices from a recording of a volunteer reading aloud every musical note in a piece.

Although there is a rich tradition of blind organists and organist-pianists, blind artists focusing primarily on the piano are less common. In the 18th century, a blind Austrian pianist named Maria Theresia Paradis commissioned works from composers including Mozart and Salieri. In the 19th century, “Blind Tom” Wiggins, who was born a slave, rose to fame.

By comparison, examples of renowned blind pianists in popular music abound. Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, George Shearing and Art Tatum, who was seriously visually impaired, helped dispel the notion that sight was a prerequisite for great musicianship. Though Ray Charles knew musical Braille, he came to rely nearly entirely on playing by ear, says Rob Bowman, an ethnomusicology professor at York University in Toronto. When composing music for big-band arrangements, Mr. Charles would dictate the parts to the musicians or arrangers, who would translate his directions to sheet music.

Seriously visually imparied, not blind, Tatum.

Some evidence suggests a correlation between blindness and musicality. In the general population, absolute pitch is rare, a skill one in 1,000 or perhaps one in 10,000 has, says Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, whose book “Musicophilia” explores the relationship between music and the brain. In those born blind, he says, it is one in two or one in three.


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