if you’ve ever tried to play the piano, you’ll know how difficult can be. But, imagine trying to play it without ever having seen a piano keyboard and you’ll realize how much work the pianists below have put in to master their craft.
In this blog post, we’re going to look at these famous blind piano players and explore some of their lives and careers.
1. Stevie Wonder
The first pianist Stevie Wonder needs no introduction and is known for hits like Superstition, Sir Duke and I Just Called to Say I Love You.
But the piano wasn’t the obvious career for blind musician Stevie Wonder who was born several weeks premature, resulting in retinopathy of prematurity.
Wonder was undaunted by the challenges limited sight posed and taught himself piano after the family moved to Detroit also teaching himself drums and harmonica, all before age ten.
Fast forward a few decades and now Wonder is a household name, and in 2019 he was inducted into the R&B hall of fame.
2. Ray Charles
Unlike Stevie Wonder, the next pianist on our list Ray Charles wasn’t born blind instead, he developed problems at age seven due to what doctors now believe to be juvenile glaucoma.
But Charles learned to play before glaucoma set in and could still navigate a keyboard and resolved to keep navigating it.
Notably, he sang as he played and had an immediately recognizable voice receiving multiple awards throughout his life, and his version of America the Beautiful was the favorite version of Barack Obama.
He was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2021, the third African-American to receive this award.
3. George Shearing
Next, we have famous jazz pianist Sir George Shearing who was born to a London coal miner in 1919.
Despite being born legally blind, this Shearing didn’t see blindness as a limitation, instead, he taught himself music beginning piano lessons at the age of 3.
Shearing is probably best-known for his composition Lullaby of Birdland but he’s also recognizable for rich, resonant harmonies and complex block chords, whatever the piece.
He spent the majority of his career in America and eventually won a knighthood in recognition of the elegance of his jazz music.
He saw his playing as a blend of classical technique with the verve and energy of jazz which melded the freneticism of the Blitz lifestyle with the post-war world’s need for recuperation.
He died of congestive heart failure in 2011 leaving behind a legacy of beautifully complex, complicated musicality behind.
4. Art Tatum
Another blind pianist to mention was Art Tatum who was arguably one of America’s greatest piano virtuosos of all time.
Famously, Fats Waller said of Tatum as he entered a club, “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.”
Tatum was legally blind, a consequence of infantile cataracts and he was also largely self-taught, starting out playing the violin before switching to the piano.
To compensate for his partial sight, he memorized reels from Victrolas and played radio tunes by ear.
His improvisation skills were and are legendary and he would insert complex chords between bars in advanced harmonic progressions well ahead of his time.
Tatum also led the way in using harmonic dissonance with jazz, and his musical influence is still felt by sighted and unsighted pianists today.
5. Marcus Roberts
Marcus Roberts is another pianist whose blindness emerged in childhood losing his sight at the age of five.
When his parents gifted him a piano, Roberts literally walked into it and was delighted.
He spent hours picking out radio melodies by ear and cites fellow blind pianist Stevie Wonder’s I Wish as a memorable example.
For years this self-taught pianist played piano four-fingered until teachers intervened and said he could use his thumbs.
The resultant transformation was a pianist whose performances thrilled and inspired.
He ably echoes and imitates all the greats while still cultivating an individual style that swings and segues in its own right.
6. Ronnie Milsap
Singer and pianist, Ronnie Milsap was born blind and is best known for his country music.
But, despite his difficulties seeing, his more immediate challenge was his mother, who saw his partial sight as punishment from God.
So, Milsap grew up raised by his grandparents and began reading braille at age six.
Despite his school’s heavily classical musical curriculum, Mislap stumbled his way into Rock and Roll and Jazz and was encouraged by Ray Charles to make a career of his piano playing.
Instead of accepting a law college scholarship, Milsap took a job as a keyboardist for JJ Cale moving from Atlanta to Memphis, where Elvis Presley dubbed him ‘Thunder on the Keys Mislap.’
In 1976 Mislap became Vocalist of the Year for the Country Music Association and by 1977 his popularity had a life of its own.
His blend of country and soul continues to appeal to listeners of all sensibilities and he’s still making music today.
7. Nobuyuki Tsujii
Nobuyuki Tsujii is yet another famous pianist to be born blind.
Tsujii began playing piano by ear when he was two years old and by the time he was seven, he started reading braille music.
A composer and a pianist, Tsujii won the gold medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition jointly with another competitor debuting his first piece in 2000 when he was only 12.
Whether playing classical music or his own pieces, Tsujii plays with astonishing clarity, dexterity, and feeling.
Touched By Sound, a 2014 documentary, details Tsujii’s career until his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011.
8. Lennie Tristano
Blind jazz pianist Lennie Tristano first made himself known as an accomplished player of cool jazz.
Although Tristano’s eyesight was never perfect, he wasn’t born blind. Instead, his sight deteriorated throughout his childhood because of exposure to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
This didn’t stop Tristano from studying music at the American Conservatory of music, and he quickly amassed admirers.
His improvisations were daring and harmonically complex and from 1951-56 he ran a teaching school for aspiring jazz artists.
Kuha’o Case is the youngest blind pianist to be catapulted to fame on this list.
After discovering a love of music, the Hawaiian-born musician taught himself piano and organ.
Kuha’o’s name translates to ‘extraordinary gift,’ and it feels especially apt that his child prodigy learned the piano despite his blindness.
He has the remarkable ability to reproduce songs by ear after listening no more than twice.
10. Diane Schuur
Andy lastly, we have Diane Schuur who shares her partial sight condition, retinopathy of prematurity, with fellow famous blind pianist, Stevie Wonder.
And like the other piano players on this list, blindness didn’t deter Schuur from pursuing her career. Instead, she began learning piano while attending the Washington School from the Blind.
Her career break came in 1975, auditioning for Doc Stevenson, and later that year, his drummer, Ed Shaughnessy, invited her to sing with him at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
As Schuur’s career evolved, she made many CDs and excelled at connecting with her audiences.
She remains committed to multiple charitable efforts and masterclasses, ensuring there’s a future generation with a love of music and the ability to navigate adversity with the same fervor she does.
Summing up our List of Famous Blind Pianists
As you can see, lack of sight hasn’t stopped these amazing pianists from achieving hugely successful careers.
We hope you’ve been inspired by some of their stories and encourage you to go and check out some of their music and live performances on YouTube.
Also, who are your favorite blind piano players? Let us know who we’ve missed and we’ll add them to our list.