The media’s enduring fascination with the “blind pianist”

Twenty-year-old Nobuyuki Tsujii is the joint winner of this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas, over a gruelling 17 days. As is often the case with such competitions, the judges’ decision has been dissected and contested. The dissections were sharper about this year’s winner because Tsujii, blind since birth, is the first pianist with a visual impairment to win the competition.

Today’s Wall Street Journal’s piece on Tsujii couldn’t resist using his blindness as a departure point for roaming over a number of topics, some of which bear little if no relevance to Tsujii himself. For example, the article’s discussion of blindness and absolute pitch is not directly related to Tsujii in any way – whether he does or does not have absolute pitch is not clear – and overall the piece is focused on the mechanics and logistics of his technique rather than the artistic achievement of his musicianship. To me it reflects a sighted person’s disbelief that a blind person could play the piano at such an elite level.

Nowhere did the Journal mention what was most important to Tsujii about his win, namely the fact that it was the first time Asian musicians took out the top spots of the competition. Japan’s Yomiyuri Shimbun quotes him as saying: “The first and second places were shared by pianists from Japan, China and South Korea, which is very meaningful.” In fact, the emergence of Asian musicians on the world’s concert stages over the past two decades has been a significant development in the history of music performance that has gone largely unremarked, except by the likes of Edward Said and Alex Ross.

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