Japan's blind piano maestro plays it by ear

Ursula HYZY
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Japanese blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii puts his global success down to a wide range of experiences outside music -- and listening to how the conductor breathes

Japanese blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii puts his global success down to a wide range of experiences outside music -- and listening to how the conductor breathes (AFP Photo/TORU YAMANAKA)

Tokyo (AFP) - Blind since birth, virtuoso Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii puts his global success down to a wide range of experiences outside music -- and listening to how the conductor breathes.

"I love sport, I love swimming, skiing," the 29-year-old maestro told AFP in an interview. "The more I experience, the more positive things it brings me as a musician."

Despite his blindness, Tsujii -- or "Nobu" as he is known -- has risen to become a star of the international classical music scene, playing in more than 160 concerts around the world in locations such as London's Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York.

He has played with the Saint-Petersburg Mariinsky Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and will be giving his first major recital in France later this month. An elegy he wrote for the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan got 13 million views on YouTube.

Born in Tokyo, Tsujii's love of music started at the age of eight months, when his mother played him a CD by Polish composer Chopin. "I wiggled my legs in time to the music," he said.

He began tinkling on a toy piano at the age of two and real music lessons started at four. He learned to read sheet music via braille but many compositions were not accessible via this method so he learned to play by ear, from memory.

"It is good at the beginning to be faithful and precise but afterwards I tried to interpret (the music) and that is very important, difficult and deep," he said with infectious enthusiasm.

A very rare example of a blind pianist at such a high level, Tsujii said he is inspired by the sensations provided by nature and other art forms.

"From a very young age, my mother gave me experiences outside of music. She would take me to museums and describe the drawings or paintings she liked. She would take me to a firework display and describe the colours," he said.

Tsujii's main musical influence is the "delicate, elegant, romantic" Chopin, whose patriotism he admires.

"He had extremely strong feelings for his country, Poland," said Tsujii, adding that he was also drawn to Beethoven, Debussy and Ravel.

A joint-winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn gold medal, Tsujii has refused to let his disability get the better of him.

While others musicians carefully watch every move of the conductor, Tsujii says he listens to the orchestra leader's breathing to follow the rhythm.