Why Pianists Need to Ask for Help (When it Feels Impossible)

Hiking at Elfin Lakes.If you blindfold someone who can see, and give them a cane to walk to a new room, they always overreact when the cane brushes something.

It turns out, giving a sighted person a cane is asking them to use a muscle they haven’t developed yet. It takes practice and patience.

My dad had always given me guidance on how to deal with obstacles. He was a quiet kind of person who made people feel assured when they were next to him. Slow down, he always said. Do what you enjoy. Mind your own business and stop comparing to others.

He would peek his head into my piano practice room every once in a while to ask if the music was coming from me, so I felt like he was always listening to my playing.

In the past while, I’ve had to figure out how to navigate the world without my dad.

 

Many people who’ve just lost their vision would rather walk around disoriented and feel the walls for braille, than ask a stranger for help. Ok, a lot of them don’t even know braille yet, so they’re just walking around lost.

On the other hand, people who have been blind for a long time tend to seek help when they need it. They look for other cues, for example what surfaces your voice echoes off of, to determine where they are.

It seems like a no-brainer for someone who’s blind to ask for help when they’re lost, but it takes a lot of courage and skill to do so. How do you know who you’re talking to? How are they judging you?

Sometimes it feels easier to not know and I understand this because I live by this poem: “If you are squeamish / Don’t prod the beach rubble” (Sappho).

My last piano teacher is one of the strongest, most brilliant people I know. She has a way of singing a fugue in the most energetic way so you’d play it that way and she pushes you to just before your breaking point and pulls you back a bit. She was sick for a few years and I was terrified to email her again–what if I don’t hear back?

So every time I played piano, I thought of these two amazing people that I loved and a few months ago I finally sent my piano teacher an email. It was a normal email like I was just saying hi, like I wasn’t worried about her.

A day or two later, I got a response. She asked about my dad, and I didn’t know what to say back.

Shovelling in front of the mountains.

People who’ve never been around people who are blind, don’t know how to behave around them. How do you show them where the cafe is? Are you allowed to touch them? Would they follow your voice? Do you hold their hand? What, about their vision, is ok to ask? My goodness, I was awkward. I stuttered the first time I met someone who’s blind!

The amount of trust a person who’s blind quickly places in me, guiding them to a new place, is fascinating. I’ve verbally told them they are safe, but who am I? Just another stranger. But they’ve given me their bag which contains their phone and cane and IDs, so after 3 minutes of conversation, I have become more than that.

I’m told by coworkers to “work the magic.” I’m usually the first point of interaction with someone who is visually impaired. They say it’s easy for me to gain someone’s trust.

Similarly, people don’t know how to deal with someone who is sad. Do you say sorry? (Please don’t, I never know what to say back) Do you hug? (I’m fine with this in general) Do you say “let me know if you need anything?” (Shit, you better be ready when I call). (Just kidding, I don’t believe in sad phone calls).

When I was doing my research, I found that the best way to guide someone blind to a new location is to say, “I can take you to the cafe. My arm is beside you and you can feel free to take it if you want.”

Give the option of help and be there when they decide to take your arm.

And you know what? That’s all I needed. People to be there, I’ll let them know when I’m ready.

 

My piano sheet music.

People who are blind walk faster than me, with my eyes closed.

Losing vision is life-changing, but people who are blind do most things better than me with my eyes closed, and it reminds me that we all have this curious ability to adapt, and thrive, as long as we give it a chance.

I don’t think anyone is ever ready for big, terrifying change, but that’s when people learn the most.

And you know what? It’s easy to talk about behaviour and data points from other people, but when you are living the challenge and riding the waves, you pushing your own boundaries and exercising muscles you didn’t know that you’ve built.

Today, I played piano and I had a thought: it’s easy to play now. It doesn’t hurt anymore.

2 Comments

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2 Comments

  • Reply Baloo July 26, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Beautiful thoughts and good advice on how to comfort one who is sad. Everyone is different and wants comfort in their own way. That is hard to figure out sometimes for the one wanting offer help. I’m very thankful to have discovered this blog. I’ve already benefiting in many ways. Yesterday I was playing a Chopin piece I’ve been working on for years and was still making the same mistakes. I was so angry and frustrated, so I looked for help online (haven’t had lessons for decades). I read “Most Deadly Music Mistakes” and put them into immediate practice. Already have seen a BIG difference. I look forward to more advice and lovely words. Thanks a million!

    • Reply Grace Lam July 26, 2017 at 9:55 pm

      I’m glad my writing has been helpful! It is a journey. (Plus, I play a lot of Chopin too. Ok, a lot of the same two/three pieces I’d memorized years ago.) Thank you for your kind words.

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