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.