If you know how to play piano, you can appreciate how challenging it would be for a blind piano player to master the instrument, let alone shape the music industry!
Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with popular blind pianists Ray Charles and
Stevie Wonder. But there are many more gifted blind pianists whose unique styles continue to shape the music world as we know it!
Famous Blind Piano Players You Should Know
1. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder wasn’t exactly born blind; he was born with an eye disorder, but after getting too much oxygen in an incubator, he became completely blind.
From an early age, he had incredible natural talent when it came to music. He taught himself multiple musical instruments by the age of 10. Stevie Wonder signed to Motown Records at the age of 11! One of his early albums, Tribute to Uncle Ray, consisted of covers of Ray Charles songs.
As he grew older, Stevie Wonder studied classical music in order to improve his own music. And by the 1970s, he was often writing or co-writing nearly every song on each of his albums.
Even if you don’t know a whole lot about this famous blind pianist, you’ve almost certainly heard “Superstition,” one of two number one hits from his 1972 album, Talking Book. You can hear this upbeat, jaunty song here.
Stevie Wonder wasn’t just one of the best pianists (blind or otherwise) the world has ever seen; he was also a survivor. In 1973, he was in a serious car accident that left him in a coma. Once he had fully recuperated, he released an album called Fulfillingness’ First Finale, where he addressed themes of spirituality and death.
2. Ray Charles
If you hear someone reference a “blind black piano player,” they’re probably either referring to Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. And though Ray Charles is a famous blind piano player, he wasn’t born that way. He started losing his sight at age 7. Fortunately, he was already able to play piano and was determined to still play.
Ray Charles was a true pioneer of soul music, mixing elements of R&B, gospel, jazz, and blues. You’ve almost certainly heard “Georgia on My Mind,” a 1960 release that remains one of his most famous songs. But you might not know that this phenomenal pianist also found success in the world of country music!
Ray Charles had 12 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot Country charts. He hit #1 with “Seven Spanish Angels,” a duet with Willie Nelson. You can watch these two legends perform the song live here.
Ray Charles continues to be regarded as one of history’s most influential musicians. Contemporary musicians called him “The Genius.” Despite the challenges of being a blind musician, he became one of the world’s most notable cross-genre successes: he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
3. Art Tatum
Art Tatum’s extraordinary gift for playing jazz music has earned him a spot amongst the most successful blind musicians of all time. Tatum was not completely blind; he suffered issues with sight from childhood, but an attack in his twenties left him with some limited sight, but only in his right eye.
This talented jazz pianist was known for his incredible ability to improvise and add extremely technically advanced embellishments.
Modern jazz music has been influenced heavily by Art Tatum’s style. In particular, he began reharmonizing popular songs and using alternative chord voicings, both of which are common practices in modern jazz (regardless of instrument).
Tatum’s playing also seemed to have quite an effect on other musicians. Some, including legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, were inspired by Tatum and learned from him. Others were intimidated enough by his technical prowess that they doubted their abilities. And some, including guitar pioneer Les Paul, stopped playing piano and switched to other instruments after hearing Tatum play!
You can watch rare footage of Art Tatum playing live in 1943, 1946, and 1954 here.
4. George Shearing
Many of the blind musicians on our list (and especially those who play jazz music) are from America. But jazz pianist George Shearing is from Britain. He started piano lessons at the young age of 3! He played in a few different bands in Britain, including an all-blind band called Claude Bampton’s Blind Orchestra.
George Shearing eventually moved to the United States and primarily played in quintets. His most famous song is probably “Lullaby of Birdland.” You can hear a great live performance here.
George Shearing was especially famous for something called the “Shearing Sound,” a method of playing block chords that many pianists still try to emulate. This video tutorial lets you hear these chords and shows you how to play them, too.
His unique style and his interest in classical music led him to perform alongside classical orchestras on occasion. And Shearing’s musical stylings even found their way into other forms of art. After Jack Kerouac heard Shearing play, he described the live performance in the second part of On the Road.
5. Ronnie Milsap
Ronnie Milsap became one of the best piano players in the country music genre, but it took a few twists and turns to get there! He studied classical piano at a school for the blind in North Carolina, but he had a special interest in gospel, R&B, soul music, and country. He even started a rock band with fellow students!
Despite his love of music, Ronnie opted to go to school on scholarship to become a lawyer. He changed his mind relatively quickly and began playing in a local R&B band. But his move to country music came from country star Charley Pride. Within a few years of his switch to country music, Ronnie Milsap was one of the genre’s top artists. One of his most famous songs was the piano-driven “It Was Almost Like a Song.” This 1977 hit was one of his seven number-one singles in a row! You can see him perform it live in this video.
Though the peak of Ronnie Milsap’s fame and radio success came in the 1970s and 1980s, his love of music still continues. He still records and even released an album in 2021!
6. Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano wasn’t born blind. But like some other blind musicians on the list, he experienced a gradual decline in vision until he was totally blind. After playing with bebop artists in the 1940s, he became a renowned cool jazz performer.
But this blind pianist is somewhat unusual in that he focused on teaching rather than recording. And even though he taught improvisation in particular, his teaching was especially structured. He would teach jazz musicians regardless of the instrument they played, and his lessons focused on helping each student develop a personal style.
This natural-born musician did not seem especially inclined to pursue commercial success, though some of his music released through Atlantic Records paved the way for other artists to use innovations like multitracking or altering tape speed. You can hear some of these sonic innovations here. Though some of Tristano’s contemporaries appreciated this approach, others saw these new techniques as being highly controversial.
7. Diane Schuur
Many of the well-known blind musicians on the list are men. But singer and pianist Diane Schuur has created a name for herself in the world of jazz piano (though her versatility has led her to incorporate elements of country, gospel, Latin, and pop).
Though she performed from an early age, Schurr’s musical talents finally got the publicity they deserved when she was 29. Her mentor, jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, invited her to perform at a music showcase at the White House. The successful performance was televised, and a producer with GRP Records reached out and signed Schuur to the label.
This proved to be the beginning of an illustrious career: Schuur has released more than 20 albums and has performed with Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow, B.B. King, and many other high-profile musicians. She’s also performed with Ray Charles; you can see both blind pianists perform together in this inspiring video.
8. Nobuyuki Tsujii
Nobuyuki Tsujii was born blind, but that didn’t stop him from playing piano. When he was two, he heard his mother hum “Do Re Mi” and was able to play the tune on a toy piano. From there, he learned to read braille music. He quickly became a skilled player of classical music and had his debut with a Japanese orchestra at the age of 10.
Nobuyuki Tsujii’s ability to play piano is impressive, but so is his ability to write his own original classical music. He has earned international acclaim as both a pianist and composer. In addition to classical compositions, he also composes film scores and won the 2011 Japan Film Critics Award for his work in film music.
Born in 1988, Tsujii is a bright star in the new generation of blind pianists. His ability to perform solo and alongside orchestras is a powerful inspiration for young blind pianists the world over. If you want to hear his impressive musical abilities for yourself, take a look at this video of his 2011 Carnegie Hall debut.
9. Marcus Roberts
The primarily self-taught Marcus Roberts started learning piano at an early age. He was 5 years old when he started picking out notes on a church piano. This is around the time he lost his sight due to glaucoma.
The young blind pianist made remarkable progress on his own. But when he started taking lessons, teachers helped him transform his style. He had only been playing using four fingers, so the teachers helped him start using his thumbs, too.
Marcus Roberts was able to further develop his piano playing at Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, the same school Ray Charles attended before him.
Throughout his career, Roberts’s unique style has made him a remarkable ensemble and solo performer. His music is very influenced by old-style jazz, and you can hear the clear influence of ragtime in his playing. He has performed with various symphony orchestras and was even asked by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to write a piano concerto. You can watch one of his orchestra performances in this moving video.
Marcus Roberts was awarded an honorary doctorate from Brigham Young University, and he has taught music at both Florida State and Bard College.
10. Kuha’o Case
Most successful blind musicians developed impressive skills at an early age. Kuha’o Case, a blind Hawaiian pianist born in 1996, is no exception. By the time he was 12, he could play any song after hearing it once. His name translates to “extraordinary gift.”
This child prodigy is still making a name for himself. And while he enjoys recording albums and performing, he also has given notable motivational speeches, including one for TedxTeen.
As Kuha’o Case achieves greater recognition, he’s been able to pursue further musical opportunities. Notably, he’s performed with renowned violinist Lindsey Stirling. You can see their uplifting video for “O Come, Emmanuel” here.
This blind pianist has not yet reached the apex of his career. But for blind piano students (and anyone else overcoming adversity), he’s a powerful inspiration.
As you can see from this list, being visually impaired didn’t stop these famous blind piano players from making history and giving the world some of its most memorable songs. And hopefully, their tenacity and dedication will inspire you on your own musical journey, whether you play piano or another instrument.
Which blind piano player is your favorite? Let us know in the comments, and please don’t forget to like and share if you liked this list!