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 not blind!)

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

  • Art Tatum: Arguably the greatest jazz pianist ever was almost completely blind.
  • Ray Charles: Pop singer and pianist who became blind as a young 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 he is most famous for his brilliant songs and singing.
  • And there are many more brilliant blind pianists.

The fact that there are famous blind pianists could lead us to conclude that our eyes are unnecessary when it comes to playing the piano. Tothis point, it is well documented that blind people have a very well developed memory for acoustic events, a skill they are forced to develop in order to compensate for their missing eye sight, of course.

Before we jump to any conclusions though, lets do a little experiment. Have you ever played the piano with your eyes closed? If not you should try it right now. Sit down at the piano and close your eyes. Think of a song you know well and try to play it. When you are done write down everything you noticed about this experience. Here are some suggestions of things you may ask yourself:

  • How did it make me feel?
  • What was different from “playing with my eyes open”?
  • Did the keys feel differently?
  • Did your hands “look” for the leys?
  • Have you been focusing more on playing than usually?
  • Did the piano sound differently?
  • Did you make more mistakes?
  • Which kind of passages where especially difficult to play?

I find playing with eyes closed to be an amazingly eye-opening exercise which helps me sharpen my awareness of how I am sitting, the distance between the keys, the feel of the keys, the sound, and other things I usually don’t pay much attention to. It also seems to increase my focus on the music, because there is no visual distraction that can get in the way, and all I have is my ears and memory to guide my hands.

Here is an idea

Maybe we should always play as if we were blind. Why would we actually want to use our eyes unless we are sight reading music? Admittedly, being able to see the keys may give us a higher sense of security, especially when our hands have to travel great distances. However, considering that Art Tatum apparently never missed a key, even when his hand jumped over 3 octavesat lightning speed, the eyes don’t seem to be as important in playing the piano after all.

Have you ever noticed that famous concert pianist perform the most difficult music without actually looking at their hands or the keyboard? Instead, their eyes are often closed or directed up towards the sealing. I always wondered why they do this. Some pianists recommend not to watch the fingers and keys unless it is absolutely necessary. You may think that watching the keys, hands and fingers gives you more security, but it is just the opposite. It can actually interfere with our “autopilot” which is called motor memory to the point where the pianist ends up loosing its place in the music.

Bottom line

As pianists we benefit more from a well trained ear, memory, touch and musical imagination, than good eye sight.

So let’s all close our eyes and make some beautiful music!