Do Blind Pianists Have An Advantage?

“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 are some jazz and pop pianists that made it big.

  • Art Tatum: Arguably THE greatest jazz pianists of all times, was born blind.
  • Ray Charles: Pop singer and pianist, became blind as a child.
  • George Shearing: Jazz pianist who developed the so called “Shearing Sound”.
  • Stevie Wonder: Few know what a great jazz pianist Stevie actually is, because hi is most famous for his brilliant song writing and singing.

Listening to those brilliant blind pianists could lead us to conclude that our eyes are unnecessary when it comes to playing the piano. 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.

Have you ever played the piano blindfolded? If not you should try it some time. Blindfold yourself and play the piano. Once you are done write down everything you noticed about this experience. If you can’t come up with 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?
  • Have you been 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, things that I usually don’t pay attention to. It also seams to increase my focus on the music, because there is no visual distraction that can get in the way.

A thought

Maybe we should always play as if we were blind. Why would we actually want to use our eyes when we play by memory? Admittedly, being able to see the keys may give us a higher sense of security, especially when we our hands have to travel great distances. But then, again, Art Tatum didn’t miss a key, even when he jumped over 3 octaves. I observed that famous concert pianist perform the most difficult music without looking at their hands or the keyboard, instead, their eyes are directed towards the sealing, or straight ahead. I often wondered why they do it. Many brilliant pianists recommend not to watch the fingers and keys if at all possible. You may think that not watching the keys, hands and fingers gives you less control, but it is just the opposite. It can actually greatly distract a pianist when focusing too much on watching the hands, not only that, but it might interfere with the “autopilot”. Memory slips may occur and other unwanted side effects.

Bottom line

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

So let’s all cover up our eyes and make real music!