It takes three hands

If you can learn to play piano, you can learn to play accordion. Good ol' Gus has always been a good sport about me practicing.

I was lucky enough to be home this afternoon to hear Terry Gross play an excerpt from her 1986 Fresh Air interview with George Shearing. The jazz piano great died yesterday. He was 91.

Shearing was born blind. When Terry Gross asked him if his piano teachers thought a blind person could learn to play, he said playing was no problem. It was reading music that was difficult.

There is such a thing as Braille piano music, but if you think about it, wouldn’t it take three hands to read and play it at the same time? I asked another blind jazz piano great, Donnie Heitler, this question when I interviewed him for a newspaper story years ago. Like George Shearing, Donnie Heitler learned to read Braille piano music in a school for the blind.” But you don’t use it when you’re performing,” Donnie told me. “You use it to learn the piece, and then you memorize what you’ve learned.” From my story:

Although Braille music uses the same format – six dots arranged in 63 different ways–  the dot combinations mean different things in music than in literature. Where the 1 and 4 dots mean “c” in a book, they signify a “slur” symbol in music. 

Donnie claimed Braille music wasn’t difficult to learn. “I learned it in the second grade,” he said with a shrug. “Things are easy to learn when you’re a kid.” I know what he means. I learned to play the piano when I was five. I was always a pretty good sight reader. Ironic.

Blind musicians like Heitler and Shearing read piano scores a bit at a time, learning one measure in the right hand, then switching to learn that measure in the left hand, then putting them together. “It’s like chewing off little pieces of spaghetti,” Donnie told me. “You take one bite at a time and finally finish the whole thing.”

I was 26 when I lost my sight. Since then, I’ve been learning to play by ear. Over the years four different piano teachers have sat at my side on the bench, patiently walking me through chord progressions and teaching me theory. It hasn’t been easy – for my teachers, or for me. Compared to learning to read Braille music, though, playing by ear is a walk in the park. I’ll keep working on it. You know, save the spaghetti-eating for the dinner table.

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18 Responses to “It takes three hands”


  1. 1 Lauren February 16, 2011 at 6:19 am

    You know, I didn’t even bat an eye when I listened to that story on NPR–never even considered how a blind guy would compose music. We sighted people sometimes have tunnel vision….

    • 2 bethfinke February 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm

      George Shearing was gracious, as always, when asked some pretty obvious questions during that 1986 interview. After mentioning that reading music was a problem, he said that teachers always knew that people who are blind could learn to play music, they just didn’t think any of them would ever make any *money* playing music. George sure proved them wrong!

  2. 3 Stephanie February 16, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Beth,

    I listen to Terry Gross’s piece yesterday too and was thinking, “I wonder if Beth is listening to this?” So happy to see this Blog post in my inbox today! So interesting….

    Stephanie

  3. 4 Maria February 16, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Piano lessons? I know how difficult it was for me (I stunk at it!) with my sight….so really, three hands? I needed four and two eyes and still wasn’t good at it. Kudos to all you blind people with “talent.” I could never boast I had any.

    In other news, things are warming up (in the weather department) and it really helps the mood!

  4. 5 Bob February 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I’d stick to the piano if I were you. Not a big fan of accordion music.

  5. 6 Kate Hellenga February 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Wow, I haven’t seen Gus since Urbana days! I play piano and am good at sight reading but was never brave enough to leave the sheet music behind and play by ear or by theory… As for the accordion, I say “keep it up!” I’ll get a washboard and we can make beautiful cajun music together.

  6. 7 Maria February 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Great story! Im sorry I missed the NPR piece. I learned to read music at a young age and have played an assortment of instruments most of my life. Ive been learning fiddle for the past year, and I blame it on old age: reading music is now waay harder than it used to be. I have to struggle to play what’s written (we’re talking Twinkle Twinkle, here), but then close my eyes and just play. It seems my brain cannot read and play simultaneously anymore. Reading braille music sounds as tasking as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Forget it. In school they always told us to “get our heads out of the music”, so Id say learning by ear is definitely the way to go. When you need a fiddle for your accordion/washboard combo, let me know!

  7. 8 Chris G February 17, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    I had no idea you had ever played the accordian. . .I heard it was supposed to be a tough instrument. Liked the picture, how is Gus?

    • 9 bethfinke February 17, 2011 at 4:29 pm

      Gus is good, thanks for asking! He lives with three other guys in a group home in Wisconsin now. Tomorrow I’m giving a presentation to a conference for Wisconsin teachers who work with blind students, then we’ll head over to visit Gus afterwards. He has always been a HUGE music fan, we’re bringing him some new music to enjoy.

  8. 11 bethfinke February 17, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    You know, I took fiddle lessons for a year or two, too. I did manage to get past Twinkle, Twinkle but you’d have to ask my neighbors which instrument was more painful to hear me practicing: accordion, or fiddle? Everyone is pretty safe now — I finally sold my fiddle, and right now my accordion is broken, it plays a bass F sharp every time I squeeze it. Love cajun music, and your notes are inspiring me to get my accordion fixed and start practicing again. Neighbors, consider yourselves warned!

  9. 12 Benita February 18, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Dianne Schurr, Marcus Roberts….ART TATUM, for heaven’s sake. Just dropping a few names.
    Have you ever heard Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish percussionist? She’s (are you ready for THIS one??) congenitally deaf.

    Humans never cease to amaze me.

  10. 13 bethfinke February 18, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Agreed. We are a pretty amazing (oftentimes amusing) species.

  11. 14 penn nelson February 19, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I also learned as a child, still play the spinet organ, my God, to think I would have to learn without eyes is unthinkable, On the other hand, I have a grandson who plays by ear, and that is unthinkable to me also.
    Love your emails!
    Penn

  12. 15 bethfinke February 20, 2011 at 10:36 am

    George Shearing was quick to point out in that interview that *learning* to play without seeing was not difficult, and I bet my blog readers who were born blind might agree that with all the things they had to learn as children, playing an instrument was among the easiest. I’m afraid I suffer from having used sheet music as a crutch before, hard to transition to playing by ear.
    But I know I can do it!

    • 16 bethfinke February 20, 2011 at 10:39 am

      Oh, and George Shearing also pointed out that it would have been difficult for him to be a session musician without being able to read music, and that is one (of many reasons) that he swung towards jazz. We all benefitted as a result!

  13. 17 Shari March 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    George Shearing was a great friend and supporter of the Hadley School for the Blind for over 40 years — he told us that a business law course he took in 1973 at Hadley helped him deal with his contracts. If you would like to read more about Mr. Shearing and Hadley, or hear the recording he made for Hadley, go to http://www.hadley.edu/shearing.

    Hadley also has a new braille music course under development; please check Hadley’s website for course updates. If you wish to make a contribution to support our expanding curriculum, please visit http://www.hadley.edu/donate.


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