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Cliburn Welcomes Blind Pianists
by Stephen Becker 4 Mar 2009

A number of blind pianists are auditioning for a spot in this spring’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. KERA’s Bill Zeeble reports.


KERA’s Bill Zeeble sends this report from Fort Worth:

KERA radio story:

Print version:

In a Fort Worth auditorium, 20-year-old Tokyo native Nobuyuki Tsujii is led by an assistant to the piano bench and sits. Head bobbing slightly, his fingers lightly, silently, skim the keyboard, just to get his bearings.  When ready, he plays.

The audience gathered at the audition for this springs Van Cliburn International Piano Competition heard Tsujii play Chopin’s 12 Etudes Opus 10. Many of the dozen pieces in this demanding, landmark composition are encore dazzlers. Through interpreter Keiko Couch, Tsujii says these Etudes are tough to play.

TSUJII (through Couch): “If you notice he checks where he has to stop. He touches the end of the piano keys and he finds where to start.”

The Japanese pianist flew to Fort Worth between his own concert dates just to audition. He already knew a few of the Chopin pieces and learned the rest in three weeks. He couldn’t have learned them that fast with Braille.

TSUJII (through Couch): “In music school he completely went by ear. Because Braille was way too much trouble. Just trying to figure out all the pages. So he just hears it. & his teacher plays it.  Then he puts his own interpretation of it.”

Hungarian pianist Tamas Erdi says he also learns by listening and memorizing.

ERDI: “Braille score is very difficult. It could take one year to learn piano concerto from Braille score. If I know well the piece, I hear different interpretations and figure it out in my imagination from the piece.”

Erdi, who is 29 and prefers wearing dark glasses, featured music by noted Hungarians, including a dance by Zoltan Kodaly.

Erdi and Tsujii both garnered standing ovations in Fort Worth. But nearly all the pianists sparkled. Many have released critically acclaimed recordings and regularly give concerts in their parts of the world. Cliburn Foundation President Richard Rodzinski says the Cliburn competition can make their careers international.

RODZINSKI: “What we’re looking for are young professionals ready to have that push, that door being open to them. Not beginners, not students.”

It’s the judge’s job to identify those players ready for the next big step. This time, they’re also listening to blind competitors. So how might they deal with a human inclination to judge them more favorably than the others, given of all they’ve already overcome?  The Cliburn Foundation’s General Manager, Maria Guralnik, says that’s no concern.

GURALNIK: “The main issue for the jury is being able to identify young artists who will perform at the highest level and move audiences with their music. And if any of the young men and women we hear do that:… they will be advanced to the competition.”

Guralnik says that’s the judges won’t be influenced by anything else they see or don’t onstage.

  • The Cliburn is a key cultural event for this area and one of the few that stands out as something original. I encourage KERA to broadcast it live. That kind of programming is what KERA should be all about.

  • nmlhats

    Here’s the list of competitors, announced today:


    The Japanese pianist featured in Zeeble’s story was among the thirty selected.