Piano Magic

Meet the Next Big Thing in classical music: 20-year-old Nobuyuiki Tsujii, winner of last week’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Tsujii, who the first blind winner in the contest’s 13-year history, embodies some basic truths of deep practice and ignition. From Barry Schlachter’s story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

[Tsujii’s parents] sensed their son’s tastes at age 2 when he reacted with a pronounced physical expression of joy to a symphony played on the home stereo, Itsuko Tsujii recalled. 

Ignition? Check.

While blind pianists often learn scores in Braille, [Tsujii] learns a piece by listening to others, either live or on a recording, memorizes the notes, then hones and re-hones his own take — muscular or delicate, depending on the music.

“In Japan, students generally are expected to bring all the ingredients and the teacher does the ‘cooking,’ ” said his mother, Itsuko Tsujii, who accompanied her son as assistant instructor and manager. “But with Nobu, his teachers expect him to do the cooking on his own and then would advise him on the final seasoning.”

Deep Practice? Check. 

The larger pattern is how a handicap can sometimes be turned into an advantage when it comes to constructing skill circuits. Like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and entrepreneurs with dyslexia, Tsujii’s condition, combined with his intense desire, forced him to develop his own system for learning — a neural roadbuilding machine, so to speak. That machinery turns out to be far more effective than that of many sighted musicians, who learn in conventional ways.  The lesson echoes something Robert Lansdorp, the great tennis coach, once said: every coach’s ultimate goal should be to get the kid to teach themselves. 

ps — For a terrifically insightful portrait of how handicaps can fuel brilliance, check out In the Key of Genius: the Extraordinary Life of Derek Parvacini.