Being blind comes with a great number of challenges for people trying to go about their everyday life, but it’s also a major obstacle when it comes to learning a skill. Music can be especially challenging, as there aren’t a lot of braille resources out there to allow musicians to read music off of sheets. Despite the challenges and barriers to entry, there have been many virtuoso blind musicians in history, especially on the piano.
In this article, we’ll cover 13 awesome blind pianists who overcame their obstacles to become some of the best in their field.
1. Ray Charles
Ray Charles was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century despite his blindness. He began to go blind at the age of five, and by seven, he could no longer see. Not one to let that stop him, he would eventually pioneer the genre of soul music by incorporating elements of blues, jazz, and gospel into his music.
He was also integral to the integration of the country, R&B, and pop music scenes, becoming the first black musician to be granted artistic freedom by a mainstream record company. He would be inducted into the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame, with 10 of his singles being entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
2. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder wasn’t just a virtuoso pianist, he was also a nearly one-man band. He was among the first to include synthesizers and electronic instruments in rhythm and blues music. At the age of 12, his single Fingertips would reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, the youngest artist to ever achieve that position.
He is one of the best-selling musicians of all time with over 100 million worldwide record sales, and his work has earned him 17 Grammy Awards. He would eventually be inducted into the Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Songwriters Halls of Fame, becoming an avid social advocate and activist along the way.
3. Art Tatum
In the early days of jazz music, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better pianist than Art Tatum. He was widely considered the best in the business by his peers, with some musicians giving up the piano or switching instruments after hearing him play.
He would go through numerous surgeries in childhood to remove cataracts which left him able to partially see until he was assaulted in his 20s. After that, he could only partially see out of one of his eyes. Not only was he self-taught as a pianist, but he was also an accomplished violinist and could listen to records and play them back from memory.
4. Ronnie Milsap
One of the biggest and brightest country stars of the 70s and 80s, Ronnie Milsap would produce hits like Smoky Mountain Rain and It Was Almost Like A Song. His 35 number-one hits on the country music charts place him third all-time in the category and his work would also earn him six Grammy Awards.
Blind from birth, he mixed pop, rock and roll, and R&B elements into his country songs, making him one of the most successful crossover artists in history. He would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, with Rolling Stone listing Smokey Mountain Rain to their 100 Greatest Country Songs in that same year.
5. George Shearing
Despite being born blind, Sir George Albert Shearing would begin learning to play the piano at the age of three. The British pianist would lead the charge for jazz music across the pond, composing over 300 songs and charting multiple albums in the 50s, 60s, 80s, and 90s.
He would move outside the realm of jazz music as well, playing in concert orchestras and developing the Shearing Sound, a double-melody block chord with an additional fifth part. The BBC Jazz Awards granted him their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, and in 2007, he was knighted for his services to music.
6. Nobuyuki Tsujii
Born blind due to microphthalmia, Nobuyuki Tsujii would begin formally learning the piano at age four. By age 10, he had his concert debut with the Century Orchestra in Osaka, Japan. His talent as a pianist is only rivaled by his talent as a composer, releasing numerous albums of his own compositions and working in the film industry composing scores.
While not a self-taught pianist, he learns new music by ear rather than any braille music sheets. According to him, he’s able to keep time in an orchestra by listening to the composer’s breath and sensing what’s going on around him. He has a large discography and has performed with numerous orchestras both in Japan and internationally.
Unlike some other musicians on the list who were born blind, Moondog was blinded at the age of 16 when he picked up a live cap of dynamite, which then exploded in his face. From the 40s until the 70s, he was a street performer in New York City, appearing often in a cloak and horned helmet which earned him the nickname “Viking of 6th Avenue.” Though he performed on the street, he was rarely homeless and instead lived in an apartment nearby until he set off for Germany.
He was a gifted composer on top of being an excellent pianist and invented several musical instruments to help him achieve the signature blend of genres he came to be known for.
8. Joaquin Rodrigo
Joaquin Rodrigo was a virtuoso pianist and composer, with much of the Spaniard’s piano compositions becoming an integral part of the classical guitar repertoire. After contracting diphtheria as a child, he was left blind.
Despite being one of the key players in making the classical guitar a respected concert instrument, he never mastered the instrument and could barely play it. He wrote his compositions in braille and had them transcribed for other musicians to be able to play. In 1939, he composed his most famous work, Concierto De Aranjuez, a concerto for orchestra and guitar.
9. Marcus Roberts
After attending the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, the same school that Ray Charles attended, Marcus Roberts would go on to become one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. By his 20s, he would begin touring alongside one of the best acts in jazz, as a member of Wynton Marsalis’ band. Though he came after their heyday, he was inspired by the bebop and traditional jazz eras.
10. Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano was a jazz pianist and composer who was one of the most notable jazz improvisation teachers. While he played alongside some jazz greats and headed up his own bands, his band in 1949 recorded the first free group improvisation. His work on the piano took it out of its normal role and expanded upon the sound of jazz music by integrating harmonic flexibility and rhythmic complexity.
He was among the rare jazz musicians that preferred teaching to performing, not commercializing to the same extent as his peers. His impact on jazz is debated, though he is likely one of the originators who paved the way for the many free jazz musicians that came after him.
11. Kuha’o Case
A child prodigy with a name that translates to “extraordinary gift” may seem a little fortuitous, but it’s exactly what you get when you take a look at Kuha’o Case. A true modern-day piano virtuoso, he is a self-taught Hawaiian pianist and organist. Like a few other blind pianists on this list, he learns by listening to music.
After listening to a piece a couple of times, he’s able to memorize and play it back on his own instrument. Still very young, you can find a lot of his work immortalized on YouTube, including covers of songs like the Pirates Of The Caribbean Theme and Let It Go from the movie Frozen.
12. Dianne Schuur
Dianne Schuur is a blind jazz singer and pianist with over twenty album releases covering genres including jazz, gospel, Latin, pop, and country music. Her most successful album stayed at the top spot of Billboard’s Jazz Album charts for 33 consecutive weeks and she’s won two Grammy Awards during her career.
Her talent has seen her perform alongside music legends like Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, while also performing in some of the most important venues like Carnegie Hall and the White House. One of her most interesting interviews happened when she was a guest on Sesame Street, and she explained to Elmo how blind people can learn to use their other senses to help them function in the modern world.
13. Andrea Bocelli
Andrea Bocelli rose to prominence by performing in piano bars and competing in local singing events. After a football accident worsened his glaucoma and left him completely blind, he studied music and learned to play numerous instruments. His 15 solo albums cover both classical and pop music, but outside of his solo career, he’s worked alongside talents like Celine Dion on music for the film industry.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
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