Few things in life affect people as profoundly as music. Through an enviable smattering of discipline, artistic expression and God-given talent, humanity has produced the most remarkable individuals who stand out amongst their peers sharing with the world their singing soul.
People who seem to exist for no other reason then to express themselves musically, while the rest of us watch and listen; entranced by their genius, talent and passion. And what blessed breed of instrumentalist is more inspiring then the blind piano player?
10 Iconic Blind Piano Players
Since Bartolomeo Cristofori evolved the first piano from the harpsichord in the early 1700’s, we watch and listen in amazement as blind piano players transcend what we thought was possible.
In brilliant defiance of their disability, the following 10 blind piano players inspire not because they are disabled, but simply by the caliber of their art.
#1 Ray Charles
Born Ray Charles Robinson, Sr. in 1930 in Albany, Georgia. Ray’s early years were marked with adversity. After his birth, Ray’s 15-year-old mother Aretha Williams returned to Greenville.
Florida where Ray was conceived by his mothers adopted father, Bailey Robinson. Bailey abandoned both families, and Ray was raised by Aretha and Bailey’s wife. By Ray’s first birthday, he had a brother named George. Ray would later reflect that his mother’s perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride became guiding lights in his life.
This blind piano player’s destiny first taunted him at age three at Wylie Pitman’s Red Wing Cafe where Pitman would play on an old upright piano. Pitman became Ray’s first teacher, and a friend allowing Ray’s family to stay at the Cafe when times were hard. Tragedy struck when Ray’s four-year-old brother George drowned in his mother’s laundry tub.
Due to glaucoma, Ray was blind by age seven. His unrelenting mother seen Ray attend the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind where he developed his talent by playing classical piano.
His teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, taught him to use braille music which is a process where the right-hand reads braille for the left, and vice versa. Ray’s mother passed away when he was fourteen, and after the funeral, Ray never returned to school.
Defined by his mother’s love, adversity, and a passion for music Ray would go on to pioneer the soul music genre in the 1950s, and redefine country music, pop and R&B in the 1960s. Rolling Stone ranked Ray No. 10 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and No. 2 on their list of Greatest Singers of All Time.
#2 Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan May 13, 1950. Stevie was born six weeks premature, and as a result had retinopathy causing blindness.
Stevie’s mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, left her husband moving her children to Detroit Stevie grew up playing the piano, harmonica, drums and bass and was active in the church choir. Soon this blind piano player was discovered at the church by Gerald White, and before long was signed to Motown Records at the age of eleven with the new stage name, “Little Stevie Wonder.”
Stevie released his first album at twelve and dedicated his second album to Ray Charles. To note some of his accomplishments, he has the record for the most Grammy Awards with twenty-one. He was the first blind recipient of an Academy Award.
He is the youngest solo artist to be inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, and the youngest artist to have a song reach number one. Stevie’s genius is undeniable, and to reflect on what being blind meant. Stevie is quoted as saying, “just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn’t mean he lacks vision.”
#3 Art Tatum
Arthur Tatum was born on October 13. 1909 in Toledo. Ohio to a humble family. Art had impaired vision from birth, but could make out objects close to him. This lasted until he was assaulted in his twenties, which left him blind in his left eye and limited sight in the right.
Exposed to music at a young age through his parents involvement in the church, he began playing piano by ear. showing an excellent memory and sense of pitch.
Art was self-taught but showed to be a prodigious and prolific jazz pianist. In his teens he began playing professionally and had his own radio program rebroadcast nationally.
Among fellow musicians. Art’s technical ability was extraordinary and he expanded the very breadth of jazz forever with his genius. In recognition of this blind piano player’s technical prowess, in 1993 an MIT student in the field of computational musicology. Jeff Bilmes. coined the term “tatum”. which was named in honor of the pianist’s speed.
#4 Ronnie Milsap
Ronnie was born on January 16. 1943 in Robbinsville. North Carolina almost completely blind from a congenital disorder. His mother left Ronnie to be raised by his grandparents. He grew up poor in the Smoky Mountains until at the age of five, he was sent to Governor Morehead School for the Blind.
He loved listening to country, gospel and R&B on the radio and began studying classical music at age seven. Although he could play several instruments, he mastered piano.
When Elvis exploded on the scene, Ronnie was swept up in rock-n-roll. Throughout the 1960’s, Ronnie flexed his talent with the support of local radio and start gaining notoriety influencing musicians like Ray Charles, and working with Elvis Presley until he released his first album Ronnie Milsap in 1971.
In 1972, this blind piano player moved to Nashville after Charlie Pride encouraged him to try country music, and he went on to become one of country music’s most popular and influential performers of the 70’s and 80’s.
#5 Nobuyuk Tsujii
Nobuyuk was born blind on September 13. 1988 in Tokyo. Japan due to microphthalmia. Showing a prodigious talent at a young age, this blind piano player began playing by ear at the age of two, and by the age of seven, won first place at the All Japan Music of Blind Students competition.
Nobuyuk reached international acclaim as a teenager, and is a recognized classical composer. One of the most remarkable achievements this blind pianist has made is the method in which he learns new compositions.
Although he can use braille to learn new pieces, there is not a big demand for this service and as a result Nobuyuk has had to be creative to support his vast portfolio. A team supports him by recording sections of pieces he is learning, so he can reproduce his own interpretation completely by ear.
Once asked by a reporter, “How do you stay in time when you can’t see the conductor?,” he responded; “By listening to the conductor’s breath and also sensing what is happening around me.”
#6 George Shearing
Sir George Albert Shearing was born blind on August 13. 1919 in Battersea. London to working-class parents. This blind piano player started honing his craft at the age of three, and was trained at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind for four years.
Choosing to play at the local pub, rather then except scholarships, he joined an all-blind band called the Claude Bampton’s Blind Orchestra. Soon audiences began hearing George on the BBC. and he continued to team up with more prominent bands at the time.
Emigrating to the U.S. in 1947, he wowed audiences with his unique style of mixing complex harmonies from popular musical genres of the era.
When he wasn’t redefining contemporary music, he would relish in his love of classical works, and became known for a piano technique known as “The Shearing Sound”. He remained a prolific artist well into his later years, and split his time equally between the U.S and the U.K.
#7 Ken Medema
Kenneth Medema was born December 7. 1943 in Grand Rapids Michigan almost completely blind This blind piano player started walking his path at the age of five, and at eight began studying classical music through braille techniques, playing by ear, and improvisation.
After majoring in music therapy at Michigan State he began performing his own songs while working as a music therapist at Essex County Hospital.
Finding his stride, he produced over 26 albums inspired by his catholic faith, and the struggles of those with whom his work supported. Having been performing for over forty years, some of this blind piano player’s best creations have been totally improvised.
#8 Marcus Roberts
Marthaniel Roberts was born on August 7. 1963 in Jacksonville. Florida. Glaucoma and cataracts rendered him blind at the age of five, thereafter attending the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind; the same institution Ray Charles attended.
This young blind piano player realized his talents at a young age and began training at age twelve, eventually studying at Florida State University with pianist Leonidas Lipovetsky.
Marcus has become an influential jazz pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and teacher and has received multiple honorary doctorates recognizing “his outstanding life and contributions to society and to the world.”
#9 Andrea Bocelli
Andrea Bocelli was born on September 22 1958 in Lajatico, Italy. Diagnosed with congenital glaucoma when he was five months old, he became completely blind by the time he was twelve.
Showing a great love of music, this blind piano player started learning the piano when he was six but later learned to play six other instruments as well as become a gifted singer Andrea’s rise to fame began with auditioning for Italian rocker Zucchero.
The tape in question made its way to the famous Luciano Pavarotti, who could not deny his amazing talent and Andrea performed the song with him in concert on Zucchero’s tour.
Andrea’s life since has been international stardom and acclaim, bringing classical music to the top of the charts selling over 75 million records worldwide.
#10 Lennie Tristano
Leonard Joseph Tristano was bom on March 19. 1919 in Chicago. Illinois. Bom with poor eyesight, it only became worse at age six when he contracted the measles, and completely deteriorated by age ten due to glaucoma.
For ten years this blind piano player attended the Illinois School for the Blind where he learned to play several instruments, and he began playing in brothels as early as age eleven.
Lennie began playing saxophone and piano in bands in the early 1940’s with prominent musicians of the era such as Dizzy Gillespie Arnold Fishkind and Max Roach.
His style was complex and ahead of its time, and most agree he was the bridge between beebop and more freer forms of modern jazz. His passion was teaching and he was the first to teach a structured approach to jazz, influencing artists in the genre for decades.
Tips for the Budding Blind Piano Player
If you are blind and thinking of learning to play piano, I hope the stories of these 10 iconic blind piano players have inspired you. Reading their stories, we can see how to help you get started. Music braille is designed to help visually impaired people read and play music, and there are lots of resources for you.
Secondly, develop your ear. Listen to recordings and try and play it back from memory. Find good teachers who can support you, and most of all have fun and be gentle with yourself. Progression takes time, but it rewards effort and discipline
Some of the most influential musicians of all time are visually impaired. We have shared the stories of how these blind piano players had to redefine the way they learn to express themselves. Their passion for music redefined what we thought was possible and they continue to pave the way for visually impaired musicians today.
We can follow the path they forged to learn music braille to develop our ear and experience a relationship with music we never thought possible.
What did you learn from these stories, and how will it change your approach to learning a new instrument? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Never a Hindrance
They said that once a person losses one of his senses, the other senses become hypersensitive and extra functional.
Can a blind person play the piano? Yes, definitely. Blind individuals can still have the opportunity to learn instruments. There are some specialized lessons for them to practice like the by-ear lessons. This lesson teaches and guides blind people to learn various instruments of their liking using their ears.
These people learn to know how to familiarize the position of keys and its sound, enabling them to learn how to play accurately and then fluently.
Visually impaired people can not only play the piano, they can also play other instruments like flute, violin and saxophone and they can do good just like the usual people. Such disability can never stop a person wanting to explore and learn things. Moreover, that is the beauty music brings, there are no limitations and boundaries.
It is indeed true that no disability can stop an individual from dreaming. A person with dream and purpose will never focus on the disability itself. Talent does not favor the most able, sometimes it is present on the challenged individuals.
Which famous musician is blind? The singer of the song “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, Stevie Wonder has been blind sometime after his birth. However, he was still able to reach the top of his career, not stopping himself from making music despite the condition. This song has been very famous for ages.
Another blind musician that received world recognition because of his music is Jose Feliciano. Can you believe that the Christmas song we all sing when Christmas season comes is written and sung by a blind man. The song is “Feliz Navidad,” A world-renowned Christmas song.
These musicians only prove talents have no limits.