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Classical 101

Blind Students Shed Light On Playing The Piano

In the home of piano teacher Catherine Pellegrini, Genene Blackwell, 20, sits behind a black upright piano. The piano's sheen reflects the striking black-and-white leaf patterns of Blackwell's blouse. Her fingers brush along the ebony- and ivory-hued keyboard, and out flows a rainbow of sound. Blackwell, who was born blind, has been hearing colors all her life. She has taken piano lessons since the age of three, and with Columbus' Catherine Pelligrini for the last 17 years. Pellegrini has taught many blind students through the years and says they often bring special gifts, like the ability to recognize notes immediately upon hearing them, that can help them learn how to play musical instruments. "A lot of my blind students have perfect pitch, and it’s easy for them to learn," Pellegrini said. Blackwell has perfect pitch and says she prefers to learn music by listening to recordings rather than reading Braille music. "I've tried reading Braille music, but it was complicated," Blackwell said. "There's a lot of different symbols and dashes and just different Braille contractions." But reading printed music is not an option for blind music students, and students without sight cannot develop visual reference points for where the keys are in space and in relation to each other. They also can't watch how their teachers move their hands when they play. Here's where Pellegrini has just the right touch. "I use a lot of hands-on (techniques)," Pellegrini said. "We do a thing called piggy-back, where they actually put their hands on top of mine so we can get the correct fingering, the correct hand position." Pellegrini also says lots of repetition of scales, chords and other keyboard exercises can help blind students get used to using all their fingers - even ones they might not be aware they have. "Being blind, a lot of students don’t know that they have five fingers. It’s hard to believe, but they like to play with their strong fingers, their thumbs usually fall off the keyboard, they try not to use their weakest finger, which is finger number five. So a lot of exercises and scale and arpeggios and chords with correct fingering helps," Pellegrini said. When four-year-old MaKenzie Love sits down at Pellegrini's piano for her lesson, her slender fingers look like matchsticks next to the wide piano keys beneath them. Pellegrini asks her to play "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star," and most of Love's tiny left-hand fingers feel their way to the correct keys. But after a few tries, one finger doesn't quite make it. "Let's try piggy-back," Pellegrini says. On top of Pellegrini's hand, Love's hand looks like a baby turtle sunning itself on its mother's back. With her right hand, Pellegrini places Love's errant left index finger on her own, and together they land on the correct key. If Love continues her music lessons, she'll likely be able to develop her kinesthetic sense - the brain's ability to know where the body is in space - until she can intuit where each of the piano keys is, just like Blackwell's fingers now automatically reach for the right keys. Equipped with innate talents like perfect pitch and ultra-refined hearing, a blind student's musical deck is in some ways often stacked in his or her favor. And with the example of Japan's Nobuyuki Tsujii, the first-ever blind gold medalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, aspiring blind pianists now even have their own role model. And all this gives some blind pianists just the confidence they need to succeed.