Do blind pianists have an advantage?

 

Call me crazy, but I am convinced that blind pianists to some degree have an advantage over the rest of us. Let me explain.

“We do not play with our eyes. We play with our touch, ears, and imagination”.

Franz Liszt, virtuoso pianist – who was, by the way, not blind!

Below is a list of some blind jazz and pop pianists that made it big:

  • Marcelo Bratke: blind classical pianist
  • Art Tatum: arguably the greatest jazz pianists of all times
  • Ray Charles: pop singer and pianist
  • George Shearing: jazz pianist who developed the so called “Shearing Sound” based on block chords
  • Stevie Wonder: few know what a great jazz pianist Stevie actually is, because he is most famous for his brilliant song writing and singing.

Listening to those brilliant blind pianists could indeed lead us to conclude that our eyes are unnecessary when it comes to playing the piano. For example, it is well documented that blind people have a better developed memory for acoustic events, a skill they are forced to develop in order to compensate for their missing eye sight, of course.

 Here is a great tip:

Have you ever played the piano blindfolded?

 Try it:

Blindfold yourself, or make the room completely dark, and play the piano. By the way, I take no responsibility for any insure or damage that may be caused by this experiment; watch your step!

Once you are done write down everything you noticed about this experience. If you can’t think of anything, try answering the following questions:

  • How did it make you feel?
  • What was different from “playing with your eyes”?
  • Did the keys feel differently?
  • Were you focusing more on playing than usually?
  • How did it sound?
  • Did you make more mistakes?
  • Which passages where especially difficult to play?

I find this to be an amazing exercise that helps me sharpen my awareness of how I am sitting, the distance between the keys, the feel of the keys, the sound, all of which are things I usually don’t pay attention to. It also seems to increase my focus on the music, because there is no visual distraction that can get in the way.

 Conclusion

Maybe we should always play as if we were blind. Admittedly, being able to see the keys may give us a higher sense of security, especially when our hands travel great distances. But then again, Art Tatum didn’t miss a key even when he jumped over 3 octaves in a milli second. I observed famous concert pianists perform the most difficult music without once looking at their hands or the keyboard. Instead, their eyes are often directed towards the ceiling or straight ahead. I often wondered why they do this. Fact is that many brilliant pianists recommend not to watch the fingers and keys if at all possible. You may assume that not watching the keys, hands and fingers gives you less control, but it is just the opposite. Looking at the hands can actually greatly distract a pianist; not only that, but it actually might cause memory slips and other unwanted side effects.

Closing words

The key to playing the keys seems to be more than anything – as Liszt pointed out so poetically – in our touch, ears, and imagination.

So let’s all close our eyes and focus on the music instead of staring at our hands!

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